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English Heritage is sometimes its own worst enemy

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Why has so little post-war office architecture been listed? wonders Paul Finch

Thousands of offices have been built in the UK since 1945, yet in the English Heritage (EH) exercise to identify examples that might be worth listing, only 14 such buildings have made the grade. Rarely has a dominant building type been so under-represented in the canon of what we think of as significant architecture.

When it comes to the listing of contemporary architecture, EH is always on the careful side. Easier to come to judgement about the 18th century than the latter half of the 20th. There can be political sensitivities about imminent redevelopment, or substantial retrofit, that make the inspectors reluctant to impose what might be seen as anti-commercial protection.

That said, 14 still seems an extraordinarily low number – unless you subscribe to the view that commercial architects were far worse than ‘good’ architects in the decades following the end of the Second World War, before architects such as Foster and Rogers crashed through the cultural sound barrier that had meant an office building was bound to be worse than a school, hospital or gallery.

Younger readers may think this is an exaggeration, but one example will show how real that barrier was: in the early 1980s when Stuart Lipton asked Arup Associates to design what would become the first phase of the Broadgate development on the edge of the City of London, a main board meeting was held to discuss whether the architect wished to work for a commercial developer, as opposed to a user-client. How times change.

The furious row over whether or not other parts of Broadgate should be listed – or whether Make’s headquarters for UBS should replace them with a large single building – showed the dilemmas facing the listers. On the one hand the Arup buildings, designed by Peter Foggo, were very much of their time, showing what the planners liked to see in terms of materials, for example; not necessarily timeless architecture. On the other hand, it is precisely because they were representative of their period that a case for listing could be made.

Which brings us to a problem largely of EH’s own making. In principle, listing a building does not mean it cannot be demolished. But that principle has been undermined by a working assumption that in the case of Grade I or Grade II*, demolition is more or less impossible, and for anything else it is extremely difficult.

That means that rather than acknowledge a building is of architectural and/or historic interest but could nevertheless be a candidate for demolition or change, you conduct a litmus test that results in either total protection or total abandonment. This is aided and abetted by zealots in conservation groups who want everything covered by their organisation’s special interest area to be listed automatically. It dilutes the degree to which they are taken seriously, and pushes people into uncomfortable philosophical corners.

Talking of which, the question of alteration has loomed its head in relation to office listings. The belief seems to be that anything that has been altered has somehow lost its purity and therefore is not worthy. You might have thought that an office building capable of adaptation might be evidence of thoughtful architecture. It won’t get you a listing, alas. So the old NatWest Tower (Tower 42) didn’t make the grade, though on historical grounds it certainly should have done. Colonel Seifert must be chuckling from his grave, since other offices by his practice made the cut, adding to the listing of Centre Point years ago. That building is now being converted into apartments, so lucky the listing came when it did. EH just hates alterations – even if they extend a building’s useful life for decades to come.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The last point aobut altearation and purity works as an interesting analogy to David Hume's metaphor for the non-existence of the self - that of a ship that has its componet parts gradaully replaced over time - when is the ship no longer the original ship?

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