Campaign launched to protect modern classics: Jonathan Glancey reports on an English Heritage initiative to preserve post-war architecture

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH Heritage today opens an exhibition that doubles as a campaign for the listing of many controversial post-war buildings, including concrete bridges spanning the M1, a neo-Georgian house in Essex and a council estate overlooking Richmond Park, south-west London, that was inspired by the French architect and town planner Le Corbusier.

The exhibition - A Change of Heart, English Architecture Since the War, A Policy for Protection - at the Royal College of Art, London, aims to demonstrate the range and quality of post-war architecture to a public traditionally suspicious of any building concrete or modern, and to ensure that the nation is aware of a recent heritage now under threat.

Last year, the Department of the Environment agreed to list the Willis Faber office building in Ipswich, designed by Foster Associates and completed in 1975, as Grade I, after it became aware of the owners' intention to remodel its exemplary hi-tech interior. It is the youngest listed building and, English Heritage believes, as much a part of the national heritage as Hampton Court Palace or St Paul's Cathedral.

Jocelyn Stevens, the new chairman of English Heritage, said: 'Our growing appreciation and understanding of Victorian, Edwardian and inter-war architecture has led to a general acceptance that the best should be protected. No such consensus yet exists on post-war buildings'.

Twenty-nine post-war buildings have been listed, but Mr Stevens believes that the English still react unfavourably to modern buildings because they only remember the failures. Andrew Saint, a historian with English Heritage, said: 'When we think of post-war architecture, we conjure up tall, concrete-mullioned or curtain-walled structures slapped down in the middle of cities. But they represent the whole of the post-war years no better than, say, an iron-framed warehouse should stand for everything built between 1800 and 1830, a period of equal architectural and technical turmoil.'

English Heritage argues that as buildings get older, people grow fonder of them - hence the need to protect the best modern buildings, even though they might be unpopular when listed. St Pancras Hotel in central London, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, is cited as an example of a radical building that, deeply unpopular and even laughed at for decades, became a landmark that few would want to pull down today. It is listed Grade I. Listing began in 1947, but until 1988 the Government excluded all buildings erected after 1939. Under pressure from heritage and conservation bodies, the DoE then agreed to consider all buildings up to 30 years old.

English Heritage is now studying post-war buildings according to type - schools, universities, housing estates - and will recommend shortlists of buildings in each of these categories to the new Department of National Heritage in coming months.

The question of who will pay for the conservation and maintenance of post-war listed buildings is not one English Heritage addresses.

A new survey by the National Audit Office, entitled Protecting and Managing England's Heritage Property, shows that one in 40 of the country's total stock of buildings - approximately 500,000 - is now listed as being of 'special architectural or historic interest'.

Nearly all of these are privately owned and their preservation depends on the efforts of their owners, who must fight for a slice of the pounds 120m cake the Government divides each year among the country's five major heritage bodies, of which English Heritage is chief.

The National Audit Office estimates that 37,000, or 7 per cent, of listed heritage properties are already at risk, while English Heritage faces an expensive backlog of repairs to the 400 buildings in its own care.

Although the Government has increased funding for heritage buildings by 35 per cent in real terms since 1983, the amount of money available to preserve the nation's architectural heritage is clearly inadequate.

If the public is to change its attitude towards post-war architecture, it will also have to dig deep into its pockets to pay to protect our new-found heritage.

(Photographs omitted)