Friday, March 31

We trash our modernist heritage on a whim: why is Britain so in thrall to the wrecking ball? | Owen Hatherley

Chang is what happens to cities if they are not to become lifeless monuments to themselves. A living city has to strike some sort of balance between avoiding the strangulation and depopulation that happens when you keep everything, and the visual slurry that occurs if you let developers do what they like. That’s why Britain has listing systems, ensuring that the best of each era is saved from destruction. But this can cause some ironies – since the 1990s, scores of modernist buildings have been listed. These are often the very same buildings that the Victorian nostalgists who dominate local newspaper comment sections blame for ruining their towns.

The result has been a new tension between different notions of conservation. This is a tension that serves mainly to benefit property developers, who can make money both from new buildings, and as “saviours” of great modern buildings at the cost of destroying their original purely social purpose, as has happened in the privatization of London’s Keeling House or Sheffield’s Park Hill.

Hardline modern architecture is now something of a cult. There is a mini-industry of modern architecture tat – go into the shops of the Barbican or Southbank Center in London, the Baltic in Gateshead, the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry or the Modernist Society‘s specialist corner shop in Manchester, and you can buy an armful of tea towels, badges and mugs with British modernist buildings on them, as you could with Victorian buildings at their moment of rediscovery in the 1970s and 80s. No doubt brutalism will eventually have its own Beamish style “living museum”, too – the 1974 Camden town hall annexe opposite St Pancras was recently restored as a hotel that looks far more “70s” than the original building ever did. But there’s more here than just fashion: this rediscovery is also the result of a melancholic sense of lost civic purpose. In Birmingham, you can buy all kinds of merch featuring John Madin’s monumental brutalist library, but the building itself has been replaced with bland, private glass office blocks.

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‘John Madin’s brutalist library in Birmingham has been replaced with bland, private glass office blocks.’ Photograph: Images of Birmingham Premium/Alamy

Over the years I have spent compiling a gazetteer of modern buildings in Britain, I often found myself trying to catch up with the pace of demolition. Even between going to print and publication, some buildings were hit by the wrecking ball – Coventry Pointan aggressively sculptural tower by the unfortunate Madin; Freedom Housea bright and optimistic Festival of Britain-style design at the heart of the new town of Basildon; wrexham police station, a dramatically cantilevered brutalist tower; and the Dorman Long tower, a unique, monumental industrial landmark in Middlesbrough. Each of these was refused listing, except for the latter, which was listed then almost immediately demolished after the personal intervention of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who convinced Nadine Dorries to de-list the building in order to make the site cheaper to develop. Ominously, this was one of the first things Dorries did as culture secretary. The government has the power to de-list, but uses it very rarely.

So what is going on here? Obviously, the answer is profit – tax incentives make it much more lucrative to demolish rather than renovate. But a lot of the time, these demolitions are justified by a peculiar know-nothing local self-hatred, alongside a perverse desire to punish modern buildings for the demolitions that took place during the 1960s. Yet the replacements for controversial modern buildings seldom mean a restoration of the old, but much more often new modern buildings of much poorer quality and cheaper construction – witness Gateshead’s pitiful Trinity Square developmenton the site of the late Owen Luder’s spectacular, if derelict shopping center and Get Carter car park.

'Owen Luder's spectacular, if derelict shopping center and Get Carter car park in Gateshead.'
‘Owen Luder’s spectacular, if derelict shopping center and Get Carter car park in Gateshead.’ Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

There is also, as with almost everything in Britain, a mobilization of class language to bolster vested interests. Coventry’s civic fathers, trying their best to flog their now extensively protected city center to developers, lament poshos coming up there and trying to list their horrible buildings. The opposition from many quarters to the proposed demolition of the megastructural town center in Cumbernauld new town in North Lanarkshire is seen by some as the glamorization of an architectural failure by people who don’t have to live with the buildings in question.

This is a red herring. Opinion in most towns is starkly divided on modern architecture, but practically everywhere has a band of fiercely local, enthusiastic campaigners for the concrete bus stationthe modernist mosaic or the high-rise housing estate. Sometimes, though, it’s really true that the building enthusiasts are praising can look like it’s beyond help. Cumbernauld has some well-looked-after and superb modernist housing, churches and schools, but the town centre, once celebrated and emulated from Toronto to Tokyo, is undoubtedly sad and stricken. That doesn’t mean the solution is to replace it with to miserable “hub” that would be unworthy of an out-of-town retail park, let alone as the central building for an entire town.

What we need is a more serious conversation about ownership and preservation. The precincts of central Coventry, Freedom House in Basildon, or Cumbernauld town center were built as multifunctional civic spaces and were owned by the local authority – sell-offs in the 1980s meant that they were run solely as malls, a function for which they were ill-suited. Ironically, North Lanarkshire is buying Cumbernauld town center – but, as things stand, solely so they can demolish it. However, the purchase offers a chance to restore the building to something like its original civic purpose. Here, the problem is not just one of architectural fashion, but also a lack of social imagination.

The listing system is a blunt instrument, and Cumbernauld town center is far too altered to be listable. But it could benefit immensely from the sort of socially imaginative reinvention happening to the very similar Sewoon Sangga megastructure in Seoul, where, as in Cumbernauld, the local authority took control of a controversial and dilapidated multifunctional shopping centre, housing block and factory complex, and had the city architect’s department add new spaces to it, from an urban farm on the roof to “maker” workshops on the walkways. They also gently restored the little that was left of the original 1960s building.

Much of the best work in contemporary architecture comes from working critically with the civic architecture of the mid-20th century, rather than demolishing it or fetishizing it. So, for instance, rather than demolishing towers like College Bank flats in Rochdale, we could be both renovating and extending badly needed public housing, as at the Grand Parc in Bordeaux. We could have both change and conservation, if only we’d move on from the childish game where one side shouts “icon!” and the other “eyesore!”

  • Owen Hatherley is an author and the culture editor of Tribune. His latest book by him, Modern Buildings in Britain, is published on 7 April

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