Monday, 10 February 2014

Still waiting for the modern world

Saturday's Guardian profile of EH boss Simon 'It's absolute nonsense to say that I'm a fogey!' Thurley notes that his new book The Building of England has been criticised for ending at 1940, and cites The Times's Richard Morrison's claim that 'he stops his survey after 1930...but most of us live and work in an England built since then.'

Which made me wonder whether (depending on who the 'us' in 'most of us' might be) the latter claim is in fact true.

There must be a date such that half the buildings in the country were built before that year, and half after.  What is that date?  Quite a lot was built during the 1930s - for example major suburban extensions to many towns and cities - and my guess is that the answer lies around 1930-1940 - certainly a significant amount of the country's building stock is from the interwar period.

But there are many places where you see very few buildings built since the Second World War; and many small towns and villages where little has been built since the nineteenth century.  You can travel for many miles through much of England and see nothing built in your lifetime.  In such places, anything new comes as a surprise.

A 1930s building such as Peter Jones in Sloane Square (pictured above) might, according to my estimate, sit in around the fiftieth percentile of buildings by age.  But it still looks strikingly 'modern', and would be described as such by many (and might still struggle to find favour with Kensington and Chelsea's planning committee if put forward as a new project today - too big, out of character with its heritage setting, untested young architect, monotonous curtain walling, surely Chelsea deserves better than this drone drone etc etc).

The proportion of buildings in most parts of the metropolis, let alone elsewhere, that look 'modern', is still very small.   To architects, designing a 'modern' building is to conform to a model that has existed for about a hundred years or so; but to civilians, such buildings are still not seen as the norm, because the pace of change is so slow; and 'modernism' is still seen by many as a foreign import, as it has been ever since it appeared.  Classicism was a foreign import too, but like the Normans and then the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, it has been around long enough to have been accepted. Modernist projects today can find themselves subject to the xenophobic, or worse, 'you're not from round these parts, are you?' strain of thinking that can still be found all over England (admirers of John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) will recall the scene set in the Slaughtered Lamb).

But the pace of change in the world of 'heritage protection' has been quite different.  While the idea of listing postwar buildings was seen as pretty controversial only two or three decades ago, now almost anything built more than thirty years ago must be fretted over as a potential 'heritage asset' (neither word in this ghastly but cunning term was used in relation to old buildings a few decades ago - they were just old buildings, the best of which were listed).

There is very little evidence of popular interest in preserving postwar buildings - the attendees at an average Twentieth Century Society meeting are a bit, well, specialist - but then Georgian and Victorian architecture needing saving by zealots when it was under threat a few decades ago, and we can thank them that we still have St Pancras.  The problem is in keeping focussed on the good stuff, rather than objecting to the demolition of almost anything.  Conservation areas and listed buildings are meant - by law - to be 'special' .  If more than half of the country's building stock is, or is part of, a 'heritage asset', we are in danger of devaluing the whole thing (as paragraph 127 of the National Planning Policy Framework, for example, warns local authorities to avoid).  If it's 'modern' it might indeed be heritage; the corollary, in danger of being overlooked, is that if it's a bit old, it nevertheless might not be heritage.

The Guardian article considers these tensions between the old and new in 'heritage', and observes that Thurley, the 'ostensible English brutalism's greatest champion'.

In this country, planning judgments about design and heritage are made in theory on the basis of policies and guidance that their promulgators like to claim are rigorous and objective, but in practice are made up on the hoof and on the basis of whimsy, and not a great deal of knowledge or sound judgement.

It is in the area of 'coming to terms with the modern' - with which the English have been struggling for about 100 years - that this is most apparent of all.

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