Listing buildings can be a controversial business – and is it always the best way to protect our architectural heritage?
History repeats itself, in the old adage, but when it comes to listing tragedy and farce are mixed in equal measure. Richard Rogers designed Lloyd’s in the City as a high-tech kit of parts, capable of being mounted and reassembled, endlessly renewed. And now it's grade I listed, apparently frozen in time like a dancer.
Round the corner, Rogers, sitting in his own shiny new Leadenhall building while his old office at Thames Wharf faces redevelopment without the protection of listing, says: ‘I'm not against choosing good quality buildings for listing but it's very difficult, there's a tendency to see buildings as frozen music; forget it, everything changes.’
So why do some buildings get listed when others don’t? It does help if they’re old of course: only 0.2% of all listed buildings were built after World War II.
Piers Gough, formerly an English Heritage Commissioner, told me: ‘EH has two different systems: one listing up to about 1915, then another for later buildings which has them jumping through all kinds of extra hoops for no apparent reason, they just don't want too many things listed from the 20th century because they don't think it's very popular.’
Other factors in what gets listed are fashion and taste. Brutalism is very much de nos jours and we are soon likely to see many more examples to follow the National Theatre and Preston Bus Station. But what of po-mo? I asked Charles Holland, for whom it was once part of the job description, if he felt listing generally was a good or a bad thing? ‘I feel quite torn about it in some ways. Clearly some buildings aren’t meant to be there forever. High tech for instance. And I think post-modernism slightly celebrated ephemerality. I remember when they took the eggs off and replaced the cladding on TV-am building in London; Terry Farrell said that’s fine, it wasn’t meant to be there forever.’
Just a few hundred metres down the road from Lloyd’s is Number One Poultry which became a heritage cause célèbre in its previous incarnation as the Mappin and Webb building, then seeing off Mies van der Rohe no less and his friend Peter Palumbo, before falling to a shock change of team in James Stirling and Michael Wilford. Asked today which he would have preferred to get built, Palumbo still replies, without missing a beat, Mies. But instead we got a late Stirling building from the late James Stirling. And now the 20th Century Society is fighting for its listing just as the Victorian Society had fought for its predecessor. Catherine Croft is leading the fight even though it’s less than 20 years old. ‘DCMS accepted Number One Poultry was a building of outstanding merit, but they were arguing that the extent of the proposed alterations weren’t sufficient to qualify it for listing,’ she says. Something of a Catch 22 then.
Not surprisingly, Croft is a firm believer in the 30 year rule, giving any building turning 30 an overview: ‘It’s one thing I would really like to get accepted as good practice. It's always very difficult to look at individual cases in isolation and the context of what else was being built that year is not a bad one.’
Although Gough believes the 30 year rule is arbitrary he admits it's convenient ‘because it concentrates minds at the moment when things are really unpopular. But what's really scary is that people now don't demolish buildings, they alter them so they can't be listed. If you alter it in the 29th year then it's not listable because it's lost some of the features that the original architect put in.’
Holland makes a different case for the 30 year rule: ‘There’s an interesting congruence between the 30 year listing period and fashion cycles in architecture. After 30 years most architectural styles are at the bottom of their appreciation curve. So post-modernism is absolutely at its lowest, although it has started to become quite fashionable in the way that the brutalism was discovered and has become incredibly fashionable.’
The trouble with post-modernism is that by its very nature the architecture is skin-deep with no built-in longevity. That doesn’t worry Gough too much: ‘I think it will edit itself down quite severely because let's face it, there's not a screamingly large number of really good po-mo buildings.’
But don’t those involved in listing have another responsibility, a wider one to architectural history? ‘Yes I think absolutely there is that responsibility,’ he says, ‘but in the end the responsibility is to assess dispassionately whether the building is good or not.’
So is listing per se a good or a bad thing? ‘Oh per se absolutely a good thing. There are too many philistines and I think people can be very careless of beautiful things, like the Victorians painting out nudes. You've got to be really careful what you let people do.’
The first grade I modernist building was Norman Foster’s Willis Faber in Ipswich, listed in 1991 when it was just 19 years old, after Foster himself gave the EH inspectors a tour. Rogers believes the involvement the original architect in the redevelopment process at an early stage is key to a more intelligent listing system: ‘This started with Foster’s building up in Ipswich, where English Heritage invited him to go round the building with them discussing what was really important and what things could be changed,’ he says. ‘I was asked to do the same thing with Lloyd’s. I think you have to be pretty forgiving as the original architect, otherwise the building is just going to be empty; you can't just have a big empty monument in the middle of the city. There is a tendency – and it’s the same with Lloyd’s – for a building to become more monumentalised by its freezing. So at first I wasn't keen on Lloyd’s being listed but I did appreciate the fact that they took me on board. One must be careful about freezing buildings, there's a real danger of that. But I don’t regret Lloyd’s being Iisted.’
Gough would also like to see a more intelligent listing system: ‘I think listing should be far more rigorous, they should spell out what are the listable qualities and allow you to change things that aren't, things that don't completely mug the building.’
Holland agrees: ‘The things that are most interesting about po-mo buildings are also the most problematic. So in some ways the blanding out of those elements is the worst case scenario – TV-am with the TV-am logo taken off makes no sense at all.’
The debate that precedes a building being listed or not is often led by the 20th Century Society and is almost as important as the final outcome. It involves the public as well everyone who is part of the process: architects, developers and planners and sometimes politicians. It raises issues about what is important for our cities and that must include their past as well as their future.