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Catherine Croft: 'We are expecting heckling at our Pomo conference'

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The director of the 20th Century Society on why Postmodernism has replaced Brutalism as the architectural style we love to hate

As yet no Postmodern building in England has been listed, and several of the best have been rejected. While Brutalism now has an established cool factor, and plenty fans on social media to prove it, Postmodern is the new style that is OK to despise, and that seems to hold as true for architects as the general population.

I think this lack of appreciation is a convenient factor helping to give DCMS ministers (who get the final say) the confidence to overrule expert advice and turn down buildings including Broadgate (the parts by Peter Foggo, opened in 1985) and James Stirling’s Number One Poultry. They have done this despite strongly reasoned arguments - endorsed by their own advisers, Historic England - that these buildings are (or sadly were, in the case of Broadgate) of outstanding architectural and historic interest.

poultry Stirling

poultry Stirling

It’s to address the lack of appreciation for Pomo that the Twentieth Century Society has organised a conference on 21 May, bringing together historians and practitioners including Charles Jencks, Terry Farrell and Piers Gough. We are expecting some heckling.

The Brutalist causes célèbres have been largely public buildings (Preston bus station, Birmingham Central Library and the Southbank Centre), and were turned down for listing by New Labour, perhaps uncomfortable with what is increasingly seen as the heroic built evidence of the idealism of post-war socialism. The stars of Postmodernism are often commercial buildings, built with the primary objective of private profit rather than public benefit, and it falls to today’s Conservative government to pass judgement on them.

Should the fact that they are commercial buildings make a difference? Should we regard them as intrinsically less culturally interesting as a result? Or have more sympathy for their private owners’ desires to retain autonomy over decisions about their future?

Postmodern buildings are not just relics of Thatcherism - they are genuinely good architecture

I say, definitely not. Some commercial buildings are cheaply built with little regard for quality, but both Broadgate and Number One Poultry demonstrate an extraordinary passion and commitment to good architecture – other Postmodern buildings do so too. While financial concerns are not legally permitted to have any impact on listing decisions, it’s difficult not to believe that strong lobbying against listing from building owners, worried by the potential financial penalties of restricting alterations or redevelopment, has been listened to sympathetically.

Buildings are listed for ’architectural or historic interest’: note that ’interest’ not ’quality’ is citied. I think that the best Postmodern buildings are not just interesting relics of the years of Thatcherism, but genuinely good architecture. Looking back to the 1930s, would we want to just have just kept examples of ‘good’ Modernism? Surely our streets are richer for retaining Art Deco cinemas and shop fronts, revivalist pubs and churches, and an enormous number of buildings which combine a rich mix of influences. 

DCMS has a duty to ensure that future generations will be able to read complex stories in our built environment: we led the world in our listing of post-war social housing – now we need to show the same intellectual rigour with our assessment of Postmodernism.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I'm astonished to see Broadgate described as Postmodern. It was a straightforward modernist project with good public spaces. Peter Foggo would have been horrified at being grouped with buildings like No 1 Poultry; his inspiration was the work of Mies van der Rohe amongst others.

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  • This debate is yet another evocation of the dictum that 'one can never truly judge a building until it is thirty years old'. I have quoted this many times, and always believed it to have been said by Alvaar Alto. But I've never managed to prove it. Anyone out there know? It does make perfect sense though. Art Deco, Modernism, Brutalism - they were all re-appraised after 30 years or so. Buildings are rarely listed until they have been up for 30 years. Not sure why the 30 years rule should work so well but it does.

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  • For Simon Inglis - How do you view the '30 years rule' in the case of Peter Foggo's work of 1985 in Broadgate, demolished (by my arithmetic) just before it was old enough to be re-appraised, for its architectural merit to be judged?
    Arguably a fine building of its time in anyone's book, It's gone, and not only does its short life raise questions about the '30 years rule', surely its destruction makes a nonsense of the current drive for sustainability and conservation of energy and materials.

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