Be listed, and be damned

Grade I, Grade II... but does making the Grade stunt our cities' growth? By Peter Popham
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Britain's status as a theme parklurched another step towards consummation on Friday, when Virginia Bottomley announced that 21 more modern buildings are to be listed.

The pickling of London's Centre Point - a mediocre speculative pile that was universally execrated when it was first put up - is only the most depressing of many strange decisions. And while the list is certain to provoke scorn from the millions who regard all modern architecture as a ghastly mistake, Bottomley's choices should elicit few cheers even from its fans.

Listing buildings of any period is regrettable. A city is an organic entity, composed of the millions of people who inhabit it, and its vitality is a product of their interactions. That ceaseless human ebb and flow is the true essence; the buildings in which it happens merely temporary envelopes.

Through all the centuries of the growth of Britain's cities until this one, buildings were preserved as long as they were useful, and then were either demolished or adapted. Older, less efficient structures survived here and there, but on the whole the city evolved according to the needs of its users. The result is the dense, haphazard patchwork we know.

Listing, which began in 1947, is an attempt from the worthiest of motives to cripple that process. There are two ways of looking at it. Either you can see it as a brave attempt to harness the powers of the state for the protection of cities threatened by modern architecture, which was iconoclastic to the soles of its boots, respecting neither materials nor scale nor street lines. Alternatively, you can see it as a pathetic attempt by a former world power to stop time in its tracks.

Neither interpretation has a monopoly of truth. Post-war Britain was indeed enfeebled, nostalgia-prone; modern architecture was inherently destructive of the city's traditional texture. But whichever view one leans to, the idea of preserving precisely those buildings which represented the triumph of Modernism's destructiveness is an absurdity.

If the buildings in Bottomley's list could be presented as the best of their type, the argument for their preservation might be stronger. But modern architecture's long-dominant look was not called the International Style for nothing: Millbank Tower, New Zealand House, the CIS Building in Manchester and many of the others on the list are merely moderately accomplished British versions of building types that can be found all over the world. For much of the post-war period, Britain has been an architectural backwater. Now, thanks to the Department of National Heritage, that sad fact is to be memorialised for ever.

Since the emergence of figures like James Stirling, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, British Modernism has become a powerful force in the world. Although much of their best work has been done abroad, each has important buildings in Britain, too: buildings such as Stirling and Gowan's Engineering Building at Leicester University, Foster's building for Willis Faber Dumas at Ipswich, and Rogers's Lloyd's Building in the City of London.

Some of these buildings have already been listed: the Leicester University Engineering Building and the Willis Faber Dumas building, which was listed Grade I to prevent the owner from tinkering with the interior. In addition, Denys Lasdun's Royal National Theatre, the Economist Building by the Brutalist partnership of Peter and Alison Smithson, and the Commonwealth Institute, as well as more than 80 other post-1939 buildings are already in the bag.

It can't be long before the Lloyd's Building, Michael Hopkins's pavilion at Lords and Nicholas Grimshaw's Eurostar terminal at Waterloo are added to the list. The lobbying, one supposes, must already be well advanced. Architects, after all, are only human: if posterity is up for grabs, they'd like some of it, too. But there are good reasons for arguing that even the listing of such "modern masterpieces" is a bad idea.

The Modernist project was a rejection of all that pre-20th-century architecture stood for. It was an attempt to drag architecture into the modern world, to make it as much an industrial product as an aeroplane or a car. Le Corbusier called the houses he designed "machines for living in", and showed his affinity for industry by designing a car, the "voiture maximum", which anticipated post-war designs by 20 years.

Any architect who wanted to bring his discipline into line with the modern world had to get to grips with the pace of change - with the fact that rapidly advancing technology rendered buildings obsolete almost before they were completed. Through the Sixties and Seventies, these concerns prompted hectic experimentation. Buckminster Fuller - Norman Foster's greatest mentor - designed geodesic domes that could be built and dismantled practically overnight; the first question he asked an architect was, "How much does your building weigh?"

The Archigram Group conceived cities which could walk about like insects. The Japanese Metabolists dreamed of buildings that changed organically in response to their users' demands. Others designed huge "mega-structures" with units for living or working in that could be plugged in or discarded as necessary. Behind all these projects was a serious ambition to make architecture responsive to a changing world.

Few were really successful: most, like Rogers's Pompidou Centre and Lloyd's, with their famous exterior piping, or the random pile of boxes in Tokyo by Kisho Kurokawa, merely gave the appearance of extemporaneity, not substance. But the urge to cope with rapid change was an appropriate one, however difficult to achieve. The office buildings of the Sixties, for example, whether listed or not, are unsuitable for present day use because they cannot accommodate the vast amount of cabling that modern computerised offices require.

The listing of these office buildings, stations, factories and canteens is therefore anonsense. It has no root in popular feeling: many of these buildings are deeply unpopular. It is often resented by the buildings' owners, who will be prevented from bringing them up to date. Far from enhancing Britain's contemporary architectural scene, it threatens to damage it by reducing the number of opportunities for architects to build. It is also likely to increase the number of safe, mediocre buildings that get commissioned, as clients plump for uninspired designs that will not stick them with a listings headache 20 years on.

Begun in innocence nearly 50 years ago, the listings urge has spread like a disease until hardly a corner of our built environment is free of it. In our homes, no window can be replaced without keeping a wary eye out for the taste police. Every detail is subject to somebody's control. Now Mrs Bottomley's mandarins wish to freeze even the recent past so that it is beyond the reach of change.