The plight of the Commonwealth Institute (see page 14) is a reminder that the most simplistic platitudes occasionally turn out to be right.
1. Nobody seems to like it so it can't be any good. It is commonplace for great buildings to be reviled in their own time. But the Commonwealth Institute never managed to overcome the early indifference despite numerous attempts at reinvention, including two failed Lottery bids and one failed Millennium bid. Even its own project architect, Lord Roger Cunliffe, feels that it falls short of contemporary standards of health and safety, accessibility and energy use and has clearly had its day.
2. Iconic public buildings detract money from more pressing social needs. Occasionally it doesn't hurt to listen to this blanket justification for substandard government buildings. Even the most militant architectural custodian has to be affected by the institute's claim that the financial burden of owning a listed building directly undermines its attempts to provide funding for education for 75 million children from the world's poorest countries.
3. Good buildings don't leak. The odd technical hiccup is an inevitable side effect of architectural experiment. But the Commonwealth Institute didn't just leak when it opened. It leaked after its copper roof had been replaced, and has scarcely stopped leaking since.
The listing process can only remain culturally relevant if it is subject to constant review, and it may be that the Commonwealth Institute has simply had its day. But delisting is not to be undertaken lightly. The government's hasty volte face on this particular building's fate demonstrates a lofty disregard for procedure or for potential precedent. If it is the right decision, it appears that the government has fallen on it by chance. It may not have the appetite to rewrite all the rules, but it is perfectly willing to break them if they get in the way.