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Emily Gee: 'There's been a real shift in interest in post-war buildings'

Emily Gee, English Heritage’s head of designation, on why the organisation is eyeing up a raft of post-war office buildings for statutory protection

Why has English Heritage decided to start looking at post-war office buildings with a view to listing?
We’ve pioneered a tradition of understanding, protecting and celebrating the very best post-war buildings. Colleagues started this work in the 1990s. Soon after the law changed to allow the listing of any building over 30 years old. We’re now returning to this thematic approach, and commercial buildings were identified as a building type where particular clarity is required, partly because of the regular need for change.

Why are they being looked at separately from other post-war buildings?
Commercial offices are some of the most important and interesting buildings of this period. There were architectural developments like the arrival of skyscrapers, the best of which cut remarkable figures in our urban landscape. Emerging technologies and new ways of working also had an impact on design. Post-war offices often integrate art works into buildings with skill and panache. And some practices championed commercial architecture particularly well. We are exploring all these areas through the current project.

Will listing these office blocks hamper retrofitting and reuse?
We’re eager to cut down on needless control. We take great care at the time of listing to say which interiors are special and which are not, an approach illustrated by the listing of the Lloyd’s Building in 2011.

We’re eager to cut down on needless control

We are just finishing a project looking at the 30 or so post-war offices already listed. The majority of these have been changed with consent since they were first listed, some quite dramatically, which clearly shows that listing helps to enable characterful change – it isn’t the preservation order some think it to be.

Listing buildings means it is more difficult to redevelop them. Does economics play a part in the decision to list buildings?
The law requires that if a building meets the test of special interest, then the Secretary of State must list it. We cannot take factors such as economics into account. What we can do, however, is be really clear about what’s special and be utterly rigorous in our selection. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, expected to come into force this year, will allow us to legally define the extent of listing. This will also bring statutory heritage partnership agreements which will help with repeated consents, as well as a shared understanding of what matters about a building. And lastly, it will allow for Certificates of Immunity to be applied for at any time, which can help provide that certainty that developers understandably need. 

Ed Vaizey recently listed BDP's HQ for the Halifax building (opened 1974)

Ed Vaizey recently listed BDP’s HQ for the Halifax building (opened 1974)

How does the public view the listing of Modernist and post-war buildings in the UK?
There has been a real shift in interest and acceptance. As the media, art museums and popular culture show, the 1950s and ‘60s now have a mainstream appeal, and the 1970s and ‘80s are even now becoming interesting and hip (see Vaizey lists BDPs Halifax building). We have a duty to recognise what buildings have enduring quality from these periods  - even if we remember some of them being built - and most people are now intrigued, or even excited, rather than aghast when we do. The Twentieth Century Society has led the way in this area and English Heritage has an impressive publication record here too. All historic buildings were brand new once.

Is the current secretary of state more sympathetic to 20th century architecture than previous ministers?

All ministers know that Modern architecture is a particular issue to address and it’s fair to say that some ministers are perhaps keener than others. The Heritage Minister, Ed Vaizey, is on record as expressing his interest in this area and has made some really exciting listing decisions since coming into post, including most recently listing the Foster Associates Sainsbury Centre at UEA in Norwich at Grade II [and BDP’s Halifax headquarters see page 7].

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