Look and learn before you list

We shouldn't allow sentimentality to sway us against daring modern buil dings, says Jonathan Glancey

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The message displayed on the monitor of a Piraeus Bank ATM in Athens. The Bank of Greece has recommended imposing restrictions on bank withdrawals  

Get off your high horses, lefties – Big Government, not 'austerity', has brought Greece to its knees

Kristian Niemietz
A church in South Carolina burns after a fire breaks out on June 30, 2015  

America knows who has been burning black churches, but it refuses to say

Robert Lee Mitchell III
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map