We should love these Eighties architectural stars
The refusal to list London's Broadgate spells its demise. The buildings of the excess era must be saved, argues Jack Watkins
Monday 04 July 2011
Lunchtime in the City of London and office workers relax within the atrium of Broadgate Circus. A big screen relays live action from Wimbledon, as Andy Murray takes on Richard Gasquet.
There's an animated hum amidst the glazed towers and greenery which, flowing over the upper balconies of the central arena, faintly recalls the affection of Londoners for traditional garden squares.
The Broadgate complex, however, is not yet 30 years old. Despite being a rare and successful 1980s example of corporate development which also allocated generous amounts of public space, the recent decision by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to reject a listing recommendation from English Heritage clears the way for its demolition and replacement by a new £850m office development. The action has dismayed conservationists, many expressing shock at the suddenness of the announcement, pre-empting any chance of a public enquiry. While English Heritage has acknowledged the pressure from commercial interests in a difficult economic climate, it refutes suggestions that such listing would have stunted investment and has attacked the "two- faced" attitude of the City in hailing its new buildings, only to later claim them to be worthless.
Jon Wright of the Twentieth Century Society, goes further, suggesting that the processes by which Britain's built heritage has been assessed and designated since the Second World War have broken down. He cites several other "difficult" modern buildings recently recommended for listing, but rejected by DCMS – the Commonwealth War GravesCommission building, the South Bank Centre, Birmingham Central Library and Preston Bus Station – as proof: "Margaret Hodge, the listing minister for the previous government, made no secret of her dislike of modern architecture, whereas the current minister, John Penrose, has listed Milton Keynes shopping centre and the Leeds University campus.
"However, whenever there has been controversy, whether through local or council opposition or some other pressure, the department has given way to it. It's like a backlash of localism. Of course, it's important these voices are heard, but are they more important than that of the Government's advisor on heritage?"
One of the factors working against the case for listing Broadgate, designed by Peter Foggo, for Arup, was that, as a complex of structures under 30 years old – the age at which a building can be put forward automatically for listing – it had to be proposed at Grade II*, under which category, gaining planning consent for works becomes more complex.
Wright says the Twentieth Century Society, forseeing the challenge, proposed to the City of London last year that it be considered for the more flexible Conservation Area status, but were turned down flatly – an unsurprising response from a body whose planning chief recently described English Heritage as the "heritage Taliban".
Yet Broadgate has long been admired, having won the Royal Institute of British Architect's President's Choice award in 1992. Where much post-war City redevelopment has ridden rough-shod over the medieval plan of alleys, courts and ancient taverns, Broadgate was laid out with due reference to the tracks and platforms of the redundant Broad Gate railway terminus it replaced. "It slotted into the urban grain of what was already there and created space between new buildings that had a design unity to them," argues Wright. "And the materials used in the construction – high grade Portland stone and polished pinkish granite on the facades – were very fine."
He also points to its private provisioning of public art – the iron shard of the Fulcrum and the Broadgate Venus most notably – at a time when the golden age of commissioning such works by the London County Council was drawing to a close. However, it was noticeable that coverage of the decision was restricted to the finance pages in the press, perhaps reflecting a lack of interest beyond the conservation world, other than those who might question the environmental wastefulness of erecting massive complexes, only to tear them down to decades later – especially ironic in this case, as Broadgate was an early example of "green" development.
The fact remains, however, just as the 1980s is scornfully seen as the decade of conspicuous consumption, its architecture similarly has few friends. Conservation pressure groups are used to ploughing lonely furrows, but the Twentieth Century Society, championing Britain's architecture from 1914 onwards, is more isolated than most. Unlike the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, which operate within locked time periods, its timescale is continually rolling forwards. Its director, Catherine Croft, seems to be engaged in a constant battle with newspapers across the country, arguing on behalf of the "recently new." It's fair to say that public taste has yet to catch up, even with buildings of the 1970s, but at least these have now passed the 30-year listing qualification point. The best of the 1980s – the era of Post-Modern – could be at greater risk, because of the concentration of much of the decade's development in the private and corporate sectors
Wright admits that conservationists are "behind the curve" in assessing building types for the period. "It's something that needs to be done, however, so that we, the press and the public can have a rational debate about it, rather than at present where we are fire-fighting. One of the things which characterised much of the Broadgate coverage was the rash of misinformation and misunderstanding, comparing it to the likes of Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, for instance and asking: 'How can this possibly be heritage?'"
As he says, that's a disappointingly shallow view of what has the potential to be part of our collective history, as well as a distortion of the purpose of listing – never meant to preserve structures exactly as they are in perpetuity, but simply to flag up value and to ensure a building's special merits are considered in any future planning development.
It's easy to knock the extroversion and flamboyance of much 1980s Post-Modernism. Deep in the heart of the City, James Stirling's No 1 Poultry exemplifies the bouncy, flouncy, colourful curvaceousness of the period – although, designed by the architect in 1988, it was not completed until a decade later. You could argue that the building is too jocular for its location, so close to the sober Roman grandeur of the Royal Exchange and the gray edifices of banking head offices.
Many will never forgive it for supplanting its predecessor, the 19th century neo-Gothic Mappin & Webb building, which the Victorian Society fought hard to save. Yet No 1 Poultry, with its striped, alternating blocks of pink and beige and its handsome ship's prow frontage, has an unapologetic presence you might expect future generations, freed from the rigid prescriptions of "in keeping" diehards, to applaud. You may recoil from its brashness but, lest we forget, with its columns and deep inner courtyard, it draws on classical precepts almost as surely as the buildings of Sir John Soane, George Dance and Edwin Luytens, with which it shares the local streetscape.
In fact, wherever you look in London, it's not difficult to find good examples of 1980s buildings, a decade when architects rediscovered the curved front, as well as the pilaster, column and podium – the classical language of architecture.
Not everything was good and much was simply showy. The Twentieth Century Society, for instance, recently pondered the credentials of the under-threat QVC building at Battersea, a familiar marble and glass poke in the eye for daily train commuters to Victoria, but decided it wasn't good enough to argue a case for listing. But one of Wright's favourites is John Outram's pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, an outburst of eclectic Egyptianism which recalls the fondness of the Victorians for dressing up such utilitarian structures in antiquarian forms.
Two Thames-side works by Nicholas Farrell, the Babylonian MI6 building, and Embankment Place above Charing Cross station – its arched roofs and towers rising and falling like a steel and glass homage to Constantinople's Hagia Sophia – are others that merit a second look.
As Wright says: "They just need to be given time to be appreciated".
This is something the City wasn't prepared to give Broadgate.
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