Concrete poetry

The Brutal Truth: when modernism gets historic

It is 25 years since postwar architecture first started to be recognised as “officially quite good, here and there”. 1987 was the year the system for designating and protecting valuable old buildings – the ‘listing’ process – was given an almighty kick. Any building more than 30 years old, and in extreme cases only ten years old, was from that moment eligible for the protection that listing provides – if, obviously, the building was good enough. Some found this shocking, even though the first one to be listed was the traditionalist Financial Times HQ in the City of London. That had been designed in the mid 1950s by Albert Richardson, an architect not averse to wearing knee-breeches and a periwig.

1987 was the height of Prince Charles’ throwback influence on architecture, with its premise that pretty much anything modern was rubbish. The anti-modernist rhetoric of the time often described concrete buildings, for instance, as ‘bunkers’ or ‘missile silos’, as if the material, rather than the architecture, was all that mattered. So there is a piquancy to the fact that 25 years on, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has recently authorised a clutch of new listings including (as well as a regional theatre and some sharp-edged housing) a couple of actual former nuclear missile silos and a motorway service station tower straight out of Thunderbirds.

The former Pennine Tower Restaurant on the north-bound side of Forton Service Area (now known as Lancaster Service Area), 1964-5, listed Grade II. Forton is one of the earliest and most striking examples of Post War motoring buildings (c) English Heritage

“They weren’t particularly controversial, I thought,” remarks Vaizey of his selection (nominated as they all are by English Heritage) when I catch up with him later. Nor were they. That’s how far we’ve come. It took a while, though. When the 1987 rule was first introduced, the minister in charge, Lord Elton, remarked that the ultimate test of the new system would be something unimaginable like – he groped for an example – a motorway service station. How we chuckled.

But then, in this very newspaper, in January 1994, I found myself writing this: “Forton Services on the M6 should be listed as architecturally and historically important, immediately.” My point was that it’s always the relatively recent past which is most in danger: that’s when you lose some real gems, before they become more widely appreciated. It had happened to Victorian architecture, then Art Deco architecture, and it was happening to modernist architecture and its heavyweight sidekick, concrete Brutalism. The Forton tower, by architects T.P. Bennett, is by no means great architecture but it is such a great landmark of its era. I described it then, trying to turn the anti- modern rhetoric around, as “as crude and confident as a missile base”. Well, nearly 19 years later it has finally got its recognition. You’re welcome.

Centrepoint_01aIn the meantime, so have plenty of other once unlikely candidates, like the mid 1960s Centre Point tower in London by Richard Seifert. Despised for years as brash commercial architecture, kept controversially empty as a tax dodge, C entre Point is now not only appreciated, but occupied and listed. Other previously derided or overlooked modern buildings such as the Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Barbican and T.U.C. building joined it. It’s not all London: the former British Gas Research Engineering Station in Killingworth, North Tyneside, by poetic modernists Ryder and Yates, joined the elite in 1997. It’s now council offices.

In 1991 came the first example of the ‘ten year rule’ in action: Norman Foster’s curvy black-glass Willis Corroon office building in Ipswich was not only listed, but listed Grade 1 – the highest. It had been designed and built in 1972-5. The decision was correct: this was a key building in the development of the mainly British style known as High Tech. Foster’s importance was already well known then, though his international renown was still in the future, and other key names of the period, including Sir Michael Hopkins of 2012 Velodrome fame, worked with him on it. Another of Foster’s celebrated former colleagues, Richard Rogers, had to wait a bit longer: it was not until 2011, when it was over 25, that his 1986 Lloyd’s of London building in the City was listed Grade 1.


Don’t run away with the idea that English Heritage is crazily nominating every half-decent historic-modernist pile in sight. After 25 years, there are still only 424 postwar listed buildings. That compares with some half a million from all periods. Some obvious candidates puzzlingly fail to make it, like the wondrously sculptural 1969 Preston Bus Station by Keith Ingham of architects BDP, with the Sydney Opera House engineers Arup. It’s a palace to public transport, is much-loved, and the local council seems determined to demolish it against strong opposition from many of its own townsfolk. In other cases, an anti-listing mechanism applies: it’s possible to apply for a ‘certificate of immunity against listing’ which lasts for five years. That’s what the sublimely Brutalist Hayward Gallery/Queen Elizabeth Hall complex on London’s South Bank has got. Now, OBVIOUSLY that complex should be listed, as the very gamey meat in the sandwich between the listed Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre. It’s unique. It’s still ugly to most eyes, as Victoriana was once routinely described as ugly, but in this case ugly is also interesting and characterful. The reason is this: the South Bank Centre is about to refurbish and alter that part of its complex. They have good architects, Fielden Clegg Bradley. One hopes that enough of the original will survive the process, as happened with the 1951 Royal Festival Hall when it was very well altered in the mid 1960s.

For minister Vaizey, there’s no problem at all with this period. “Buildings of the 50s, 60s and 70s are now coming into their maturity. To a certain extent they have stood the test of time, “ he told me. “It’s impossible to say that there’s a coherent view of them, and there are difficulties sometimes, but I certainly think we shouldn’t shy away from them, listing them where it is appropriate.”

Ed_VaizeyVaizey is one of your cultured politicians – he cites growing up in the house of his art-critic mother Marina Vaizey, once of this paper, as a key influence, and as a lad helped out with the annual “Open House” architecture tours in London. Being responsible for architecture in his portfolio comes naturally to him (“I’m a fan of contemporary and good architecture”): he talks of being impressed by some of the better recent schools and hospitals, as well as more obvious examples such as the Lloyd’s building and the Olympic Velodrome.

“One of the reasons we value our heritage is that it tells us a story, the story of our nation and our culture over the years,” he says. “It would be a very sad thing is this generation didn’t leave behind its own imprint of what’s regarded as high quality architecture and design.”

His handling of this latest batch of listing nominations was greeted with warm approval by the modern-conservation lobby. They’re very kind, he purrs. But he agrees it’s an age-related matter in more ways than one: what may be hideous to the oldies is often seen very differently by those who come after. “My generation embraces a lot of these buildings as statements of their identity,” Vaizey concludes. “I think that’s great.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. Longer version of the piece first published in The Sunday Times, 25 November 2012. Photo credits: Preston Bus Station ©; South Bank Centre and Centre Point © Hugh Pearman, portrait of Ed Vaizey © DCMS, others © English Heritage.

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