How Old Should Heritage Be? Protecting the Not Yet Loved!

The reaction to the recent listing of a 1960’s Brutalist building ranged from ‘what an eyesore’ to ‘an exemplary restoration and reworking of a mid-century building’. This type of response is not surprising as the question of heritage will have a multitude of answers. A majority of replies will have common themes such as ’treasured’ or ‘important to the nation’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines heritage as ‘valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations’ and ‘relating to things of historic or cultural value that are worthy of preservation’. However, the American historian and geographer David Lowenthal once commented, ‘it is important to note there is a distinction between heritage and history’.

Andrew Howell BSc (Hons),
MSc, MCIOB

For many people, the word ‘heritage’ is probably synonymous with ‘history’: Lowenthal argued that heritage was not history, but rather what people choose from history to define themselves.

One issue on how our individual understanding of history is formed, is the way this subject is taught at school. That is to say, history is taught rather like a linear list with thick black lines ruled across it at given intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what is called a ‘period’, and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before. For example, pre-1066 England during the Saxon era, buildings were generally constructed simply using timber with thatch roofing; whereas after the Norman Conquest, buildings where constructed from carved stone and masonry rubble walls. The end of each period is almost like a clock striking, a binary on/off effect of completely different ages changing abruptly at the end of each period. In reality, this is not the case as architectural styles and building techniques criss-cross these imaginary boundaries or disappear completely, or maybe to reappear several centuries later.

The time from completion through to a building becoming a national treasure, has never been as compressed as it is for modern buildings. For instance, over the last hundred years each building design was popular for a relatively short period of time in comparison to previous eras. In the twentieth century, for example, we built using various architectural styles ranging from Art Deco, Bauhaus, Brutalism, High Tech, and Postmodern through to Contemporary. In previous centuries, each period of building style lasted a lot longer than presently, for example Medieval Gothic and Tudor styles. This time ‘compression’ of recent popular styles were partly assisted by the introduction of new cutting-edge technologies (such as no visible fixing glass cladding) and improvements of existing materials (for instance high strength concrete).

This, more so than ever, is where our past and present collide in building conservation and the established conventions on preservation are questioned. To illustrate this point, 25 years after construction of Richard Rogers’s hi-tech postmodern Lloyd’s building in London, this structure was granted Grade I listing status. One of the reasons given for the listing of the Lloyds building was the importance to conserve modern buildings of architectural and historical significance. However, many important twentieth-century buildings remain unprotected, vulnerable to being lost forever or even altered beyond recognition.

Generally, iconic modern buildings are considered too ‘new’ to list, with some critics using the argument that ‘there is so much of it around’’ or more simply ‘we don’t like it’. As an illustration, Brighton’s Amex House has been a landmark dominating the local area since 1977. This building was cladded with blue-tinted glass and white upstand GRP banded walls. The Pevsner Architectural Guide likened it to a Thunderbirds set whereas in contrast, a respected local conservation group describing it as “arguably Brighton’s best postwar building … [offering] a splash of style in ….[a] jumble of mediocrity.” To some locals, this building was affectionately labelled ‘the wedding cake’. However, due this building not being legally protected, resulted in it being demolished in 2018. Nevertheless, all buildings will go through a Darwinian selection process over time with a survival of the fittest, after which the remaining buildings will become appreciated (or more possibly noticed) as our built heritage.

Therefore, questions are raised on what to protect and how to establish comparative levels of significance for modern buildings within existing frameworks used in heritage identification and assessment. As time passes, there will be an appreciation for buildings that represent this era’s richness and diversity. Currently the listing of modern buildings tends to be more driven by the architectural fraternity rather than from the general public. For instance, the application for listing of Preston’s Central Bus Station and Car Park (Grade II built in 1969) was saved from demolition following a campaign led by, among others, the Twentieth Century Society. This move could be seen as elitist but sometimes necessary due to the lack of public support. This general present lack of community support is hampering the ability of local authorities to list our modern heritage.

The use of modern materials helped by the use of modern design has both revolutionised and altered our built landscape. Love or loath it, but if we did not use the latest technologies (for instance metal wall cladding for multi storey construction), we would not have the streetscape we currently have. Throughout history, some have viewed the use of new materials / technologies / avant-garde styling with suspicion; change however is inevitable. Buildings and urban areas evolve and change according to the needs of society. Therefore it is important to determine the role of contemporary architecture in contributing to this change in ways that conserve and celebrate the special character and quality of the possible future ‘historic’ environment.

In the past, protecting our older buildings was easy as we had a template developed from a close connection between heritage and nationalism. For example, the National Trust during the mid-part of the twentieth century acquired more country houses than any other sort of building, based on society (at the time) possibly wanting to return a golden age of Empire during a time of horrors of two world wars. It was only towards the later end of the twentieth century that the Trust moved to acquire more industrial and other types of heritage buildings; in preference to buildings previously owned by the aristocracy. It must be argued that if we are ethically responsible, especially to protect our current architectural stock now, the public must be the stewards of history and cultural resources. This is in order to defend all of our pasts: prominent, marginalised, or alternative. Perhaps the critics’ argument that ‘it’s just ugly’ is due to modern architecture abandoning the past teaching of architectural styling. As the American writer Charles Jencks wrote once, modern architecture is a ‘double-coded language– one part Modern and one part something else.’ Without legal protection of our seemingly unimportant architectural and social gems (such as the post war public art pictured on the right), will disappear forever without a trace.

So in answer to the question of how old should heritage be, the ideology should be based on architectural innovation, which exemplifies modern styling and/ or be of historic interest to society; these buildings are just as important as older buildings and are too good to loose.