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Martin Pawley: conservation lights the blue touchpaper

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The news that English Heritage officers have been working on a hit-list of highrise buildings for demolition seems to have dismayed a lot of people, even though the conservation movement has never made a secret of its loathing for the genre. As far as conservation organisations are concerned, St Paul's got there first and that's all there is to it. The English Heritage annual report sets the tone: 'The day-to-day challenge for all our staff is the too-ready acceptance of the mediocre and the banal, which represents the greatest threat to enhancement of the historic environment.'

But what is 'enhancement of the historic environment', and what is 'mediocre and banal'? Like Modernism, conservation is utterly ruthless and makes good use of propaganda. Its real business is not saving buildings but deciding which buildings not to save and why. To this question it brings the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition. There is no defence against it but conversion to the cause of the post-industrial cash register, powered by tourism, that it calls 'the historic environment'.

What this portends for London's remaining tall buildings is clear enough. Fatwas are under discussion for 12 of them, and local authorities all over the country are being urged to draw up their own lists of hundreds more. Among the 'mediocre and banal' London 12 are Sidney Kaye's 34storey Euston Tower and Andrew Renton's Orion House, two choices that exemplify the unhistorical thinking that is EH's hallmark. Far from being 'mediocre', Euston Tower is the greatest surviving product of the 1960s property boom, a building nicknamed 'Monopoly House' by its developer Joe Levy because of the immense profit it made. As late as last year it was under consideration for a dramatic overcladding in glass. Now it faces a bleak future.

Far from being 'banal', Orion House is historic too.

Called Thorn House before its overcladding, it was once the most elegant modern address in Central London. It was in the KMP offices in Thorn House that Michael Manton wrote The Architecture of Advertising , and there that Conrad Jameson schemed his intervention into the architectural profession. According to any conception of history less cashbound than the exit-through-gift-shop world of Fortress House, these buildings would be seen as the stuff of architectural history. Certainly neither can be called mediocre or banal.

But so be it. It is not my purpose here to argue that these or any other tall buildings should be saved for sentimental reasons. I merely mention a little of their history to show how the supposedly sensitive rule of conservation has become as brutal as the bulldozer in the post-war years.

Today it is the proud boast of EH that 'the people who take care of the past are the r ight peop le to take care of the future' .

What if that is right? Conservationists are rougher, tougher and more certain about architecture than any movement since the pioneer Moderns of the 1920s. Now they plan literally to sweep away everything that obstructs their totalitarian vision of the past.

You need a strong stomach to believe that they really are taking care of the future.

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