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Open City Preston: Event explores the empty buildings of the city centre

Posted on - 16th September, 2013 - 9:36pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Nostalgia, Preston City Centre
The group visit the former Mount Street Hospital

The group visit the former Mount Street Hospital

On Friday and Saturday, ‘In Certain Places’ hosted ‘Open City Preston 2013’, an event to explore the issue of empty buildings in Preston’s city centre. I went along to Friday’s mobile conference to see what they had to say.

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The day’s events began with an introduction to the project by Uclan’s Pro Vice Chancellor Rod Dubrow Marshall in one of Uclan’s lecture theatres. The first speaker of the day was John Thorpe MBE. John is the Leeds Civic Architect with over forty years experience of shaping and transforming the city into the vibrant urban metropolis it is today. He describes his approach as ‘urban dentistry’ which focuses on improving the existing built environment rather than resorting to the wrecking ball. John imparted numerous pearls of architectural wisdom to the audience from his vast experience of urban planning and implementation.

Following John’s presentation, our sizable group of architects, artists, councillors and business people set off on a guided tour of the empty buildings of Preston. First stop was the Fishergate Baptist Church, a Preston landmark which has been closed for some time and is currently up for sale. On arrival outside the building, we were read a transcript of communications between the event’s organisers and the property owners by Uclan graduate and actor Abigail Ramsdale. Abigail gave a similar introduction to each venue throughout the day, reading the words which had been written by one of the project’s artists, Katja Van Driel.

Once inside the Victorian church we were introduced to the next speaker, Paul Swinney, an economist and media commentator who talked about the importance of developing the wider city area rather concentrating solely on the high street. He also gave an overview of the economic issues relating to the development of our cities and the effect of out of town developments. Following Paul’s informative talk, we set off on our travels again.

Our next port of call was at the bottom of Mount Street, where we were forced to peer through the locked gates of the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage / Mount Street Hospital, as the owners were unwilling to grant access due to safety considerations. Having been inside the building on another occasion, I can confirm that the splendid gothic looking building is in a shocking state of disrepair and I fear that if a new owner is not found soon, we’re in danger of losing one of Preston’s forgotten architectural gems!

Our whistle stop tour continued with stops at the former T J Hughes store in the Fishergate Centre, the Garden Street Gym, formerly part of Preston Catholic College and an impromptu visit to Winckley Square. Lunch was laid on at The Olive Press which provided the ideal opportunity for some relaxed networking.

Following the lunch break we continued on our travels processing to Avenham Lane for another presentation at The Harris Institute. The grand Victorian building is now owned by the Preston based Bhailok family and is due to open as a private school for Muslim boys. In the institute’s splendid Victorian lecture theatre, artist and lecturer Jen Southern gave us an overview of some of her digital projects that involve mapping people’s movement in the environment using GPS technology and mobile devices.

Next stop was Guild House, a modernist office block on Cross Street owned by Lancashire County Council and currently used as a temporary furniture storage facility. Award winning Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk gave us a presentation of her work which involves working with communities to create, and in some cases recreate, public spaces in collaboration with artists, designers, government and residents.

With time ticking on the pace quickened, and we called at several more empty venues including the former Odeon cinema on Church Street, the former Post Office on Birley Street and the former Police Station on Earl Street.

Last stop of the day was the Harris Museum with its temporary grand entranceway which is another intervention courtesy of In Certain Places. We climbed the ‘Harris Flights’ and entered through the first floor doors and were treated to refreshments and a musical recital by violinist Chloe Hanslip. Preston artist and lecturer Craig Atkinson was also present launching his latest zine documenting in photographs the month long ‘Harris Flights’ project.

The event continued on Saturday with a series of workshops at Preston’s Guildhall. Professor Charles Quick was joined by Ann Vanner, Dr. Hannah Neate and Gisele Bone to facilitate the workshops.

I think it’s fair to say that the problem of empty buildings is not unique to Preston, the tough economic climate and the growth of online retailing have resulted in an oversupply of retail and office space in our city centres. In addition to this, out of town developments such as retail parks, employment areas and entertainment complexes have encouraged an exodus of businesses from the traditional high street area causing the proliferation of empty buildings and unsightly boarded up shops.

The ‘Open City Preston 2013’ event has been instrumental in highlighting the problem and encouraging debate around the issue and that can only be a good thing. The event’s organisers will now evaluate their findings and investigate possible solutions to remedy the situation. This modern day blight on our city centres is clear for all to see, but once again, Preston is leading the way in seeking creative ways of tackling the problem.

See more photos from the event.

Did you go to Open Doors? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below

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