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C20 Society: Planning system fails 'most outstanding' Modernist buildings

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The Twentieth Century Society has criticised the planning system for ’failing to protect’ the nation’s best post-war buildings

The conservation group, which has published a 10-strong list of significant and recently demolished Modernist buildings, said that the failure to understand the needs, or recognise the historical importance, of post-war gems meant that more were likely to be bulldozed unnecessarily.

The organisation’s The Lost Modern List  includes a number of major now-flattened city centre landmarks, such as the ‘inverted ziggurat’ Birmingham Library by John Madin  and Chetwood Associates’ 1999 Sainsbury’s Greenwich Store which lasted just 17 years

Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, said: ‘Good 20th-century architecture is losing out to more easily understood building periods such as Victorian and Georgian when it comes to the increasing pressures for redevelopment.

’But these buildings are a valuable legacy which add to the richness of the fabric of our architectural heritage and the best examples should be safeguarded for future generations.

’Sadly this is just not happening. These buildings formed the background to our everyday lives and their absence will impoverish us all.’

On the 10-strong list are four London buildings, including Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens in east London, as well as outstanding Modernist buildings in Hampshire, Surrey, Portsmouth, Gateshead and Shropshire. 

Croft added: ‘The planning system is failing to protect some of our most outstanding buildings by the top architects of the post-war period. All buildings age and need sensitive care and adaptation.

‘Sadly the misconception that buildings constructed from modern materials like concrete and steel don’t need regular maintenance means that many neglected buildings are wrongly perceived as having failed, when all they need is modest refurbishment. Many of these lost buildings might have been saved through good management.’

The C20 Society’s citation: The Lost Modern List

1. Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets is regarded as one of post-war Britain’s most important social housing developments, designed by architects of international stature, husband and wife team Alison and Peter Smithson. The 1972 Brutalist housing complex comprising 213 flats built from precast concrete slabs is modelled on the ‘streets in the sky” concept. The Twentieth Century Society’s campaign to save the complex was supported by many high-profile and international architects including Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Demolition of the western block is expected to start any day now.

2. Firestone Building

The Firestone Building on the Great West Road in west London was a distinguished example of Art Deco, built for the American tyre manufacturer the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, by architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. The design was based on that of an Egyptian temple. Its demolition, just days after the developers were informed it was about to be listed, caused public outrage. It was the first serious case for the Twentieth Century Society and led to the Department of the Environment starting an ‘accelerated survey’ of listing, opening the lists to many more pre-1939 buildings.

3. Greenside

Greenside, built in 1937, near Ascot in Surrey, was a fine example of an early flat-roofed modern movement house, by Connell, Ward and Lucas, one of the most innovative firms of the decade. Despite its Grade II listing, it was demolished by its owner in 2003. The Twentieth Century Society successfully campaigned for his prosecution and he was convicted of a criminal offence, creating an important deterrent.

4. Birmingham Library

John Madin’s landmark ‘inverted ziggurat’ Birmingham Library was an outstanding example of post-war civic architecture and provided a powerful presence in Chamberlain Square alongside the Art Gallery and City Hall. The Twentieth Century Society considered the building Madin’s most important work and conducted a high-profile campaign to have the building listed, but despite support from Historic England, which twice recommended listing, the building was demolished in 2016, just 43 years after it opened.

5. Silhouette Corset Factory 

The Silhouette Corset Factory in Market Drayton, Shropshire, was a pioneering example of laminated timber engineering, designed between 1959-60 by architect Robert Townsend and structural engineer Hugh Tottenham, with input from Ove Arup and Partners. When the factory closed it became a supermarket, latterly owned by LIDL who wanted to replace it with a store of their own design. The Twentieth Century Society and others campaigned to save the building and on 2 August 2000, the very day it was set to be demolished, the factory was listed at Grade II. Despite support from Historic England, demolition was allowed to go ahead in 2002.

6. Sainsbury’s Greenwich Store

Sainsbury’s Greenwich Store, designed by Paul Hinkin at Chetwood Associates, represented a complete rethink of traditional supermarket design, with every aspect of the standard retail ‘shed’ reassessed to maximise energy efficiency, minimise environmental impact and make shopping more pleasant for customers. When it was opened in 1999 by Jamie Oliver, the Stirling Prize shortlisted building scored the highest ever official environmental rating for a retail building with a perfect 31 out of 31 points. The Twentieth Century Society fought to have the building listed at grade II*, but following Historic England’s recommendation that it was not good enough, the culture secretary decided to issue a certificate of immunity. The building was demolished in 2016 and is being replaced with an IKEA store.

7. The Tricorn Centre

The Tricorn Centre was a true landmark building for the naval city of Portsmouth. Designed by the Owen Luder Partnership, under the direction of architect Rodney Gordon. it comprised shops, flats, pubs, a market and multistorey car park. Completed in 1966, it was perhaps the most flamboyant of British Brutalist buildings. But it had its problems: the shopping centre was never connected to the main shopping street, meaning that the big chain stores chose not to move in. There was never a proper level of investment and the building fell into disrepair. The Twentieth Century Society fought but failed to get listing and eventually the building was demolished in 2004.

8. The Trinity Square Car Park & Shopping Centre

The Trinity Square Car Park & Shopping Centre in Gateshead was also built by the Owen Luder Partnership with Rodney Gordon as project architect and was closely modelled on the Tricorn Centre. Built between 1964 and 1969 from raw exposed concrete in the Brutalist style, it became an iconic cultural and architectural landmark, in part because it was from its roof that Michael Caine threw an enemy to his death in the 1970s gangster film Get Carter. The building was greatly neglected and left to dilapidation. Earmarked for redevelopment by Gateshead Council in the early 2000s, the Twentieth Century Society mounted a campaign to have the building listed. This proved unsuccessful and the building was demolished in 2010. A new scheme by Spenhill Developments which opened on the site in 2013 went on to be nominated for the Carbuncle Cup – the award for the worst new building in the UK.

9. Milton Court 

Milton Court was the first phase of London’s Barbican development, built as an island site connected to the residential development via a footbridge. It was designed in 1959 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who had first designed the Golden Lane Estate and then went on to build the Barbican. Comprising housing, a fire station, coroner’s court, mortuary, office of weights and measures and a civil defence school, it was an extremely important building in its own right, not just as a part of the already Grade II-listed Barbican complex. Against the advice of the Twentieth Century Society, Historic England, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and a multitude of protesters, including many Barbican residents, the government refused to list the building and it was demolished in 2008.

10. Horder House

Horder House in Hampshire was one of the first buildings by architect Ted Cullinan, who in 2008 won the UK’s most prestigious architectural award, the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. Praised as an ‘idiosyncratically English version of the glass-box-in-the-wood’, Horder House was intended as a composing studio for the architect’s uncle Mervyn Horder, and virtually self-built by Cullinan and a retired gardener. In 2005 the then owners received planning permission to demolish the house and replace it with a much larger dwelling. The Twentieth Century Society quickly stepped in and submitted an application for spot-listing, but this was turned down and the house was later demolished.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • All the more shameful in an age when there's so much talk of 'sustainability' - how much of this is sincere?
    And I wonder whether the enlightened minds of the Durham University establishment are still hell bent on adding their very fine Student's Union to this list, under the eyes of a disinterested government ?

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