It is now 24 years since buildings in England started after 1939 have been eligible for listing. Listing matters because it is both symbolic and practical in its effects — symbolic because official sanction is not given without a struggle and then becomes a catalyst for further engagement, and practical because without listing, most buildings are at risk, if not from demolition then from a variety of changes that work against the effects intended by their designers.

Modern buildings, especially those after 1945, comprise an exceptional category because of their scale and numbers, combined in some cases with short life expectancy, technological obsolescence in energy use and user comfort, or represented by experimental materials or fixed patterns of use based on a literal interpretation of functionalism. Many should be weeded out of the building stock, but there are also many reasons why others could continue to contribute to the sense of a physical heritage, about which it is never easy for one generation to predict the views of its successors.

Even so, since 1945 much time, resources and careful thought have been spent on building in Britain, shifting it from a provincial backwater to become the world’s leading centre for high-quality architectural production. For a country sometimes accused of being obsessed with heritage, it would be odd if we turned our backs on something as important as this.

Aside from their material reality, post-war buildings often have a generous allocation of land, whether houses with large gardens, or schools and their playing fields. Architects grasped the modern movement principle of the figure-ground relationship, and the play between enclosed volume and external spaces is a crucial part of the quality and historical identity of their work. To destroy the pattern of solid and void can be more damaging than alteration to the physical fabric. The buildings also have a higher-than-average occurrence of art that makes individual buildings and places special, such as murals and sculpture, neglected or covered over.

Listing recognises these elements and provides protection or a future life in a new location. These remarks do not only apply to modernist buildings but also to the traditional or ‘Otherist’ ones, built of brick or stone with load-bearing construction and pitched roofs in the post-war period, whose ability to manipulate a site is often overlooked.

What factors led to the listing breakthrough? They all relate to the peculiar qualities of time: time as experienced by individuals in relation to their own lives; time as a cycle of taste and obsolescence in buildings; time as an oscillation between generations and their reaction against each other. These cycles indicate that the trough, in terms of appreciation, comes around the 20-year point, but that by 30 years the smart thinkers are ready to take a fresh look. The problem was able to be deferred because so little was built between 1939 and 1950, but as the Fifties slipped past the 30-year mark, it became urgent.

The mid-Eighties brought their own particular hazards to bear on the legacy of post-war British architecture. It is hard to remember how widely derided most of it had become, with the collapse of confidence in social housing and the condemnation of Miesian office blocks and raw concrete. If modernism stood on three pillars — social, technical and aesthetic — each was by then deemed by many to have failed. The rueful mood was captured by one of the former believers, Lionel Esher, in his book A Broken Wave: the rebuilding of England 1940–1980, published in 1981. The time had come to forget the polemics of modernism and approach the subject with the cooler eye of history.

Conservation is history in action, drawing on the emotions aroused by the potential loss of a piece of evidence that may also be a work of art and a practical contribution to society. Thus the pillars of modernism could be reinstated in a different mood. In reaction to Thatcherism’s threatened erosion of its infrastructure as well as its values, the Welfare State suddenly became a fragile heritage, both socially and architecturally. Nothing indicated this as much as the school buildings celebrated in Andrew Saint’s pioneering study, Towards a Social Architecture (1987), the spearhead for careful historical reconstruction in other areas, based on documents and oral history, and still an unfinished project despite the massive contribution of Elain Harwood as a historian at English Heritage.

Her book, tying together studies of building types in an overall narrative of the stages of post-war architectural development, is due to be published in 2013 by Yale as Faith, Hope and Brutalism. The history of the period now divides between academic specialists who tend to plough the same furrows originally outlined by Reyner Banham (New Brutalism), and the more wide-ranging work published in the Twentieth Century Society’s journals and monographs, which aims to fill in knowledge of figures whose work needs more painstaking reconstruction and assessment.

Guided for its most effective years by a committee of experts, the listing process between 1988 and the present caught a lot of important buildings in its net. They are never really safe though, and some worrying cases of official approval of fairly destructive proposals have occurred: the Commonwealth Institute (RMJM, 1960–2, an early listing in 1988) was treated as a political pawn and it should not have been necessary to ‘save’ it in such a destructive manner as it will shortly undergo. And opinion divides over the role of English Heritage in finding the ‘solution’ to Park Hill flats in Sheffield (City Architects’ Department, 1957–61, listed in 1998). As a heritage guardian, it could be accused of being too lax, but it was put in a political role that skewed the normal process. Both these cases were driven by market demands and had little to do with the condition of the building fabric or its adaptability.

Listing is a political process and its role in creating lasting public benefits needs to be stressed. Viewed overall, English Heritage has done an excellent job in the past 24 years with post-war buildings, but occasionally confidence and expertise are lacking, so that listing recommendations can be negative without good grounds, as with Robin Hood Gardens (Alison and Peter Smithson). Sometimes the blockage occurs in the Department for Culture, Media and sport, where the ministerial decision is even more influenced by short-term factors, and may depend on the personal views of the incumbent.

Under PM Gordon Brown, Margaret Hodge favoured listing ‘cosy’ things like tiled fish-and-chip shops and baulked at brutalism – hence two of the buildings successfully nominated by the Twentieth Century Society for the World Monument Fund Watch List 2012 – Birmingham Central Library (John Madin) and Preston Bus Station (BDP) – are both still in their original use at the time of writing but at risk from their council owners. The third nomination, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery group on the South Bank (GLC Architects, 1961–67), was in a ministry queue for some 16 years before a decision was reached in 2010 by the incoming Coalition Government not to list. It then becomes difficult to reverse these decisions. New ‘evidence’ is required, when the underlying reality is that different personalities reach different conclusions and there is a high level of ‘luck of the draw’ involved.

Fears still remain about the cost and technical complexity involved in fixing up listed buildings of this period, a situation not helped by the continuing anomaly that new build is zero-rated for VAT while repairs of all kinds are not. Nor, as yet, is there a scale of financial adjustment to offset the benefits of energy, waste and emissions savings when conservation is preferred to demolition. Conservationists can only point to the PR and image benefits of a refurbished modernist historic building, such as we have seen boost the popularity of venues including the Royal Festival Hall, the De La Warr Pavilion or, following the current works by Haworth Tompkins, the National Theatre. Similarly, owners of private houses have something special to offer to dedicated buyers in a restricted market.

Some architectural practices, including John McAslan and Partners and Avanti, have developed special expertise in dealing with the technical problems raised by buildings of the modern movement, as well as the expectations of clients. New regulations on thermal performance stretch listed buildings of all periods, but modernist ones are particularly at risk. Elevations designed with one glazing system can lose their visual quality when another is substituted – bad enough when it is a set of windows in a solid wall, but potentially disastrous for a curtain wall system. Solar gain and heat loss are the burdens of single glazing, and ingenuity is needed to get round the problems without destroying much of the building. Work on Crown Hall at IIT, Chicago (Mies van der Rohe, 1952) by Patrick Bellew of Atelier 10 is a demonstration in lateral thinking to overlap solutions stemming from the building fabric, its surroundings and the behavior of its users. For example, when trees were replanted at the south west corner of the building, summer shade was provided by leaves, but winter sun was not impeded.

Issues of disabled access are similarly demanding where architect used flights of steps as an symbolic gesture. Early proposals for Harvey Court, Cambridge (Martin with Wilson and Hodgkinson, 1960–62, now the subject of work by Levitt Bernstein, see p50) were modified as a result of pressure from the Twentieth Century Society and others to achieve a compromise that favoured the architectural form.

Somewhere beyond the enthusiasts, the experts and the politicians, stands the public. What do they think, and how much does it matter? Conservation is no more or less elitist than architecture itself. It is clear that popular taste does not relate much to expert opinion, but perceptions are skewed by many factors, including the attitude of the press and the lack of real information. The majority of people in Preston voted for the bus station as their favourite building, while there has been a groundswell in favour of the Birmingham library (though it’s still slated for demolition). A good example of the unpredictability came from a student living in the Florey Building for Queen’s College, Oxford (James Stirling, 1967), recently listed but believed by Oxford legend to be practically uninhabitable. When asked for her opinion, she replied that she had grown up in a suburban house, and would probably spend most of the rest of her life in one, so living in Stirling’s science-fiction castle represented an exciting and positive excursion into a very different world.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: