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Past, future, and now: how do we both protect and develop London?

Gillian Darley

Historian Gillian Darley explores how we might think about heritage today and tomorrow, and in the light of past mistakes, in an essay taken from London of the Future – which asks what the capital will be like in 100 years’ time

Architecture is forward-looking and essentially optimistic. It anticipates the needs of tomorrow, but must do so on incomplete evidence. At the same time it bears responsibilities to its history, and to buildings whose true value may also be unclear in the present. In the essay below, historian Gillian Darley explores how we might think about heritage today and tomorrow, and in the light of past mistakes. It is excerpted from London of the Future, a fascinating new book published by the London Society.With distinguished contributors from a broad range of fields, it offers a cross-sectional view of the issues facing the city today, and sets out some ways forward. Architect Carolyn Steel imagines the urban environment greened by food production. Engineer Roma Agrawal considers the new skills required by contemporary urban development. Royal Gold Medallists Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects contribute thoughts on what architecture could do for sociability and sustainability.

A little over a century ago, in 1921, the London Society addressed the same question, in a book of the same name. Some essays proved far-sighted. Calls for a Channel tunnel were eventually heeded, albeit many decades after publication. Others were somewhat wide of the mark. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu had the answer to a perceived need for city-centre airports: a 50-acre glass platform, raised 150 feet above houses near Oxford Street. ‘Though it may seem strange today,’ he confidently opined, ‘it is in my opinion the only way’. Making predictions is difficult, especially – as Niels Bohr said – about the future. But it’s incumbent on all those who have a hand in shaping it to try.

Gillian Darley: The Future of Heritage Conservation v2

Now that the Pluralist Society is the new name for the Twentieth Century Society, and all requests for listing buildings of special architectural and historic interest must be accompanied by a viable business and sustainability plan, the heritage sector has had to work much harder. Consider Harrods, the lavish old department store, which closed its doors to shoppers in the year of King Charles III’s coronation. The repurposed palatial terracotta building, which stretches a full block and more, with a web of tunnels far below the Knightsbridge pavements, has proved to be an incredible success – in its guise as a deluxe health facility. The splendid 1890s retail emporium had been waiting for such a transformation.

Relax. My Baz Luhrmann-esque evocation is a flight of fancy, but not that far-fetched in a part of London in which untold wealth knows few limits. The essayists in the original London of the Future were considering the ‘continuous evolution of a great city’, much as we have been asked to do here. Nothing was out of bounds. For them, economic success could, and must, coexist with ‘beauty and dignity’. Progress, fast and furious in the aftermath of war, suggested multiple threats to historic buildings, still then essentially unprotected by the law. For that reason The London Society – as its founding chairman, the leading architect Sir Aston Webb, wrote – would pledge itself to ‘the jealous preservation of all that is old and beautiful in London as far as is possible’. Prosperity must not ‘[sweep] away any parts of old London’.

Contributors to the original publication were eager to lay better foundations, urgently planning for a different world, a different kind of city. But they showed their age and their distance from the subsequent modern era. Lord Crewe (Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe) cited the value of ‘the residences of great men’ – oddly citing the quite modest homes of the writers Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Johnson – or masterpieces such as Richard Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard. Crewe had been (briefly) the chairman of the London County Council (LCC) and gave due credit to the wisdom of Laurence Gomme, clerk to the LCC and a co-author of two early volumes of the Survey of London. The latter was a statistician, the former a well-read Liberal politician, and in their words, like those of other contributors, we can sense the push and pull between the capital as it existed in 1921 and a London prepared for transformation in the economic interests of the country. Something had to give.

Bush House (1925) on Aldwych, designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett and used by the BBC from 1940 until 2012.
Bush House (1925) on Aldwych, designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett and used by the BBC from 1940 until 2012. Credit: Chris Hopkinson / Chromaphotography

As the historian Andrew Saint writes, Gomme was ‘a believer in the practical lessons of history’. He ensured, for instance, that the buildings standing in the way of new roads, such as Holborn Kingsway and Aldwych, were carefully recorded before contractors scythed through the chaotic but often valuable historic fabric, much as the railways had earlier. Bush House, standing proud and new at the junction of those two roads, epitomised the coming imperatives and has, due to its site and stately architectural quality, survived to tell a worthwhile story. Named after and funded by the American mega-industrialist Irving T Bush, it was designed as an international trade centre and opened in 1925. High above the entrance are two freestanding sculpted figures, their hands meeting on the base of a flaming torch above the inscription: ‘To the friendship of English speaking peoples’.

After second world war damage to Broadcasting House, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) required extensive premises, particularly for overseas broadcasts, it lit upon Bush House. The heroic central block and colonnades were listed grade II in 1976, and the building remained the BBC World Service headquarters until 2012. After that, King’s College London incorporated the authoritative, renovated building into its Aldwych campus, and in 2017 Bush House became King’s Business School. The wheel of commerce and culture had come virtually full circle.

Now conservation is on the move, shifting direction, emphasis and purpose by the minute. Interestingly, even the blanket retention of existing buildings, including a ‘blue sky’ suggestion for a universal grade III listing, rather like the proposal for a countrywide National Park, is an idea gaining a following.

A listed building is a protected building, at least in theory. For that reason, five-year certificates of immunity (COIs) from listing are highly sought-after by developers or landowners. With that, buildings judged suitable for major change or even demolition, regardless of how powerful the arguments on their behalf and eloquent their advocates are, can find themselves scarily unprotected. There’s been no clear explanation (despite plenty of conspiracy theories) why the Southbank Centre, that gritty cultural cluster consisting of the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, found that its COI was renewed for the fourth time in 2018, as the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS; now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) overturned the advice of Historic England, the advisory body on the historic environment, yet again. Sometimes (for better and for worse) these things hinge on something as transitory and subjective as the taste of an individual minister for or against unadorned concrete, but on other occasions an unseen string puller or interloper lurks in the wings.

Hayward Gallery at the South Bank Centre, London, photographed in 1968.
Hayward Gallery at the South Bank Centre, London, photographed in 1968. Credit: John Donat / RIBA Collections

In this case, as the certificate runs its course during 2023, it’s plain that a far greater popular appetite for Brutalism, and appreciation of an exceptional modern exhibition space and the pleasant, low-key concert halls nearby, may make the Southbank Centre less easy to omit from listing. When the complex opened in 1967 it had a niche architectural audience, but recently, enhanced by major work on and around the Royal Festival Hall (long luxuriating in its grade I designation and the pull of its origins in the 1951 Festival of Britain), it has gone mainstream, nay fashionable. As built heritage ages, taste changes, and in London at least, architectural conservation is being propelled ever faster into the future.

The 30-year rule – the earliest moment at which a building in England or Wales can be designated for listing is when it is 30 years old – means that most of the new architecture I wrote about in my early days as a journalist in the professional and broadsheet press is either listed or long gone. In 1990 The Observer newspaper was based in Marco Polo House in Battersea; I felt ashamed to be covering architecture from such a crass building. I wished it gone (it proved a terrible workspace) but it wasn’t demolished until 2014, not before moves were made to list it as an outlier of post-modern architecture.

Marco Polo House in Battersea, London, designed by Ian Pollard and completed in 1987.
Marco Polo House in Battersea, London, designed by Ian Pollard and completed in 1987. Credit: Janet Hall / RIBA Collections

The organisations that drove (and still drive) the conservation world in the UK have their own anniversaries to celebrate. Grandparent of them all, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), was set up by William Morris and the architect Philip Webb in 1877 in the face of heavy-handed restoration and falsification of old fabric. It initiated and continues the urgent task of training generations of building professionals and craftspeople, and inspiring a wider public. As Morris put it, ‘We are only trustees for those who come after us.’ The dynamic organisation SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which began life by pumping out a press release a week during European Architectural Heritage Year (1975), still leads the campaigning pack, running neck and neck with the Twentieth Century Society (which, jesting apart, must soon alter its name). Innumerable bodies, special pleaders for typologies of buildings, for periods and styles, are proliferating in their wake.

The means by which news of a threat or bad decision is conveyed can be lightning fast – and is getting faster. Social media has proved a good friend of heritage. At best it spreads the word, speeds up campaigns, enlightens and informs. Consider the old days. The demise of the Firestone Building in Brentford at the hands of developer Trafalgar House occurred over a late summer bank holiday weekend at the very moment when the advice to list it had landed in the secretary of state’s in-tray.

Firestone tyre factory, Brentford, designed by Wallis Gilbert & Partners and photographed in 1929, the year of its completion.
Firestone tyre factory, Brentford, designed by Wallis Gilbert & Partners and photographed in 1929, the year of its completion. Credit: RIBA Collections

By coincidence, I was photographing it for a book about the delights of outer London. I stood on the central reservation of the Great West Road, also known as the ‘Golden Mile’ due to its rich crop of Art Deco factories, largely American firms serving the motor industry. The relative lack of traffic on a public holiday was as helpful to the demolition crews as it was to me. Uninterruptedly, balls swinging on chains were systematically shattering the outstanding feature of the front elevation, a wealth of coloured ceramic detail. I tried to photograph what I could from across the road and ran to a phone box, my films in hand. Feeding in coins frantically, I rang the Sunday Times for whom I occasionally worked. ‘Oh no,’ said the woman on the switchboard. ‘Too late, the paper’s gone to bed.’ It was 4.30 pm, and centuries ago.

My memory is a kind of draughtboard of what went, what stayed, or even what was not to be. There was no more gripping saga than the developer Peter Palumbo’s dogged desire for a towering office block designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Mansion House Square. Even if the tower in question was a somewhat jaded modernist reissue, the fight went to the wire. Tenacious Lord Palumbo did get a notable building, but it was to be the ingenious wedge-shaped post-modern block designed by James Stirling. Listed since 2016, to see off proposed alterations, No. 1 Poultry offers a kind of cheeky prow, a vessel heading into the choppy waters of the City of London. It was completed five years after its architect’s death. By then, few except the die-hards remembered the quaint, busy little row of commercial premises and chambers that Palumbo demolished, and that had provoked the argument in the first place. The complexities and contradictions, the switchbacks and new concerns that are knotted around contemporary cases would have dizzied the original members of The London Society, wedded to their near-certainties about what must go and what must stay, what counted and what was of no consequence.

As the decades pass, the listings jungle becomes ever denser. At one extreme is the gloriously extrovert Lloyd’s Building (with its weird transplanted Georgian boardroom within) – which received a grade I listing at the very edge of the time limit for such protection – and, at the other, Conservation Areas (introduced from 1967 onwards), which argue for overall character and sustaining the general scene, rather than the particular and the outstanding.

Where the financial stakes are highest, as in the City of London, the freedom to develop – and then redevelop – is fiercely guarded. Only one third of the City area is designated within Conservation Areas, but ways emerged to circumvent that irritating restriction. Across London, and particularly where land values are highest, stupendous and hugely costly engineering work has produced a series of Potemkin villages, mere facades behind which anything goes. What began as a trickle is now a flood, while submitted applications waffle about ‘sense of place’, ‘context’ and buildings ‘in keeping’ to placate planners and their almost-extinct colleagues, conservation officers. The weasel words may change but pressures mount inexorably along with property values.

The future of heritage is, inevitably, bound to be cyclical, and its fortunes dictated by anything from world events to local politics. Much of the shape of the capital is dictated from a distance, with speculative funders often on the other side of the world – or operating entirely out of sight. Battersea Power Station has a new mixed-use life (its chimneys all new) thanks to a Malaysian conglomerate. Compare that to the battle for Covent Garden market in the 1970s, an impassioned affair in which, eventually, the Greater London Council and a benevolent Conservative minister (Geoffrey Rippon) saw sense. Thirty or so years on, at King’s Cross, the well-calibrated cross-fertilization between muscular retained and adapted warehouses, sophisticated landscape design and strong new architecture has worked well – even with the sceptics.

Wilkinson Eyre’s conversion of gasholders into apartment buildings is among numerous examples of successful adaptive reuse in Argent’s redevelopment of former railway lands at King’s Cross.
Wilkinson Eyre’s conversion of gasholders into apartment buildings is among numerous examples of successful adaptive reuse in Argent’s redevelopment of former railway lands at King’s Cross. Credit: Chris Hopkinson / Chromaphotography

But what of a future forged in straitened economic circumstances? The first moves against a pig-headed Liverpool Street station development by the developers of the Shard, including Network Rail, have been a flurry of listings. The successfully upgraded 1980s station thoroughfare and canopies needed protection, while the Great Eastern Hotel deserved upgraded listing. The architect Herzog & de Meuron has proposed a crude airship full of offices, shops and a replacement hotel floating high above the station roofs. Those of us with long memories can recall that dreaded old chestnut, the exploitation of air rights for lucrative development, as rolled out in Manhattan in the 1970s. Here we go again.

Now fleet-footed, savvy conservation players must learn new skills. The store of unused buildings, starting on the high street and spilling out to the furthest limits of London, offers innumerable opportunities for conversion and repurposing, whether for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) or social enterprises, smart new businesses or refocused old ones. Something is stirring. Even if a building is unlisted, as in the case of the Marks & Spencer store on Oxford Street, which SAVE made a cause célèbre by fighting against its wasteful demolition at a public inquiry, there are persuasive, if complex, arguments in play.

These touch on every aspect of our attitude to the immediate future as they do to our recent past. Ideas need to be inverted, comparisons made, certainties queried. Future heritage will hinge on taking stock, evaluating, while carefully testing, what is, and is not, viable. Looking ahead, listed buildings and Conservation Areas offer no more than brief breathing spaces and a little more time in which to prepare for action. The future is, in many ways, a question of looking backwards hard and quizzically.

Heritage specialists, from Historic England to the full range of amenity societies and pressure groups, with their professional advisers standing by, are becoming more informed and materially intelligent, learning innovative ways. It is a wide canvas, too. Conservation policy applied to public housing – even enormous, ageing schemes such as Arnold Circus in Bethnal Green, Churchill Gardens in Pimlico or Alexandra Road in Camden – makes it clear that listed heritage is not simply the stuff of esoteric or academic special interest but also socially and politically embedded.

The future of heritage in London is, put simply, effectively the future of London. Conservation ideals must meet construction standards while construction confronts environmental sustainability in all its dizzying complexity. These are urgent times, and surviving buildings – a resource of great value – must adapt or be gone. And, don’t forget, what takes their place may well become another tranche of heritage.

Gillian Darley is a widely published writer and architectural historian.

Essay taken from London of the Future (Merrell Publishers and The London Society, £40). Available from RIBA Books