Debate: Should we list postwar buildings?

Last week's preservation orders on a car showroom and a Sixties office block raise questions about what architecture is worth keeping - and who decides
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The Independent Online

Few things are more guaranteed to provoke disgust from reactionary members of the British public than the listing of a postwar building. "By proposing to list 21 of these modern absurdities," raged the Daily Telegraph in 1995 about a series of housing blocks, "the Department of National Heritage confirms its role in the uglification of Britain."

Few things are more guaranteed to provoke disgust from reactionary members of the British public than the listing of a postwar building. "By proposing to list 21 of these modern absurdities," raged the Daily Telegraph in 1995 about a series of housing blocks, "the Department of National Heritage confirms its role in the uglification of Britain."

The announcement last week by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport of listings for a Fifties car showroom in Lincoln and the Sixties Rotunda office block in Birmingham has met with a similar flurry of outrage. There are several reasons for this reaction, all of them to do with snobbery and ignorance. Since the first listings were made in 1947, people have treated these awards as a sign of status. Every week the pages of Country Life are filled with ads for houses, many proudly displaying their grade like the marque on a luxury car. A listed building, people seem to assume, must have beams and buttresses, Georgian windows or diamond-leaded panes. It must be old. It must be important. By implication, it must be posh.

The trouble started when the first "modern" buildings began to be listed in 1987 (no post-1939 building had been listed before this date). It raised the question of how apparently ordinary buildings, lived or worked in by ordinary people and made of ordinary materials (particularly concrete), could possibly be worthy of protection.

I believe that they should be respected both as the products of their time and of great minds. The best contemporary architecture, like its equivalent in music, or art or drama, is born of complex and original thinking - in other words, everything you would expect and more from a professional who has taken a minimum of seven years to qualify.

In the 20th century, rapidly developing technology made possible buildings of a scale and form never before imagined. Architecture has fed from and responded to these changes to create the sophisticated and stylistically diverse built environment we live in today.

The period of reconstruction after the Second World War represents the heyday of 20th-century British architecture. Notable buildings of this period include Coventry Cathedral and the Royal Festival Hall (both listed Grade I). But other significant buildings of the same period include the public housing blocks of Park Hill in Sheffield (1957-61), the simple-looking glass and steel school at Hunstanton in Norfolk (1954) and the Stockwell bus garage (1954), all now listed Grade II*.

Each of the latest additions represents a fresh and inventive idea for its time. Both buildings are local landmarks and English Heritage's advice to the DCMS is that listing them will provide "pause for thought" before any action is taken to alter or demolish them. But it is no guarantee that these things will not happen. A terrace of Denys Lasdun's Grade II* Royal National Theatre has been demolished with English Heritage's approval and plans are being considered to demolish a listed leisure complex in north London by Basil Spence, architect of Coventry Cathedral.

The best buildings are as an important part of our culture as our books, music and films. As Peter Smithson, architect with his wife Alison of the Economist building in London, said of proposed changes to his Robin Hood's Gardens housing estate in east London: "It's like writing a new bit of a Fitzgerald novel or a Beatles song. It can be done, but it's extremely difficult." We should respect this argument so that the built environment we hand on to future generations remains a rich and special place.

Marcus Field edits the Culture section of the 'Independent on Sunday'.

No: Robert Adam

The whole business of listing buildings is a problem. We have a series of people who have been appointed formally and legally as guardians of the built environment and it is up to them to judge what should be preserved - that is, listed and saved for the nation. Last week the Arts minister, Alan Howarth, announced that the Rotunda in Birmingham (a cylindrical office block) and the Lincolnshire Motor Showroom (a car showroom now used as a public library in Lincoln) would be listed as buildings of architectural and historical interest. But these guardians of our heritage perceive buildings very differently from the rest of society. They are art historians and for them the key issue is not one of taste or whether they like the buildings; it is a question of the buildings' historical significance, and they have become very pious about it. How can they know what will be of historical importance 100 years from now?

Art historians have found a new role in conservation which in turn has taken on enormous power in recent years. There seems to be a fear that we might lose things that we will regret in the future. It is all a question of judgement and degree: the more we are frightened of the future and getting things wrong, the more we are trying to hold things still.

Our environment is rich and interesting if it is changing all the time, but it is no longer so interesting if we preserve it. The Rotunda in Birmingham is detritus that got left behind. We should see its disappearance as part of an organic process. If it is no longer useful or pleasing or interesting it should be swept away, not preserved in aspic.

The planning system has made us all believe that we should have complete aesthetic control of our surroundings, but that can be stultifying. One of the biggest problems is that the people involved in listing are a cultural coterie. They are self-referential and get their approval for their judgements from one another. I don't think anything that is less than 50 years should be considered for listing. We need that amount of time to stand back and make assessments about what is worth keeping. Any sooner and we can't make a cool assessment.

We can see how this affected our assessment of the Victorian era. In the Fifties and Sixties we thought that their gothic style was terrible, but now we see it for what it is really worth. The shadow of taste can obscure our judgement, but as time moves on, we can look at the past more clearly.

Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam architects.

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