Jordan Lee

Jordan is a design historian with a professional background in politics and public relations. His research interests relate to the built environment, the emergence of the heritage industry, and our emotional responses to buildings, objects, and places.

Research Project

‘Saving Bath’: The Building Conservation Movement in Bath, c.1963-75

This research explores the early origins, methods, and aims of building conservation in the city of Bath.

Material Culture, Modern, Europe, Media, Built Environment, Methods of Documentation, Conservation

Bath Preservation Trust, Undated photograph of Northampton Street, Bath.
From the early 1960s until the mid-1970s, Bath’s built environment was a fiercely contested space.

Architecturally, the city is almost unique – built largely within the space of a hundred years and to the same architectural canon. Sheltered by rolling hills and the river Avon, outward expansion is naturally limited. As a result, any changes that are made to the city’s buildings are highly visible and subject to intense scrutiny.  

Targeted during the Second World War for its cultural significance and confronted by housing shortages and spiralling maintenance costs post-war, like many cities during the period, Bath faced tough choices.

On one side, building developers and local planning authorities sought to redesign the city through a modernist lens. In opposition stood residents’ associations, like the Bath Preservation Trust (BPT) established in 1934.

Historiographically, the growth of the building conservation movement is a crowded field. Successive generations of historians from the 1980s onwards have written compelling histories of the development of planning legislation. Few have addressed the role of community groups as agents of this design change, however, and the BPT is a particularly prominent example.

Coinciding with the emergence of a new environmental movement and the introduction of stringent planning and conservation legislation, using original archival material, this case study encapsulates the professionalisation of the heritage industry and popular perceptions of the built environment more broadly.
Through a close analysis of the BPT’s archival material, I develop an ontology of preservation – identifying the specific building features that the group sought to conserve. This process also reveals a surprising concern for the natural as well as the built environment. The French term ‘terroir’, which loosely translates to an intangible character tied to a place of origin, best describes this philosophy. Fundamentally, it is an ideology of contradiction: conservative, yet non-party political and sceptical of commercial interests; radical, yet fiercely pragmatic.

In the third chapter of this work, I pin down the practical means through which this vision of preservation was implemented. In less than ten years, how did this group grow to amass a significant property portfolio, command national media attention, and wield significant political influence?

The answer rests on the phenomenal commitment of its lay members who meticulously detailed their surroundings through the mixed mediums of photographs, sketches, lists, poetry, and scale models of the city. Members of the Trust used these resources first to infiltrate and then supersede local planning authorities. 

Looking beyond Bath, thanks to their wealthy benefactors, the Trust built a substantial property portfolio. With this newfound wealth, the BPT ruthlessly pursued the attention of the media and exploited celebrity endorsements. As a result, Bath was ultimately ‘saved’ by the Trust, who went on to exercise serious political clout.

We are living through a period in which our built environment is undergoing intense scrutiny, whether for its historical progeny or environmental impact. The implications of this study, therefore, are increasingly relevant to understanding today’s challenges.

Symposium Presentation ︎︎︎

The Design of Methodology Panel︎︎︎

In Addition

What do we keep and why?

Throughout my time on this course, I have pursued this question, considering Oliver Cromwell’s severed head, tin ceilings, country houses, coats of arms, architectural models, and the buildings of Bath along the way. It is a question at the heart of my dissertation and nearly all historical inquiry.

Philosopher, Roger Scruton, defined aesthetic taste as both ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’:

‘[Taste is] subjective - for it consists in the attempt to articulate an individual experience. But in another sense it is objective, for it aims to justify that experience, through presenting reasons that are valid for others besides oneself.’

It is our attempts to rationalise our irrational, emotive attachments to material objects that enriches all our lives and arguably separates us from other species.
The story of the Bath Preservation Trust, therefore, is an intensely human one. Remarkably, the interminable battle over aesthetic taste was one they fought and largely won.

Their arsenal was quantified in the sketches, photographs, and lists of its concerned members; reinforced by the cultural capital of figures like John Betjeman and Kenneth Clark; expressed physically in the protests on Walcot Street and the restoration of properties like Abbey Green; and, ultimately, through legislative approval.

Whilst our built environment may now feel more secure as a result, it is difficult to think of a time in which it has come under such intense scrutiny, and the question of what we keep and why looms larger than ever.

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA