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The listing system is broken

Southbank hayward b&w
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Why is the South Bank Centre so afraid of a listing system that allows so much damage be done to the best post-war architecture, wonders Barnabas Calder 

Statutory heritage protection is there to ensure that good architecture of any period is not lost to the greed or poor taste of its owners, and that excellent, important architecture is not destroyed while out of fashion, only to be mourned as the public wakes up to its forgotten qualities.

The aims are laudable. The system, it turns out, only works when everyone wants it to. The South Bank Centre, recently very well refurbished, has just been awarded another Certificate of Immunity from Listing. That a leading centre for the arts sees listing as something it wants to dodge is curious and worrying. Worse, though, is that the culture secretary, Matt Hancock, refused to list the South Bank Centre against the clear recommendations of his own advisers at Historic England as well as the experts at the Twentieth Century Society.

The decision was made even as the Heritage Lottery Fund paid for a wholehearted celebration of the building’s architecture and heritage. But Hancock feels it does not meet the criteria of significance for listing. Leading architectural historian Otto Saumarez Smith and I have offered to take Hancock on a tour of South Bank Centre to help him understand why serious opinion is unanimous on the need to list it, but we have had no reply.

Ernő Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Balfron Tower is being gutted, removing almost all the original fabric

What of those post-war buildings whose importance is so clear that ministers have followed Historic England’s advice and listed them (only 0.2 per cent of all listed buildings when English Heritage last published a figure for it)? Even they are not safe, through the crass stupidity of local authorities who are supposed to uphold listings and the inaction or weakness of Historic England.

Behind a shroud of scaffolding, Ernő Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Balfron Tower is being gutted, removing (as it appears from an urban explorer’s recent film) almost all the original fabric other than structure and balcony fronts. The social tenants for whom it was built have been moved out and dispersed, and the new flats will be a different size and shape, aimed at an affluent market.

The Commonwealth Institute, also Grade II*-listed, is now mostly gone. Its interior, its side wing and its all-important landscape were destroyed because more money could be made by butchering it than saving it. The normally impressive Simon Thurley, former chief executive of English Heritage, surreally applauded this catastrophe as an example of forward-looking conservation, arguing in favour of ‘drastic interventions in 20th-century buildings’. His explanation? ‘These buildings are about ideas and other things.’

The Alton Estate in Roehampton, Britain’s most internationally admired Modernist landscape and estate of the immediate post-war years, is about to undergo extensive demolitions with intrusive overdevelopment to be squeezed into the gaps between its listed blocks.

Modernist buildings, then, are in trouble. Is it good news for anyone?

Well, the National Trust is sitting on a goldmine at Goldfinger’s Hampstead house, 2 Willow Road. It’s listed Grade II*, but as Balfron Tower, the Commonwealth Institute and Park Hill in Sheffield have shown, that only means keeping such parts of the concrete as you feel like leaving. Always looking to raise money for their other charitable activities, doesn’t the National Trust have a moral obligation to strip Willow Road to the frame, divide it into more profitable units, and shove some flats on top or in front? If recent listed building consents have taught us anything, it is that it is quaintly old-fashioned to keep a building’s original fabric merely because it is a very fine and internationally important example of 20th-century architecture.

Whatever its plans, it’s hard to see why South Bank Centre would be afraid of a listing system that lets so much damage be done to the best post-war architecture. 

Barnabas Calder is senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Liverpool, a trustee of the Twentieth Century Society, and author of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The old adage 'put your money where your mouth is' can surely be related to some of the problems of the listing system, whether it's a government minister ignoring the advice of the experts in favour of commercial and political expedience, and/or local authorities whose finances are being strangled by the same government in the name of austerity.
    Is it too far fetched to dream of a sovereign wealth fund specifically designed to ensure that there's no excuse for neglecting, butchering or destroying listed buildings?
    This wouldn't solve the problem of the ineptitude or partiality of some local authorities - and likewise, it would appear, of the so-called 'English Heritage' - but it would surely remove the widespread threats to listed buildings (and listing) on cost grounds, and could perhaps be largely or even completely self-financing over time.
    The National Trust for Scotland's 'Little houses Improvement Scheme' showed what can be achieved in this direction.

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