Modern Architecture and UK 30 Year and 10 Year Rules

The listing of 20th century buildings is a much bigger issue than the recently published consultative document suggests.

The following is the text of a Soapbox article published in Building Design 07 /10/05.

Photo: Alessandro Melis / Unsplash

The listing of 20th century buildings is a much bigger issue than the recently published consultative document suggests. Produced by the ODPM and dcms, it is concerned with ‘selection principles’ and the revision of PPG15, but gives only brief emphasis to the current listing of 20th century and recent modern buildings. The statistics for the listing of historic buildings bears out the lack of interest. There are now nearly half a million Listed Buildings but only 3% are post–1900,  a state of affairs that needs to be changed. The document sticks with the old ‘30 year rule’ for recently constructed buildings and thus significant landmark structures from 1975 onwards will only be considered if they are of ‘outstanding quality and under threat’ (my italics).

Slight improvements are made to the paragraph on the 30 year rule in PPG15. English Heritage – who are now in charge of all listing – also have in hand the selection of “exemplars” from a range of building types measured against “a standard” – whatever that means? There are less opportunities for listing however for any building less than 10 years old. It appears to be an almost impossible hurdle to jump and its use is considered to be ’extremely unlikely’ except for a building of ‘sufficient special architectural or historic interest’ which should open up some speculation on fashionable possibilities.

What buildings would you put forward for consideration? It would be fun to speculate on how buildings by Foster, Rogers or Hopkins might measure up to the new criteria? But firstly in dealing with such unique artefacts typological considerations need to be supplemented by a much wider discussion of issues including aspects of innovation, landmarking, aesthetics, shape, form and function, context, sustainability, and social identity. Also the question of ‘value’ is a significant factor particularly after the lessons of the recent mindless destruction of high blocks that were designed originally for a minimum 60 year life. Had they been transferred to the private sector they may well have achieved that age and follow the lead of Lasdun’s Bethnal Green flats. And what of projects such as Dunster’s Bedzed, a pioneer CO2 carbon neutral scheme and Peabody social housing and the UEA low energy housing by Rick Mather? There are other splendid, unique, innovative projects such as the Downland Gridshell and popularist projects worth considering such as the BA Eye, the Eden Centre, Tate Modern, the Lords Media Centre and possibly Erskine’s ARK which has had its threatening moments. But like the history of all architectural projects there will inevitably be a confusion of dates, first of commissioning and then completion. I doubt whether that issue has passed the minds of those drawing up this consultative document but perhaps a bone to throw at them could be The British Library, a saga in itself but an inevitable choice for listing in the future.

The listing of modern buildings – for protection, controlled change and cultural reasons – must never be seen as an ‘award’ or part of a competition system. That would be counter productive. It should be acknowledged however that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of change in values – technical and architectural – through globalization and education and via computer design (from 1992 on). Some of the emerging projects share an international ethos, a radically new approach to aesthetics and their future listing position cannot be wallpapered over as in this document. I also sense there is a generational gap in the wording of the document and a lack of recognition of the wide range of innovative and architecturally interesting buildings that have influenced and contributed to our current cultural climate. Such structures put EH and the ODPM’s persistent overemphasis on the historic – at the expense of the Modern – into a false perspective. Alter the rule – OK?

For more on Dennis Sharp, please visit Dennis Sharp Architects.

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