As a doctor of Archaeology, Export & General managing
director Dr John Mitchell has a niche interest in the modern craze of “urban
archaeology”; but the case of the Bristol Community Dance Centre is one
building which he’d rather see preserved.
The Bristol Community Dance Centre is a converted Victorian
swimming baths and spa-cum-dance studio; a monument to the fortitude of manager
Alan Roberts who has run the premises since the 1980s; and a sentinel part of
Bristol’s cultural landscape.
Both the studios and their custodian exude charm: Alan
Roberts jokes that the ‘ravages of time’ have left their mark on him; but he
isn’t intent on some cosmetic renovations of his own; it is the building that
is in need of restoration.
The Bristol Community Dance Centre has been running for
almost 30 years, during which time it has hosted performances by Disney, Elbow,
Frank Bruno and other stars who regard the Studio One dancefloor as one of the
best – if not the best – in Britain. The fact it was built over a former
swimming pool makes it ideal for dance: the suspending metal springs beneath
mitigate the risk of ankle splint injuries and conduce to more seamless dance
manoeuvres. Both it, as well as the performance equipment in the studio, were
fitted because of Alan’s tireless campaigning. During his stewardship a total
of £1.5m in capital has been raised for fittings and renovations; having showed
us the before and after photos of the building, it became clear that his contribution
to not only salvaging the building from dilapidation – but also utilising it –
has been a staggering feat.
Export & General have insured the studios almost since
their inception, and we simply aren’t prepared to see its majesty crumble. It
isn’t an exaggeration to say the Dance Centre has played a transformative role
in Bristol’s community: Alan relates that a young local gangster - who
regretted his life decisions and feared for his life to the extent he rarely
went out - was taken to see the annual fandango and was so inspired that he
joined the dance troupe, went abroad to dance and left his life of crime
behind. This sense of purpose – Alan says – is an example of the magic of dance
and drama, made more magic when set inside the soaring red brick walls, arching
steel buttresses and vaulted ceilings of a listed Victorian baths. The
question, then: isn’t the building owed a transformation of its own?
So Alan has spent thousands commissioning an architect to
draw mock ups of what a renovated premises would look like. The results are
Plans include a plush new reception, glass veneers
throughout the building including a glass balcony encompassing studio one and
connecting the building’s 15 levels. The old tank and pump rooms would not only
be restored, but given architectural significance: the Victorian bath tank
would prop up a glass floor in the café, so you can peer into its fathoms while
sipping a latte. A new studio dedicated to flamenco dance would be constructed
in the spacious pump room, surrounded by towering steel beams, and would be the
only one of its kind in Britain. The charming bathhouse fixtures like the
spring valves, which are still connected to the historic 14th
century stream built by a Jewish sect running beneath the building, would be
At Export & General we actively embrace innovation and
heritage. While the two concepts may seem like uneasy bedfellows, we see Alan’s
plans for the Dance Centre as a symbol of our ethos – and their realisation:
its total embodiment.
Which is why we really rather like it, and hope it stays around.
E&G's Dr John Mitchell holds many opinions that are inappropriate for his day and age. He doesn't care for national treasure Steven Fry, could pass on David Attenborough (the other one was better, he avers with a sniff), sees no charm at all in foxes and regards them as vermin; perhaps most extreme of all, he is politically moderate.
So it was characteristic of him that - while I treated the news of the Ancient Roman/Syrian site of Palmyra with righteous indignation and disappointment - Dr John appeared not quite so distraught, saying that the fact everything was digitally recorded beforehand softened the blow.
Interpreting his position for flippancy, I laid into him with all the salivating relish of one of his bloodhounds:
How do you justify your indifference to other archaeologists? How does digital mapping compensate for the erasure of thousands of years of history? When are you paying me?
He answered that he can justify his position quite easily; that the archaeological profession is rooted in the paradox that to create history you must also destroy it (it would therefore be disingenuous not to take solace in the fact that there is a digital record); and not before I've purchased Employee Non-Payment insurance - a new package that he'd kindly tailor to my needs - and subsequently claim on it.
Much as I hate to admit it, what he said made rather a lot of sense. I had never thought that way about archaeologists: I had been led to believe that creation, rather than destruction, was the order of the day. But now that Dr John mentions it, is the position of archaeologists regarding Palmyra entirely honest?
I know nothing at all about archaeology, but if I imagine myself in their shoes I think the one thing I'd learn is that nothing lasts. Creating history would be exhilarating, yes, but wouldn't the prevailing lesson be that of impermanence? In the digital age, we have the ability to upload things into the great cloud; we can immortalise things in the data that we record. It is far harder to destroy this data than duplicate it; logically, it is more reasonable to expect to preserve things as data in the cloud than to expect them to weather physical threats on the ground.
Dr John is not ambivalent about Palmyra, but is right to find salvation in the digital age. Digital mapping may be less authentic than the real deal - but archaeologists deal in destruction as well as creation - and it would be dishonest not to bear this in mind.
The ancient city of
Machu Picchu is indisputably the most well-known South American archaeological
Built in 1450 BC in the
Chilean mountains, the city is a symbol of the surpassing innovation of the
Incans; its situation at high-altitude (it is one of the highest of South
America’s ancient cities) makes the importance it had to the Incan economy all
the more impressive.
So it is natural that
Macchu Picchu has become the destination of choice for discerning middle class
tourists who want to broaden their horizons; experiencing both the wonder of an
ancient city in ruins, as well as the pristine jungle – complete with rare
wildflower species and critters that are too large for their own good – on the
three-hour long trek up to the site.
So it is hard to
imagine such a place as this should be sullied by the tendrils of Western
travel, but it has.
While I was there I
spoke to a local, our sherpa for the trek up to the site, who told me (after
some hesitation: the economy heavily relies on tourism, and it is a cardinal
rule to make tourists feel as welcome as possible) that over the last decade or
so the site has been increasingly beset by pollution from tourists.
The trail, on which he
lugged my gear as we spoke, for example had been eroded by the sheer number of
trekkers; though quotas had been enforced by the Chilean government, this trail
is partly made of stone which is as old as the city itself. Parts of it had,
indeed, been eroded – I began to feel guilty about even walking it.
The trail itself is
fringed by an iridescent array of wildflowers. They smelt fantastic, had large
drooping petals and with hues from pink, to blue, to green and even black. But
- related my sherpa – they were apparently too beautiful for tourists to resist
picking them along the trail, and we walked treading strewn wildflowers
Surely tourists are
not all that bad? – I asked my sherpa, who asked to remain anonymous, somewhat
hopefully. He replied that for the local city of Cuzco, at which he lives and
most tourists stay to get to Macchu Picchu, they have been an economic boon.
New hotels, including a Hilton, have been sprouting there and local traders’
pockets have been steadily swelling over the last decade: red Alpaca wool coats
in native striped patterns in particular sell very well, as do an assortment of
brass trinkets including jugs, and ceramics.
But every silver
lining has a cloud. New hotels with sleeker operations are bringing jobs, but
are pricing local bed & breakfasts and family-run inns out of business. The
luxury hotels also impair the once rugged and more authentic experience of
tourism in the area, he said, and bring a sense of entitlement which feeds back
into his job. Expecting to have every whim catered for, and more besides,
tourists expect him to lug more and more items of baggage up the trail, packed
with heavy equipment. My sherpa is impressively robust, and seems oblivious to
the weight he carries which often exceeds 15kg, but I offer to carry a couple of
bags after he tells me this.
Besides Cuzco and the
jungle trail, Macchu Picchu is also feeling the strain of tourist numbers. Once
we arrive – our attention immediately captured by the soaring peak of limestone rock
jutting out North of the site, and the wraith-like clouds encircling it –
I notice both visual and aural pollution. Children and tweens chase each other
around the site and down the narrow alleys which comprise its old streets.
Despite having recently been enjoined by the local tourist board to wear
clothing in muted colours, I still spot raincoats in shocking colours. The
sheer number of people - of which, make no mistake, I was one – all but ruins
the serenity of the site. An older Canadian tourist who visited the site when
its popularity was burgeoning in the seventies says that back then you could
traipse around Macchu Picchu while it was almost deserted, hearing nothing but
the whispering breeze and call of songbirds. This had been replaced by the din
of camera shutters and chatter.
The site is still beautiful, and took my breath away. The local people were lovely, and forthcoming. My sherpa especially so - their only expectation is a meagre wage and that tourists appreciate the majesty of a site they've known since they began work hauling luggage as children. But my trip home was still tinged with melancholy - not only because I was leaving, but because I would hesitate to return and know I'd contributed to infrastructural strain.
Having arrived back in England, I heard of a new £28 million plan to rescue Macchu Picchu from excess tourist numbers. Measures include security cameras to cope with stealing, which is rife, ten minute visiting slots and a more stringent quota.
I was slightly relieved. It could only be for the best.