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Arguments for and against the Sandy Wilson delisting decision

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The delisting of Colin St John Wilson’s flats in Hereford Square, South Kensington, London, is back in the headlines – and is stirring up an even bigger hornets’ nest this time around

Last November, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) overturned its own decision to list the 1958 apartment block following a formal review of its status – a move kickstarted by the freeholder of the property.

In doing so, the department twice went against the recommendations of a ‘disappointed’ English Heritage, which thought the building worthy of its Grade-II listing.

Now, as the judicial review period for that decision ends and more details emerge about the delisting process, emotions are again running high.

Read the opposing stances here and make up your own mind about whether Wilson’s building should have had its heritage status removed.

CABE commissioner MJ Long, Wilson’s long-time friend and collaborator, sets out the pro-listing position:

Colin St John Wilson (Sandy) designed these flats with Arthur Baker not long after they left London County Council (LCC). They had worked together for some years on the maisonette type used on the flats at Bentham Road Estate in Hackney. The Hereford Square job was an opportunity to develop that maisonette type for a private client. 

I think it is a very interesting example of a particular moment in English post-war architecture, and that the quality of light and space are remarkable for small flats.

What troubles me reading the DCMS papers, however, is the extremely depressing picture it gives of the way the listing process can be manipulated. This building was twice backed by English Heritage for listing, with clear reasons given. It is also supported for listing by the Twentieth Century Society. 

The decision to delist was provoked by an ‘independent report’ carried out by planning consultant CGMS. I understand that CGMS is being paid by the ground landlord, who wants to modify the building. I will point out what I regard as the report’s most blatant misrepresentations:

The ‘award winning architect’ [understood to be the freeholder Gregory Mihalcheon] says that Sandy did not mention the Hereford Square building during his history/theory lectures at the Architectural Association. That is true: I have the lectures and they only marginally refer to any of Sandy’s own work. He also says that the building is not included in the practice profile of 1975. That is true: it was a profile of Colin St John Wilson & Associates, not set up until the 1960s. The flats are firmly included in the book about him published in 2007.

We are told that the other leaseholders are adamantly against listing, but I understand that the occupiers of Maisonette 6 are horrified at the delisting. It is also worth mentioning that their maisonette is original in every detail, and was not visited when delisting was being considered. They are also in possession of letters from neighbours horrified at delisting – the CGMS report only mentions neighbours on the other side of the argument.

Most disappointing of all, Arthur Baker is quoted as having said that he would have made the flats white if he had to do it again. He is angry at being completely misquoted on this and other subjects. Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios claims he was also misquoted and is now insisting that the quote attributed to him be removed from the papers.

The quality of the architectural argument throughout the papers is typified by calling the flats ‘pastiche’. Anyone who was alive and working in post-LCC London would know how wide of the mark that is. The report also seems to think that because the flats were built before Sandy’s interest in Alvar Aalto was fully developed, that reduces their interest. It is precisely the fascination of the LCC architects with Le Corbusier and L’Esprit Nouveau that that makes these flats interesting.

Lesley Webber, a property litigation partner at Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, outlines why the DCMS decision to delist was the right one:

The decision of the DCMS to delist a post-war building, against the advice of English Heritage, suggests that the government is keen to clarify the strict criteria and ensure that a high degree of selectivity is required for listing post-1950s buildings.

Located in a South Kensington conservation area, [the 1950s] Hereford Square designed by Colin St John Wilson, is surrounded by 19th-century terraces. The DCMS offered a formal review of its decision to list the building as Grade II against the background of the owner’s concerns as to the fairness of the procedure adopted by English Heritage. Following a careful consideration of further evidence submitted by both English Heritage and planning consultant CGMS, DCMS decided to remove the property from the statutory list. 

The decision letter provides a rare insight into DCMS’s thought process when considering the listing of post-war buildings, particular in relation to residential properties:

• Architectural interest
English Heritage argued that the building was ‘a good and early example of an influential architect’s work’, but it did not follow that all of Wilson’s buildings should be listed. DCMS made it very clear that assessment had to be made on the merits of the building itself, including the degree of intactness of design. In this case, a key factor was that the majority of flats and duplexes had been altered to such an extent that they no longer retained their original style, and in some cases, their internal arrangement of space. 

• The architect
DCMS considered both the reputation of the architect and the argument that he was not renowned for residential designs. The fact that the building was designed by Wilson was of some historical interest and his reputation for public buildings did not preclude a residential property from being listed.  

• The context of the building and group value
Despite the neighbourhood expressing its dislike of the building, the DCMS determined that the alleged negative impact of a building on its surrounding area was irrelevant provided the building satisfied at least one of the statutory listing criteria. In this situation, the DCMS did not consider the building should be assessed for listing in the context of its surroundings as it was not contemporaneously planned with the 19th-century terraces.

• Comparison with other buildings
It was argued that this building was not a outstanding example of other designs from the late 1950s. In this case, the evidence before DCMS was that the building did not satisfy the statutory listing criteria. However, the DCMS emphasised the fact that buildings should be listed on a case-by-case basis and comparison with other buildings was not a significant factor.

By testing the criteria applied, this decision has provided an extremely useful guide to the type of evidence and arguments that an owner or developer will need to produce in order to prevent or reverse a decision to list a modern building.

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