English Heritage listing failure will cost us all
In May of this year I wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with a reasoned description, asking that the Chamber of Commerce be considered for listing. I also wrote to Birmingham objecting to planning applications that necessitated the demolition of the building to allow substantial new development. No replies were received from Birmingham, but a reply has been received from the DCMS. I was advised that, based on English Heritage's inspectors' report, the Chamber of Commerce, by architect John Madin, would not be listed (AJ 23.9.04).
The assessment of EH's inspectors and its decision on the Chamber of Commerce are very disturbing. The building is an extremely good example of the best features of 1950s architecture, while its relationship to its site and surroundings is commendable urban planning and civic design. The architectural language is reminiscent of the enthusiasms of post-war architecture and the Festival of Britain, as well as the rebuilding of Europe. It is a building set in landscape, sensitively modelled, respecting the Calthorpe Estate's Victorian and Edwardian villas;
carefully sited to relate well to the two adjacent roads, such that it provides a good 'statement' at the approach to Birmingham's central zone. It seems that the significance of the urban design, its landscaped setting, its scale and relationship to the Calthorpe Estate are not considered as part of the rationale for listing.
In their argument for the refusal to list this remarkable building, the inspectors' reasoning is that although it is a building of significance, and having retained several of the really important rooms within it as well as a John Piper mural, there are changes to the interior;
in summary, alterations to several standard office floors, removal of two staircases, and an 'overhaul' of the interior of a bank. There are relative minor changes to a roof extension, and what was an open area linking the two parts of the building has been glazed.
These are said to constitute 'substantial' changes to the building, - so substantial as to ensure that it cannot be listed. The detailed design of the curtain walling of the office block, external staircase and the detailing of the lower block are not in themselves of sufficient merit.
In my opinion, the overall integrity of the building remains.
The inspectors' case ignores, or reduces to insignificance, the features and qualities of that which do exist, along with its setting.
To condemn the 1950s building (completed in 1960-61) because there have been changes to parts of the interior is to lose sight of the significance of the whole.
Often older buildings are put forward and have been listed because of what does exist - a substantial portion being regarded as important, while existing alterations or changes from the original might either at some time be restored, or are regarded as having historical significance.
EH inspectors imply, in this case, that a 'post-war' building must be totally as original - 'preserved in aspic' - if it is to be listed. The tragedy overshadowing the Chamber of Commerce is that there is a planning application for demolition and greater development of the site.
This is seen by Birmingham authorities as constructive and progressive. EH, by not supporting the case for listing, by default supports the loss of our more recent 'heritage'. The inspectors' criteria are questionable and, I believe, unacceptably narrow and blinkered. Where, I ask, is there a similar piece of quality '50s architecture and civic design ?
If the Chamber of Commerce is demolished, it is the majority who are the losers, while a very small minority gain. It would be a loss not only for Birmingham's heritage but, much more importantly, for UK's architectural heritage. It should not be allowed to happen but I fear that there is little hope given the current attitudes.
Tom Ball, London SW1