Thursday, 20 August 2015

The post-war listing lottery

The listing of post-war buildings is a tricky business, and although everyone involved has to maintain that the process is entirely objective, in fact there is an element of arbitrariness to what ends up listed and what does not.

The group of post-war commercial buildings that were listed recently, for example, was a pretty good set of choices in my view; but I or any other architect or architectural historian making the final cut from the published long list would inevitably have come up with a slightly different set.

The closer one is to the present, the less there is likely to be a settled view or consensus concerning what is worth keeping. It's true for almost anything. Robert McCrum in Sunday’s Observer, reflecting on his choices for the 100 best novels in English, wrote that

'these novels span about three centuries, roughly 1700 to 2000. Compiling a list for the first 100 years was relatively straightforward, from 1800 to 1900 progressively more difficult, and from 1900 to 2000 (my arbitrary cut-off) perilously close to impossible.'

- and those who wrote in to complain about his choices were for the most part concerned with the latter group.

It's just the same for the people responsible for listing at Historic England ('HE', as we must now learn to call what was the planning half of English Heritage - it's said that the people's choice for a new name, 'Past Caring', just failed to make the cut).

Property owners who are worried that a building might be listed can apply for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing (COI), which if granted guarantees that a building won't be listed for five years.

Applying for one of these is in effect the same as applying for a building to be listed, since it means asking the Secretary of State (who makes the decision, based on advice from HE) to decide whether or not a building should be listed.

Such is the lack of consensus about which post-war buildings are worth keeping that I was recently asked by a developer whether they should apply for a COI for a complete dog of a 1960s building that is as far from being listable as one could possibly imagine. When I asked why this was being considered, it became apparent that the view of the developer, on the basis of recent cases, was that pretty much any post war building might be listed.

I don't think Robin Hood Gardens (seen in the photo above) should be listed, but as an architect, I can understand the case being made that it should be. That isn't true of most people who are not architects - particularly those who, unlike many of its supporters I suspect, have actually been to see it.

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