The Twentieth Century Society has compiled a list of 100 buildings – one for each of the past 100 years – to create a timeline that combines familiar classics with obscure gems, writes Catherine Croft
Contemporary architectural contests like the RIBA Stirling Prize controversially pit buildings of different scales, budgets and objectives against each other in an attempt to find the building of the year. But how do we identify the great buildings of the last century?
Despite the listing process’s attempts to be objective, it is even harder and more invidious to pick the ‘best’ buildings of the past. This, however, has been our challenge in compiling the content for our book and the accompanying Royal Academy exhibition, 100 buildings 100 Years: Views of British Architecture since 1914.
We wanted to use this project to underline the fact that the Twentieth Century Society is decidedly non-partisan when it comes to architectural style, and that there is more to the history of 20th-century British architecture than the adoption and subsequent rejection of Modernism.
So we set out to celebrate the sheer diversity and imagination of architecture of the last century. Our list looks beyond the headline-grabbing giants such as Preston Bus Station and Broadgate, highlighting some buildings we hope even architects will not be familiar with.
We asked our supporters to nominate a building for each year from 1914 onwards, producing a unique timeline of the last century, a project that began online and has now been published in book form. No building is labelled as ‘the best’ of any particular year – this is a crowd-sourced selection which is unashamedly subjective. Some of the buildings are very modest; a few are distinctively quirky. It was not an attempt to track the cutting edge of architectural taste, the development of technology, nor to chart a neatly subdivided decade-by-decade story of progress. We are showing a messy history, all the richer for the surprising juxtapositions and counterintuitive comparisons it throws up.
Unsurprisingly, it includes plenty of very familiar buildings, but also some very obscure ones. How many people know that Foster’s Gherkin has a neighbour designed by the father of modern Dutch architecture, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, and how many have seen its amazing terracotta interiors? I had seen the early 1920s housing at The Durlocks, Folkestone, in photographs, but had no idea that it still existed today in much the same form as when the scheme was originally commissioned.
The book is accompanied by an exhibition at the Royal Academy’s Architecture Space, and seeing the collection on the gallery walls provides a new perspective on the project. It’s only when you see them side-by-side that the soaring verticals of the National Theatre’s foyers echo the nave of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and one realises how closely in time these two very different buildings reached completion.
One can pull out a narrative about conservation successes and failures, from the Firestone factory by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners in Brentford to Connell, Ward and Lucas’ Greenside in Surrey (both demolished over weekends in 1980 and 2003 respectively to frustrate conservationists’ attempts at intervention) to current concerns. Surely it is madness that Paul Hinkin’s Sainsbury’s Greenwich eco-store faces demolition? The Renold Building by W Arthur Gibbon of Cruickshank and Seward on the UMIST campus in Manchester holds its own with famous listed buildings but, despite its mural by Victor Pasmore, it remains unprotected.
There are buildings here that have specific resonance for me personally. I am taken back to first encountering tactile concrete on childhood visits to the National Theatre, to interviewing Ted Cullinan at his Fountains Abbey visitor centre when we feared it was about to be insensitively altered, and to leading community Routemaster bus tours from Stockwell Bus Garage (and hearing everyone cheer as the bus swung in beneath that amazing roof as a finale).
Of course, there are gaps and regrets. But the fact that everybody will probably have a favourite building that has not been included just underlines what an amazing century it has been.
Catherine Croft is director of the Twentieth Century Society
100 Buildings 100 Years: Views of British Architecture since 1914
The Architecture Space, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1
Until February 1
100 Buildings, 100 Years by The Twentieth Century Society
Batsford, 208pp, £25. Published on 6 November
C20 Society selects a building for every year to mark centenary