Spirit of inquiry

An ever growing pile of buildings to catalogue and consider for listing keeps Elain Harwood, Historic England’s chief post war buildings investigator, busy – and enthralled

· Credit: Wilde Fry

As photo shoots go, this one begins badly. Elain Harwood, Historic England’s chief post war buildings investigator, has suggested Patrick Hodgkinson’s listed and renovated Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury as a backdrop. Fine – except that when we turn up, this being late August, an all-out seasonal downpour is in progress. Harwood dashes off to see if we can get into the dry at a friend’s flat, but no-one at home. Finally the newly-refurbished Curzon cinema, buried in the development’s plinth, comes to our rescue. Of course we can shoot in there, they say, bringing us free coffee as we settle into the anachronistic Bibendum armchairs. In compensation Ziggy Stardust, released the year (1972) the Brunswick Centre was completed, is playing on the sound system. Game on.

This is the period, says Harwood, that is now intriguing a new audience. Brutalism used to be the most niche of niche enthusiasms; now it is mainstream, especially for the rising generation. She’s just published a massive, 700 page book, 18 years in the making, Space, Hope and Brutalism – English Architecture 1945-1975, a fruit of her long career at the organisation formerly known as English Heritage (EH). It’s not the only fruit: from another publisher comes the third edition of an equally in-depth Harwood book, England’s Post-War Listed Buildings. There are more than 500 of them, on a further 600 pages. This is what has come of the programme first started by EH in the late 1980s, and Harwood has been key to the process throughout, there and through the 20th Century Society. She is a unique, largely self-taught, one-woman repository of knowledge on the subject.

It all started uncertainly, she reminds me. She’d studied history at Bristol at a time when Berthold Lubetkin – a local resident – was being rediscovered. ‘That’s where I first got interested in walking around and looking at buildings.’ Then it was on to the building conservation course at the AA, where she later taught the subject and so gravitated to a job at EH. Reading Lionel Esher’s A Broken Wave got her interested in the social-building programme of post war governments from the 1940s to the 1970s. After 1987, when post war buildings were first deemed eligible, EH put forward some 70 buildings for listing – and only 17 were accepted by the government of the day.

  • Before Foster and Rogers went high-tech, they built the Creekvean house in Cornwall as a mid-60s Team 4 project.
    Before Foster and Rogers went high-tech, they built the Creekvean house in Cornwall as a mid-60s Team 4 project. · Credit: Wilde Fry
  • Brutal but sweet: the Liverpool Sugar Silo by Tate and Lyle engineers, 1955-7.
    Brutal but sweet: the Liverpool Sugar Silo by Tate and Lyle engineers, 1955-7. · Credit: Wilde Fry

At that time – I remember it well – there was strong establishment resistance to ANY­THING newer than the 1930s being listed. People used to joke about motorway service stations being so recognised, as if this was an obvious impossibility. The first post war building to be protected in 1987, Sir Albert Richardson’s Bracken House offices and printworks for the Financial Times, was a stylistic throwback to the stripped-classical 1920s. As the 1990s dawned, so did a new approach. ‘After that initial rebuttal, Baroness Blatch – who must have been minister of state for about five minutes – said that we had to do the thing properly, and gave English Heritage some money to do it,’ says Harwood. This was when EH’s Postwar Steering Group was set up. ‘A whole raft of big studies were done. By the time they came to an end in 1996, I’d become the specialist – the listing inspector for post war – and it was up to me to write them all up. I thought I’d better start back at square one. But other things got in the way over the years.’

That writing-up – endlessly modified as the listings programme expanded – is now finally revealed in the form of Space, Hope and Brutalism. This too, however, is just a step along the way as Harwood (now senior architectural investigator at Historic England) and her colleagues are constantly undertaking new thematic studies which eventually yield new crops of listings – most recently libraries, which led to a grade 1 listing for Sandy Wilson’s long-in-the-making British Library at St Pancras. Earlier studies included churches, one-off houses and office buildings. Listing was especially useful for post war churches, she explains, as this allowed grants to be released for often much-needed repairs, and helped prevent some churches closing. But they were all Church of England: now a separate study is being done into their Roman Catholic equivalents.

· Credit: Wilde Fry

So it’s been a lumpy kind of process – given the resources available, everything can’t be considered all at the same time. On her to-do list are universities, New Towns, and then the buildings of the 1980s-1990s postmodern era. ‘Whatever you think about that architecture,’ she observes, ‘There was some very good town planning involved.’ Something else has changed over the years too: the perceived power of the designation. The first overtly modernist building of the era to be listed, the Brynmawr Rubber Factory of 1946-51 by Architects Co-Partnership, scarcely benefited from all the publicity and campaigning: despite its grade II* designation it stayed derelict for years and was finally (but for a few fragments) demolished in 2001.

Today, a listing designation is usually seen as salvation from looming demolition and its absence a death knell. Consider the saga of Preston Bus Station by Keith Ingham of BDP – finally listed after repeated attempts and now proposed for restoration and partial new use – as opposed to the council housing of Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar by the Smithsons, refused listing despite top-level support and now being prepared for the wrecking ball. It can seem very random, what gets saved and what doesn’t.

This brings us back to that sometimes knotty subject – the perception of brutalism. For Harwood, the change of mood goes back to the controversial demolition of two key buildings by the Owen Luder practice – the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and the Treaty Centre (better known as the ‘Get Carter’ carpark complex) in Gateshead. Once they were gone, observes Harwood, people began to regret their passing. At around the same time the World Monuments Fund suddenly sounded the alert about three endangered brutalist buildings – the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank, John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, and the Preston bus station. Well, the Birmingham Library is going the same way as Robin Hood Gardens but, says Harwood, the saving of Preston – listed by then architecture minister Ed Vaizey – was an important moment.

She’s now a PhD – done with her alma mater, Bristol – on the subject of the post war building of the South Bank complex. The books are her way of sharing the knowledge she’s gained, ‘putting back some of what I’ve taken out’ as she puts it. And there’s been one great satisfaction in dealing with this period in architecture. ‘Most of the original architects were still around. I met nearly all of them – just, they were dying off.’ She pauses, remembering Bristol, ‘Though I missed Lubetkin. And it would have been nice to have met some of the other Tectonites.’