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Material factors

REVIEW: Preserving Post-War Heritage: The Care and Conservation of Mid-Twentieth Century Architecture Edited by Susan MacDonald. Donhead, 2001. 272pp. £37.50

Whatever happened to post-war listing? Not so long ago you couldn't move for it. Now there seems to be something of a deathly silence. . . or is it consensus?

The late Roderick Gradidge always prophesized doom and disaster on the subject of post-war listing.He saw it as the straw that would break the camel's back and bring the whole (ironically) post-war edifice of listing crashing to the ground.

While Gradidge may have been oblivious to the charm offensive of the post-war listing campaign, many were not. Looking back, it does seem remarkable that English Heritage was so successful.

There are now over 300 post-war buildings and sculptures listed and, if less noticeable than it once was, the programme continues.

An essential weapon of the battle to win hearts and minds was the media. Not only glossy magazine features on prefabs but conferences were instrumental in this, and now another set of conference papers has been added to the growing body of literature on 20th conservation generally and the post-war period specifically.

Sandwiched between two stimulating and thoughtful essays - one by Alan Powers, one by John Allan - are 14 focused papers by specialists in the field. In these there is a clear schism between philosophy and technology. On the second of these, several usefully discuss what we tend to think of as the ubiquitous material of twentieth century, and especially post-war, architecture - concrete; and one we don't - plastics.

On the latter, a stimulating contribution by Anthony Walker puts this work on a par with Jester and Bronson's pioneering American study on the subject of 20th century materials. Of the general essays, Martin O'Rourke's on the Lansbury Estate, Keeling House and Balfron Tower is also excellent.

However, the volume is not without its problems, which are chiefly definitional. The first is the title. Even my maths O level tells me that the post-war of the title isn't the same as the mid-century of the subtitle.

What period are we talking about here?

Some of the essays are properly referenced and have a good supporting bibliography, yet others are not, which limits their usefulness. Luckily this situation is saved somewhat by Michael Stratton's excellent bibliography at the end of the collection.

One of the distinguishing features of post-war buildings that many of the authors highlight is their treatment of space and the need to respect this over the traditional conservationist concern with materials. This strikes me as a rather tired claim. It also disregards attempts to save the spatial complexity of many old churches and country houses, and perhaps gives undue importance to the intentions of the designer.

To stress space over materials can encourage the demolition of original fabric. Thus we read (on page 83) that an early reinforced concrete structure of 1897 had 'debatable aesthetic merit'. However, it was still an early reinforced concrete structure of 1897, whatever its 'aesthetic merit'.

All this points to an issue at the heart of the book, and of the conservation of 20thcentury architecture generally, which this collection partly addresses but partly dodges. Is it different to the conservation of earlier structures? I would say no. This collection wants to say yes and no - even its editor is equivocal.

Indeed, closer examination reveals that the various authors cannot agree on quite simple matters, such as which was the first curtain-walled building. Perhaps this just shows how much work there is still to do on the subject. But it could also reflect Martin O'Rourke's claim that we are reluctant 'to recognise the values and achievements of our own culture'. Is there any 20th-century building which we would rebuild with the same care and attention that we lavished on Uppark? Answers on a postcard please.

Julian Holder is co-ordinator of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies

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