When does a building cross the heritage time line?
English Heritage certainly has taken a new direction under its new management. Having stopped wasting £5 million on the wrong sort of public private partnerships, it now comm -issions public opinion polls to find out whether the public prefers its heritage artifacts before 1950 or after - as if conservation policy could be ordered up like a dish in a restaurant.Where there used to be meta-wisdom at work, consenting and refusing with all the exalted mystery of the selection of a new Pope, now it is down to poring over responses to challenging statements like, 'Nothing after 1950 counts as heritage'. Most respondents disagreed of course, but an even higher level of disagreement could have been achieved if the statement had been reversed - 'Nothing before 1950 counts as heritage.' That, give or take a few years, could probably be proved true in a court of law.
I have to declare an interest because once, a long time ago (but after 1950), I petitioned English Heritage to save a building on grounds of its historic importance. The building in question was the Reliance Controls factory - then called Spectrol Reliance - which was empty, vandalised, and awaiting demolition on a Swindon trading estate.
Reliance Controls was the last, biggest and best collaboration of Britain's two greatest architects of the 'nothing after 1950' period, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Reliance was brilliantly simple and brilliantly cheap. The two future lords, with Wendy Foster and Tony Hunt, came up with a welded steel frame consisting of only four elements: combined columns and crossheads; main beams; purlins and diagonal tension bracing. Clad in the same profiled steel on walls and roof it enclosed nearly 3,000m 2of flexible space for only £40/m 2, with no bricks or blocks or timber used anywhere. From the beginning it attracted praise and pilgrimage from all over the world. It was the winner of the first Financial Times Industrial Architecture Award, the assessors hailing it as 'a lost vernacular'. Alas it was a vernacular destined to be lost again after only 23 years.
The trouble was the people who liked the building were architects. The people who didn't were not. When BBC2's Late Show let me write and present a short film on the building's fate, Spectrol staff called it 'The biscuit tin', and the firm's managing director volunteered to 'push the button himself ' to blow it up.
He derided its windowless design (although Spectrol had removed the one fully glazed wall and replaced it with offices), because it got so hot that workers had to be given 'heat breaks'.
'Heat breaks!' he scoffed. 'Heat breaks in England!'
Nonetheless, on the basis of the building's historic importance, I appealed to English Heritage. Together with a camera crew I went to Fortress House to put the case to Peter White. He listened impassively, conceded that the building might have some interest as, 'an early attempt at extreme functionalism', and that was that. Six weeks later the acetylene cutters came in and Reliance Controls was gone.
Clearly a twentieth century factory is not a thirteenth century cathedral or a sixteenth century palace. It is by definition ephemeral, always becoming obsolete. If Reliance Controls had been saved, what could it have been turned into? A museum of potentiometer production, or a monument to 'extreme functionalism'?
Bathed in modern history as it was, perhaps Reliance Controls really had come to the end of the road. When it was torn down, its steelwork was taken away and melted down to make new buildings, so it did attain immortality of a kind, perhaps the only kind worth having in the 'after 1950'period, when everything really does count as heritage.