Frozen in aspic, suspended in time. How often do we hear this about listed buildings?

Bracken House, the first post-war listed building.
Bracken House, the first post-war listed building.

Listing is 70 next year. And we will pass a great milestone as well – the 400,000th ­entry on the National Heritage List for England, which Historic England curates for the DCMS. How is it faring in the 21st century?

Regulation is out of fashion; localism encourages a bottom-up, democratic approach. The experts don’t always agree either. So how does listing, decided by the secretary of state on HE’s recommendation, stand up? 

Listing was invented after the war to help decide what should be preserved when rebuilding blitzed cities. The need for clarity hasn’t diminished a jot. As the call for denser cities and increased house-building continues to rise, listing sets down the marker of what matters,and makes sure proposals respect the qualities that make a building special.

The best way to demonstrate that listed buildings can and do change is to go back to the first post-war building to be listed: Sir Albert Richardson’s Bracken House, in 1987. The ­Financial Times printing presses had ceased to roll, and the new Japanese owners wanted office space instead. Michael ­Hopkins scooped out the industrial innards of the 1950s building, and dropped in an immaculately detailed high tech pod. The City of London, the planning authority, granted listed building consent, and Richardson’s handsome highlight of the post-Blitz age found a new life. 

Listing as spoke in the wheel of progress? I don’t think so.

History is all about change, and listed buildings are no exception. 

When the Lloyd’s Building was listed grade I in 2011, the reaction was positive. The conservation battles over Edwin Cooper’s 1920s building were long in the past, and the world renown of the Richard Rogers Partnership design ensured extensive coverage for recognition of a high tech masterpiece. The listing went out of its way to state that one reason why it was of outstanding interest was its built-in flexibility. The last thing we wanted was to restrict this: so we entered discussions with the owner, RSHP and the City of London, to establish that listing wasn’t interested in freezing – it wanted to promote a way of allowing sympathetic change where that worked with the grain of the building. Listing as spoke in the wheel of progress? I don’t think so.

This is one reason why the old days of conservation versus modern architects are over. Architects know the buildings best, and can find solutions for the new demands that 21st century work patterns, or client expectations, place on earlier buildings. 

Few buildings are of the fame of Lloyd’s. For many, the jury is probably still out. But sometimes we cannot wait: such is the pressure on some sites that a listing assessment is needed so a planning application can be determined, and clarity provided to all. These pose challenges to Historic England, which is fortunate enough to have expertise in-house and without to call on. Take Broadgate, again in the City. Did Arup’s 1980s new financial quarter for Stuart Lipton, built on brownfield railway acres beside Liverpool Street, merit listing? We thought so, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport disagreed. Some of Peter Foggo’s subtle ranges survive, but the massy new block by Make has replaced much. One section of Foggo’s Broadgate – No 1 Finsbury Avenue – is now listed, and stands for the very best of post-Big Bang office building.

Listing is a DCMS call – it affects property rights, so an elected person should be responsible. It agrees with us 99.8% of the time: it is often the elusive 0.2% that makes headlines. 

Post-modernism always attracts notice. And Stirling Wilford’s Number One Poultry was no exception. Proposals for alteration prompted the call for listing – and we duly recommended it for grade II* listing. But DCMS felt that the intended changes didn’t constitute a threat, and so, under the ‘30 year rule’ which demands that there is just such a threat before younger buildings are considered, it wasn’t eligible. Po-mo splendours may be few and far between: but there can be no denying the enduring interest of John Outram’s pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, opened in 1988, and still resplendent in its symbolically laden temple of hygiene. Such buildings will be assessed in a thematic project next year.  Identifying the best of the recent past is one of HE’s responsibilities: to scope and weigh up candidates, persuade DCMS, and communicate their worth to owners with as much clarity as we can. 

We have no bias about building types. They just have to be, in the words of the Act, ‘special’ – or, for listing in the higher grades, ‘more than special’ or ‘outstanding’. We have listed buildings by Raymond Erith, as well as the Smithsons. There are some 378,000 listing entries in England, and a mere 0.2% of these, around 850, are for buildings and sculptures of the post-war period. That’s still a lot more than elsewhere in the world. Two of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s media buildings have been listed – the former Western Morning News premises outside Plymouth, and East India Dock, the former Times Printing Works in Docklands. 

Read their modern List entry, and you will see how listing has changed. Much more care is taken with explaining historic and architectural interest, and areas within a building are sometimes specifically excluded from protection: if something (service areas, say) doesn’t contribute to the significance or sensitivity of the building, why waste everyone’s time by insisting consent is sought to alter them? Everyone sees the sense in this. It helps challenge the stale myth that listing equals freezing. We need to go on reminding everyone that buildings need to live. There is a place for museums: but it isn’t on our streets, with our most exciting new buildings as the exhibits. As a septugenarian, listing is as vigorous as ever. 

Roger Bowdler is director of listing, Historic England