Report: Cultures of Architectural Enthusiasm Day 1

Friday 28th June 2013 10.00am – 5.30pm

University College, London

What is architectural enthusiasm, what type of people become architectural enthusiasts, how can enthusiasm be shared and used, and why does enthusiasm matter? These were some of the questions explored at the ‘Cultures of Architectural Enthusiasm’ conference held at University College London to mark the culmination of a two-year project looking at how people engage with and value the twentieth century built environment. Researchers Dr Hannah Neate, Dr Ruth Craggs and Dr Hilary Geoghegan have been out and about interacting with architectural enthusiasts around the country; fieldwork has included meeting societies set up to celebrate Britain’s twentieth century built heritage, going behind the scenes of organised tours of the modern landscape and finding out what motivates those diverse people and organisations who are standing up for an often-criticised architectural period. “Enthusiasm can really contribute to the re-evaluation of buildings which might otherwise be overlooked,” explained Hannah Neate. “But there are questions around who has the loudest voice? Who is being listened to? Whose voices aren’t being heard and what’s being excluded from narratives and discourses?”

Archienthusiasm

Over the course of the day’s presentations and discussions, it became clear that there is not one single pattern from which architectural enthusiasts are cut, and the conference heard from people who engage with architecture from all viewpoints, from the amateur to the professional. Some of the speakers organise and participate in artistic and educational activities aimed at challenging public perceptions of the built environment, but have little formal voice, whereas others represent statutory bodies with the resources to actively influence the listing and conservation of buildings. Getting involved in architectural enthusiasm can involve volunteering or becoming a card-carrying member of a national organisation as Ed DiestelKamp and Catherine Croft, from the National Trust and Twentieth Century Society respectively explained, or getting together over a cup of tea to learn informally and discover a city together, as demonstrated by Manchester Modernist Society founder Jack Hale. Enthusiasm can stem from simply using buildings for their intended purpose, such as waiting for a bus, as shown by members of the public campaign to save Brutalist landmark Preston Bus Station. At the other extreme are the peripatetic ‘anoraks’ identified by Sheffield Hallam University’s Luke Bennett, who dedicate weekends to travelling around near-identical concrete nuclear bunkers and try and outdo each other by sharing their experiences on highly specialist online forums.

But what is enthusiasm? As Professor John Gold from Oxford Brookes University pointed out, it seems odd to project emotional responses on to an architectural period associated with rational, scientific planning and principles. He explained: “Enthusiasm and modernism don’t usually go together. It is usually a much more cold, rational debate.” Gold sees enthusiasm as having a ‘bipolar’ nature, and said it needs to be seen in terms of “lightness and dark”. With twentieth century architecture, this means keeping in mind what modernist architects and planners were opposed to and what their buildings were designed to replace. However, the modern movement has left a conflicted legacy, and enthusiasm for their buildings has markedly dissipated over time. Buildings which attracted world attention less than 50 years ago have gone the way of the slums before them, and are now seen as problems to be hidden.

For this reason, English Heritage sometimes has to make “brave decisions” when recommending twentieth century buildings for listing, said Head of Designation Emily Gee. She explained that the listing of familiar, modest and accessible sites, such as the iconic Abbey Road crossing, RAF bases, phone boxes and public art, “wins hearts and minds” in the way that important examples of public housing and commercial office buildings do not.

Organisations such as London-based educational charity Our Hut use their enthusiasm for twentieth century architecture to help communities feel happier about the modernist structures they live with everyday, such as Stockwell Bus Garage. Events for schools and other groups include tours, oral history projects and creative activities such as designing buildings. This creative engagement with architecture is often an important part of efforts to re-evaluate the twentieth century environment, as exemplified by the current campaign to save Preston Bus Station from demolition by the city council, who plan to regenerate the surrounding area. Mark Toogood from the University of Central Lancashire explained that this does not have one campaign or co-ordinator at its centre but is shaped through a series of creative events and re-representations which confront negative perceptions of the building.

However architectural heritage does not just reward enthusiasts, or help to create a sense of local pride; it is also beneficial to the British economy as a whole. Heritage is an “absolutely essential” part of our culture, argues Kate Pugh from the Heritage Alliance, an umbrella body for heritage organisations, and it “means business for the UK in so many ways”. Heritage is a mass movement in the UK, with heritage and architecture bodies boasting ten times as many members as political parties. Pugh stresses the need to transform this enthusiasm into an institutional force by making the government realise the value of heritage to the economy and support it through legislation and policy. She explains why: “Heritage should enrich and inspire all who come into contact with it. People need to become visitors, participants and activists.”

Architectural enthusiasm can be emotional and rational, celebratory and challenging. It can be fun but it can also contribute to serious research and put pressure on those with the power to conserve twentieth century architecture. It can be informal and social, but it can also be competitive. It can be a minority cause or enjoy popular support. The ‘Cultures of Architectural Enthusiasm’ project has brought together and sparked discussion between the many different users and fans of our modern built heritage, showing that it is far more than a niche interest. However, it has just been a starting point for wider discussions and there is potential to explore whether this enthusiasm can be consolidated and channelled into constructive and lasting action.

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This report has been prepared by Natalie Bradbury, a guest blogger and PhD student at the University of Central Lancashire.  See Natalie’s blog for more on her project which is entitled ‘Pictures for Schools: Art, Education and Reconstruction in Post-war Britain‘.  

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