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Modernism and German lessons in preservation

When it comes to preserving Modernism, Germany can teach us a lesson.

Can you have too much heritage? Developers and quite a lot of architects think so, but much depends on what you call heritage, and the constraints that you put around it. Protecting buildings limits many ‘freedoms’ – designation would otherwise be fairly useless. In Britain, listed buildings are overseen by a regime of many sticks and few carrots. English Heritage would doubtless love to dole out more funding, but as things are, in the words of the owner of a Patrick Gwynne house I once visited, ‘to be listed would be an honour but not a pleasure’.

At the top of the designation tree is the UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), of which there are around 850 around the globe. The title is mostly honorific, and normally in the developed world some prior national protection regime exists. WHS selection does make a big difference in countries without effective conservation codes, influencing governments and attracting tourism and investment. The sanctions for disobedience are weak, however, as we have recently seen in Liverpool, where threatened deletion from the WHS list of the Maritime and Mercantile City (2004) is unlikely to cause much pain.

The proposal to include 12 inter-war housing developments in Berlin on the WHS list has caused a stir in Germany, and highlights some interesting points about our own attitude to Modernist housing. The range of 12 estates includes projects by Bruno Taut Walter Gropius and others, some with pitched roofs and brick walls, some with Taut’s fanfares of colour and Gropius’ hygienic white finishes. As Lynsey Hanley wrote in the New Statesman about the proposal for WHS listing, ‘the settlements are worth preserving in order to remind a rapidly urbanising world that it is possible to plan well, to design thoughtfully, and to build soundly.’ The housing is already well protected; opposition from the conservative daily, Die Welt can be written off as sour grapes that the socialism of the Wiemar Republic, with its stipulation of a kitchen, bathroom and balcony for all, should be get an international status it already, de facto, possesses.

From an English perspective, the Berlin case highlights several inadequacies of our own stance on Modernist housing as heritage. We would be hard-pressed to find any UK housing scheme maintained to the quality of Gropius’ Berlin Siedlungen, other than those that have been privatised. Protection of the larger and more controversial housing estates under listing is very difficult politically. Alton Estate, Park Hill, Byker and Alexandra Road made the grade, but the idea of even assessing Robin Hood Gardens (AJ 27.09.07) prior to a potential demolition has again challenged the heritage and architectural communities to think clearly about the pros and cons of protecting housing. Conservation in the UK has been misleadingly framed in opposition to progress, and placed politically on the back foot. ‘Useful’ and ‘beautiful’ are words not permitted in a listing description, but they are the values that can justify resistance to thoughtless and opportunistic change.

Alan Powers is chairman of the Twentieth Century Society

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