I’m just having a read through the latest edition of Blueprint Magazine which is themed around twentieth century architecture. It boldy poses the question “What are we doing to our heritage?” Reading Alan Powers’ (Chair of the Twentieth Century Society) main feature it seems the answer to that question is arguably ‘not enough’. He comments that:
Conservation is history in action, drawing on the emotions aroused by the potential loss of a piece of evidence that may also be a work of art and a practical contribution to society.
We’ve recently begun thinking about emotional attachments and responses to the built environment/heritage (see Hilary’s enthusiasm post for more on this) but still have a way to go with our research before we’ll begin to get into thinking about listing. Powers comments that listing is a ‘political process’ but there are also many subjective and value-laden decisions in action too. Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithson’s major housing estate in Poplar, which has recently gathered a lot of attention because of the decision to demolish it is a good case in point (it also features on the front cover of the magazine). Robin Hood Gardens is cited as an example of how:
English Heritage has done an excellent job in the past 24 years with post-war buildings, but occasionally confidence and expertise are lacking, so that listing recommendations can be negative without good grounds…and there is a high level of ‘luck of the draw’ involved.
Of particular interest to the project are Powers’ closing comments where he discusses the importance of public support for the conservation of post-war architecture (whether or not it should all be bracketed under the title ‘Brutalism’ can be saved for another time). Once again, important examples are cited: Preston Bus Station (I can attest to the groundswell of interest around that, the coverage of PBS featured in the BBC’s Passion over Easter was tremendous); Birmingham Library; Park Hill Estate; the South Bank. There is no doubt that if and when any of these are demolished there will be a loud public outcry. All of these have managed to catch the imagination of what is obviously a broad turn towards reappraising, even celebrating modernist architecture. As worthy architecturally as these examples are, it’s also worth keeping an eye on some of the less ‘sexy’ campaigns that are going on more quietly and without as much media coverage, such as the activities focused around Arlington Tower in Margate (pictured below). This type of campaign is probably a better indicator of the merits that are seen in post-war architecture operating outside the realm of experts, and perhaps even the type of enthusiasts that we are focusing on with our project. But again, this is something that may (or may not) be resolved as the project progresses. We’re not done with our fieldwork quite yet!
I should also mention that issue 4 of The Modernist – which I was very excited to receive through the post the other week – also has the theme ‘Brutal’. With the recent debates around the Orange County government building in Goshen, N.Y. It’s turning into something of a Brutalist start to the year!