In Heavenly Mansions, published in 1947, John Summerson warned that state preservation could descend into 'inglorious fetishism' and that 'a building preserved by the state for the nation inevitably becomes an object of prestige, and prestige is a terribly potent anaesthetic where the arts are concerned'. While the state should be 'prompt, firm and open-handed in support of proven causes', it should also be 'reluctant and critical, subject always to rather angry pressure from below'. In short, preservation by legislation should be subject to constant review.
The argument is not without its faults.
Buildings go in and out of fashion; current generations profess an appreciation for buildings which our grandparents were happy to see disappear. Summerson himself argued strongly for the preservation of the Georgian architecture that previous generations had seen fit to destroy.
But for Summerson, 'tiresome breakages' were an acceptable price to pay for a 'live preservation policy' which continually evolves though intelligent debate.
The planned overhaul of the listing system (see page 9) is an opportunity to re-examine what we consider to be important and our reasons for this belief. The most straightforward way to smooth the transition to a streamlined system without the 'in between' listing category of Grade II* would be to automatically upgrade the affected properties to Grade I. The brave, and most intelligent strategy, would be to subject buildings in every category to a reappraisal of their worth. The inevitable controversy would be what Summerson describes as 'the testing ground of good faith and of the lively, insistent interest in architecture without which preservation is sterile'.
Not that he was always quite so in tune with modern sensibilities. His primary gripe against unwanted buildings was that 'like divorced wives, they cost money to maintain. They are dreadfully in the way'.