The front of the Littlewoods Pools building photographed in 2002.

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In 2018, London-based Twickenham Studios announced a £50 million investment in the Littlewoods Pools building to convert it into a new 85,000 square foot film and TV studio, featuring 20,000 square foot sound stages as well as supporting workshops, wardrobe and prop storage, and offices © Historic England AA029060

Creative Uses for Old Buildings

By Hannah Shimko, heritage consultant and project lead on The Heritage Alliance project on Heritage and the Creative Industries

The high street is changing. In many cases the high street will no longer be the main space for traditional retail. However this doesn’t mean that the buildings themselves don’t have a vital role to play in the future. We are just going have to think more creatively about what we do with them.

Heritage buildings have infinite potential. Councils, planners and developers must view their heritage buildings as assets that have an important role in creating a sense of place. A historic building comes with a built-in visitor experience – the building has a story to tell. For creative businesses, this heritage story can form the basis of a unique marketing strategy. It differentiates the business from its competitors. Heritage is an asset, rather than a hindrance.

Heritage spaces, places, organisations and intangible cultural heritage underpin the creative industries. They provide the inspiration, space, material, and support for creative production. Heritage and the creative industries create projects, experiences and spaces that engage visitors, tell heritage stories in new ways and give new life to old buildings. Here are some successful case studies:

Creating a landmark development

The excavation in Shoreditch of the 16th century Curtain Theatre shows how heritage can create a USP and sense of place in a new development.

Archaeologists at work on an excavation site.
Excavation work at the site of the Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch, London which will be retained in-situ as a local landmark © MOLA

The Stage development of apartments, offices and retail space is going to retain the excavations of the Curtain Theatre in-situ. They are creating a local landmark and making this development more valuable and exciting because of its associations with the Elizabethan playhouse.

Home to a creative hub that brings contemporary art to the local community

In Birmingham, a £25,000 grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund is helping to develop unused former canal offices into a permanent affordable base for the artistic community close to the city centre. The space will bring contemporary art to the local communities and revitalise a building that has been empty for 10 years.

View of the front of Canal Office building.
Unused Grade II listed ‘Junction Works’ canal offices building in Birmingham (106-110 Fazeley Street Digbeth) is to be redeveloped as a base for the artistic community by the Grand Union art collective © Historic England Archive DP195909

Inspiring interactive experiences

Old buildings and their historical importance can also provide the inspiration for immersive experiences, theatre and dance. The Imagination Museum interprets museum collections , events and buildings through dance, engaging audiences with collections in new ways. Coming up, The Imagination Museum will be interpreting the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower and will be performing in Plymouth city centre.

Inspiring dramas in film and television

The world-class talent and excellent facilities in the UK attract screen production companies but it is the heritage buildings and history of the UK which form the foundation for the narratives on screen. Old buildings are the backdrop screen representations and they inspire the narratives of the dramas through their deep and engaging history.

Film crews and four cherry-picker cranes at work filming against the backdrop of Berkeley Castle.
Berkeley Castle during filming © Hannah Shimko

Technology takes up the story

Creative technology offers new and exciting ways to undertake heritage storytelling, and Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality bring old buildings alive. Marvellous Missenden, a project between Arcade and the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre developed a digital version of a village trail through Missenden that dramatised the inspiration that Roald Dahl took from his surroundings.

Pair of hands holding a mobile phone with the Marvellous Missenden app on screen.
Screenshot of Arcades's Marvellous Missenden for the Roald Dahl Museum

These brief case studies illustrate the breadth of innovative uses for old buildings and how they have inspired different creative practices and organisations. These creative settings and events offer the opportunity to engage communities with their memories and their heritage. They bring people together to experience culture and heritage in the traditional setting of the high street. Old buildings are an opportunity, not a problem – they are the bridge to the past and the path to the future.

Hannah Shimko is Project Lead for The Heritage Alliance's project on Heritage and the Creative Industries

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