The Birth of Architectural Salvage

The Birth of Architectural Salvage in 1977:

The sometimes savage salvage of architectural features, monuments and materials has a long history. From nomadic architectures, to ancient ruins, and recent revivals such as Classicism with architects such as Sir John Soane’s own eclectic collections. However, as it is understood today, the terminology of architectural salvage can be pinned-down to a specific period in 1977, when a confluence of political, environmental, aesthetic and urban interests made the recovery and reuse of architectural features not only economically but also morally significant.

The birth of architectural salvage sits at an important intersection of architectural history. As part of the conservation and heritage movements. It can be viewed as a symptom of the demise of architectural modernism; from its totalising, utopian conception of architectural progress, to a more regressive postmodern stance. This Janus-faced turning of tides typified, especially in London, by a shift from the dreams of middle-class suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, to an increasing move to inner city living. A concern with renovating and converting older urban housing stock and industrial warehousing for residential use. While the salvaging of older materials from demolished buildings was certainly nothing new, it is in this period that changes in architectural and aesthetic cultures developed an industry for architectural salvage leading to emerging markets for those who could salvage and sell pieces which would be installed in these newly revived urban heritage homes.

In Britain the roots of the architectural salvage movement were crucially encouraged by a campaign launched by The Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, in the spring of 1977. A collaboration was initiated between the architectural journals and the new salvage firm Hutton & Rostron Ltd, establishing a marketplace for the obvious demand between available salvage and new customers looking for salvaged pieces. It was a novel and popular idea, with these early market place pages including listings for items like ‘wrought iron Edwardian Street Lamps’, ‘Victorian highly decorated iron spiral staircases’, ‘Oak beams from the 15th and 16th Centuries, £3-£5 per foot’ and ‘stone corbels and gargoyles c.1840’. They display an eclectic mix of architectural salvaged pieces, from a wide range of historical periods, which are both unique and considered worth preserving. [1]

Whether as a result of this campaign, or a mutually concurrent enterprise, many other companies set up over the next few years, including the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co. (LASSCO), founded in Shoreditch in 1978. LASSCO’s own foundation points to this important role of architectural journalists in the development of architectural salvage. They even go so far as to claim the earliest use of the term ‘architectural salvage’ to a piece by Dan Cruickshank in Architectural Review. While the real history of the terminology does predate this in these journals by nearly a year, this terminology is important in suggesting this early role of the journals, and also the interrelation between these new salvage companies and the types of demand being met. Dan Cruickshank himself, probably did play a key role and was a formative innovator in this movement, being both a contributing editor to both journals and also as a founding member of the Spitalfields Trust (est. 1977), which was squatting and renovating the Huguenot housing in Spitalfields at this time. Indeed the Spitalfields can be seen at the forefront of the conservation movement in East London, and it can be no accident that LASSCO’s first office was only round the corner from Spitalfields and within spitting distance of these areas of historic renovation.

In one of his early articles in the Architects’ Journal in 1977, laid out his arguments for architectural salvaging:

“In 1975, 59,500 houses alone were demolished in Britain, and that, according to demolition contractors, was a bad year (90,500 houses were demolished in 1971) […] what happened to the building materials from which this vast number of houses was constructed and with which they were decorated? Mostly they were burnt, buried, or crushed for hard core […] There is no real attempt on a national scale to salvage, redistribute and re-use the vast amount of ‘energy’ that is represented by the brick and stone of demolished building […] This waste is doubly criminal because not only are these materials […] of intrinsic value, but also because there are people, throughout the country who need solid, seasoned, second hand building materials and architectural features.”[2]

It was only the previous year, in 1976, that The Architects’ Journal was publishing letters which described salvagers as mere ‘floggers’; and yet Cruickshank’s article presents a new credibility to the work of salvaging. Architectural salvage seemed to have shifted from a largely working class occupation, suggested by the derogative work ‘floggers’, to a respectable industry grounded in environmentalism and aesthetic conservation. The environmental aspect of saving and re-using materials, also fits into a wider paradigm shift of inner-city living, with an increasing concern for the urban sprawl and the protection of rural environments. It can be placed within concerns for waste, for the consequences of urban expansion, and with the rapid construction and demolition of modernist architectures. As shown clearly in Spitalfields, the renovation of older housing and the growth of inner-city heritage and conservation, there was also an interesting contemporary concern with historical authenticity, and with the restoration of features which had been removed by previous occupants less concerned with heritage aesthetics. As historians like Raphael Samuel have pointed to, with his term ‘retrofit’. The irony of this was that despite restoring these interiors to a vision of the past, with their original ‘period’ features, architectural salvage also suggests a postmodern fragmentation of the historical interior, with these features divorced from their original site, and with historical appearance outweighing original context as the bedrock of authenticity.

The salvage movement was not confined to the London and the UK, with salvage initiatives springing up across the United States around 1977, particularly in New Portland, Oregon; and in New York City. In 1977 Gil Shapiro established his first New York based salvage company, Urban Archaeology, building on an increasingly vibrant movement of ‘Loft Living’, outlined in Sharon Zukin’s seminal book of 1982, and by the rapid turnover of populations in areas like SoHo and Greenwich Village. Since earlier in the 1970s, Shapiro had also been at the forefront of a self-proclaimed ‘guerrilla’ movement which called itself ‘The Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’. The society, which included members such as the renowned art collector and gallerist Allan Stone, salvaged discarded art and architectural pieces, giving them anonymously to art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum. Often humorously referred to as ‘the gargoyle snatchers’, this anonymous collective suggests a political as well as aesthetic agenda to the early architectural salvage movement. Evoking the language of ‘reclamation’ and ‘guerrilla’ tactics, the Art Reclamation Society sought, not only to rescue these works, but also to bring them to institutions in which they would have the most public visibility, rather than keeping them in private ownership.

There is something in this redistribution of material, as well as aesthetic wealth, which connects to the Socialist agenda in this period. The preservation of history for the people. And yet, there is something clearly contentious about the relationship between architectural salvage, private ownership and public museums. While the ‘Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’ was donating their salvaged finds to public museums, the architectural salvage movement as a whole seems to represent the failure, or more accurately the limitation, of museums to collect and display salvaged treasures which were being made available be demolition and rapid rebuilding. However, it is not merely the capacity of museums, but also the rapid gain in commercial capital of reclaimed materials and architectural pieces, which suggests not only the growing privatisation of the concept of the museum, but also the reconceptualization of the private space of the home as a heritage museum. In Spitalfields again, the best example of this is the Denis Sever’s house in Folgate Street, described as a ‘still-life drama’. Created by Severs between 1979 and his death in 1999, the house is a fantastical interior, both ‘retro-fitted’ to the Hugenot period, but also a complete theatrical fiction.

Any socialist political agenda within early architectural salvage was clearly not long lasting. Architectural salvage has become a multi-billion dollar industry across the world, increasingly catering for an elite minority and encouraging spin-off reproduction industries and mass produced faux heritage mouldings, chandeliers and fireplaces. Over the last decade, as architectural salvage has reached completely disproportionate prices, we have the rise of the distressed ‘shabby-chic’, bringing new, cheap furniture, an essence of age and re-use. So, with this hindsight, what is the value of examining this history of architectural salvage? Firstly, it is clear and important evidence for the shifts in architectural tastes which produced a significant market in the late 1970s. It indicates this important intersection between the rapid urban construction policies of the 1970s, and the conservative response to rapid change, with the desire to protect, restore and to retreat into the past. Domestic interiors, those womb-like private spaces, which have provided a significant space of retreat from the public space, can also be seen as a microcosm of the contemporary public perception, and, as seen with architectural salvage, themselves playing a significant role in commercial markets and public activities. The second point about architectural salvage, is that it refocused the notion of urban construction as cyclical. Of buildings and their contents as reusable, and, to coin the expression adopted by many architects at this time, ‘loose’. Unlike within modernism, which idealised contained communities, perfect design and prescribed methods of occupation; this attitude simultaneously had an increasing consciousness of property ownership, as well as the significance of occupancy as temporary, and buildings themselves as temporary. Re-occupied, or demolished and internally dissected, for new spaces, purposes and times.


[1] ‘Architectural Salvage’, The Architects’ Journal, 9th April 1978.

[2] Dan Cruickshank, ‘Architectural Salvage’, Architects’ Journal (January 26th, 1977), pp. 148-149.

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