Look and learn before you list

We shouldn't allow sentimentality to sway us against daring modern buil dings, says Jonathan Glancey
There are nearly half a million listed buildings in England (more if one adds in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The picture most of us have in our heads of a listed building is, most likely, a medieval parish church, Georgian rectory or Victorian country house.

Even those who feel the whole heritage business has gone too far will agree that such past masterpieces, major and minor, deserve to be protected by law from demolition or unsympathetic modernisation and conversion.

Yet remarkably, all the buildings listed to date as being of architectural and historic interest have been put on a national register without public consent. Buildings that have been saved for posterity (and, by and large from change) have been picked and pickled by experts. Historians and conservationists have shaped our heritage and the way we regard it.

Yesterday English Heritage announced a list of 67 modern buildings (ie, post-1945) that it would like John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, to safeguard for the nation; and for the first time the public is being asked for its views. What do we think of the Severn Bridge (1961-66), St Andrew and St George's church, Stevenage (1956-60), the Jesmond branch library, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1962-63) or the footbridge to Eel Pie Island on the River Thames at Twickenham (1956)?

It is unlikely that anyone, save experts and local people, will know more than one of these four examples: the Severn Bridge, which is an uncompromising structure, and in any case unlikely to be altered,unless it needs shoring up or otherwise reinforcing.

The public consultation is being conducted around an exhibition that English Heritage is organising of the 67 chosen favourites, at the RIBA's Architecture Centre (a listed building) in London.

This is little more than a sop to democracy. For no one can judge the value - functional or aesthetic - of a building unless they have seen it in real life, in its stone, concrete, steel or glass versions. A quick glance at a photograph is no replacement for the real thing.

English Heritage's well-intentioned nod to democracy is also meaningless because the shortlist has already been chosen for people, and because it is nigh impossible for most people to make a definitive judgement about a modern building. None of the buildings and bridges on English Heritage's consultation list is more than 50 years old and many date from the Sixties, a decade that produced more than its fair share of bombastic, abstract and otherwise brutal designs.

As Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, himself says, "It is well known that some of today's much-loved buildings such as Tower Bridge and St Pancras Chambers were once reviled. Tower Bridge was described as an "absurdity", by The Builder magazine of 1894. History demonstrates that opinions change and that a building's lasting reputation is often very different from the way it was first perceived."

Which is exactly why the idea of asking the public its opinion of severe and often demanding Sixties architecture is fraught with difficulties.

True, many people have begun to see the value, possibilities and even the beauty of contemporary architecture (think of Nick Grimshaw's Waterloo International Terminal or Sir Norman Foster's second terminal at Stansted Airport), but this conversion on the road to the Modern world is slow, not blinding.

For many people modern buildings are ugly because they do not conform to our National Trust, heritage view of England. This sensibility is suspect, because if more people stood back and thought about it they would understand that the buildings we say we care for most (the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Manchester City Hall, Seaton Delaval, Christ Church, Spitalfields) were all designed by fiercely independently minded and radical architects, who pushed the limits of their great art as deep into the recesses of the imagination and the realm of the future as they were capable of. History was Christopher Wren's servant, not his master.

Before we can have a genuinely democratic listing process, we need to listen to experts, read what historians have to say, but above all, to get on our bikes and go and see the buildings we think we have a right to judge, at first hand.