Listing to the centre

I love buildings. All sorts. I think I’ve communicated my passion for the delights of Art Deco, Most recently in Napier in New Zealand. And there was the fabulous Oxo Tower on the south bank of the Thames. There are geniuses out there creating fabulous, sometimes unbelievable structures still. If you look back, across the sweep of history we’ve been  blessed by some incredible beauty. I went to York recently and enjoyed the fabulous cathedral that is York Minster. Just one of many Anglican confections both large and small.

2015-05-08 15.18.28

I think it’s me who’s leaning…

But the built environment is not set in stone (groan); building is a continuous process and the more recent the construction the more likely it is to be loathed, hated, despised. Nothing in the last 30 years is any good – at least that’s what is often said. Comparisons are made between, say, some beauteous building from the 1920s and its proposed replacement and pretty much always to the detriment of the modern.

there is no period so remote as the recent past Posner in the History Boys

We don’t see anything so easily if we live with it day to day. Partly we need perspective to understand something completely and partly it’s because there’s a lot of surrounding noise. It’s the same with, say, music and literature. It’s the same with politicians and sportspeople. Today we have everything mixed together – the marvellous and the mediocre, all judgement compromised by fashion and celebrity and the urgency of the now.

But if we look back to the 1990s we recall less detail, we filter and we hold on to the better bits. And the further back we go the less that is rubbish that survives. If you looked at the British Library’s section of books from, say, 1910 there would be some unmitigated crap in amongst the HG Wells, Hardy, Conan Doyle etc. The names that survive in our current consciousness, survive for a reason.

It’s the same with buildings.

A consequence of this, for buildings, is the urge to preserve. In Britain we can statutorily protect buildings and other structures by listing them.

If a building is considered by the Secretary of State (for Culture, Media and Sport) to be of special architectural or historic interest it will be included in a list of such buildings. The designation regime is set out in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990

Once listed the exterior cannot be touched without permission from the local authority; for some really important buildings the interior is protected too (this is by grading: Grade I, Grade II). But if your building is less than 50 years old it is much less likely to be listed. And if it was built of concrete then don’t hold your breath.

Today, I think central London has a wonderful sky line, even if we have this press inspired fixation with giving buildings nicknames. The Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie. I hope some of these are preserved. A new one is due soon – The Helter-Skelter. That too should be worth considering. It is far better then the drab uniformity when I first came to work here in the 1970s. Some don’t like the protuberances; if they add to the character, to the outline, to the soul of the place then yes, do it.


The bowl of London as seen from Gipsy Hill

But they won’t be. Too many of the newspapers hark back to the ‘it was better when…’ school of opinion forming. They pander the Heir who has sounded off about architecture more than I for one can stand. Sure some of the proposals were worthy of his ire, but knowing his Mouthiness is against something stops development in its tracks, merit or not. We end up with a safe, boring slab. Or worse, Poundbury, his twee attempt, putting our money where his mouth is, at recreating the world of Thomas Hardy for today’s masses in deepest Dorset.  Here are a few of his choice (glib?) statements

a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend

 and St Paul’s [will be] dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago

looks rather like an old 1930s wireless

You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble

a place where books are incinerated, not kept

You get the picture. Everyone is entitled to their opinion; not everyone is given the oxygen of publicity quite like Charles.

My point is preserve quality not just old. Preserve examples where otherwise we would have none. But remember building are fundamentally there for their function and their form is a secondary consideration.

This week there is a battle over three buildings in the Strand next to King’s College and Somerset House. They are old. They are redolent of London in  bygone age. They are in the way of a new academic building needed for the University. The current (newly appointed) Culture minister has put a temporary block, against the wishes of the owner (naturally) but also the Local Authority and, interestingly English Heritage whose brief it is to preserve buildings of historic worth (to be fair EH would like to see them kept but have accepted the decision to demolish because of the purpose of the replacement and the fact there are plenty of other examples of these sorts of buildings locally).

I know which way I would vote.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published two anthologies of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand and Life in a Flash. More will appear soon, including a memoir of my mother's last years. I will try and continue to blog regularly at about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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19 Responses to Listing to the centre

  1. noelleg44 says:

    I’m with you, especially with regard to what is happening in the US. Out with the old, even if it is architecturally significant, in with the new – unless you can raise enough money to save it. Check out my last A-Z post on the Zebulon Pike house – the only reason it hasn’t been razed is the fact the owners won’t sell or move and finally it was named a National Historical site.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sacha Black says:

    I’ve read before in one of your posts that Charles is rather stroppy about buildings, I didn’t appreciate quite how much though! He sounds beyond conservative on these things! such a shame, so many people hate change and development. How are we ever meant to grow? I get listed buildings – the stunners that really shouldnt change – you know, the big bens and what not. but block towers and functional uni buildings aren’t anything to write home about…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yes and no. I like Sheffield Hallam for instance with its smooth line and Andrew Motion poetry on the side. I love the Canary Wharf Tower, I Canada Square. But some of it is just dull and bland, agreed.


  3. Rachel M says:

    I’m one of those people who complain about modern buildings, sorry! Most of them are just butt-ugly. I wouldn’t object if they were mostly nice but they’re mostly … ugly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      well, there you go, we all have our views; you may well be in the majority, not that I care very much!! I agree that the vast bulk of what was built in the immediate post war period is and was dreadful, for a host of reason which is why a lot has already gone; but there will be some that remains and we will treasure. For me flat fronted Georgian buildings have little merit apart from the fact they have weathered into the landscape but again I’m in a minority there. Happily we none of us are correct and architects will still push the boundaries, just as musicians and authors do. And often as not the very new will get things wrong.


  4. trifflepudling says:

    I’m with Rachel M on this one. The Shard resembles a kid’s drawing – it’s just … nothing. Only the materials it’s made with redeem it.

    Like your Leaning Minster of York photo!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Autism Mom says:

    I love the diversity of the London skyline – to me it speaks of a people and culture willing to attempt the difficult balance of taking risks and trying new things while cherishing history and tradition. Is that accurate? Considering the changes I see since I last visited decades ago, I think probably yes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yes, I’d say that’s fair; there’s at least five opinions for every building in London which is a good thing because sneaky destruction is now very difficult. We are more confident with ourselves nowadays which reflects in things like the Olympics and our buildings – just as long as we can all still have a good moan. When you are here and stuck in a hotel room, try and catch Googlebox on TV (Channel 4, free to view so you should be able to see it) That will tell you something about us today.


  6. Charli Mills says:

    Europe has such a richer heritage of architecture. In America, it’s almost as if we see buildings as disposable — easier to tear down and start new than preserve and update. Yet many people here, like me, appreciate the significance of heritage and quality, as well as understanding a building’s initial function. Yesterday we went to Metaline Falls, an historic mining town (historic as in over 100 years old, I know a baby of a settlement). The British occupied that land up until 1848. David Thompson built British Trading posts along the river below Metaline Falls in 1810. Miners dug for gold in the 1850s but it wasn’t until a railroad was built across the Box Canyon in 1910 that the town could commercially access it’s deposits of lead and tin. Buildings can tell a story of the place and many of the early mining and cement era structures are re-purposed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Fascinating; I guess that’s the same Thompson after whom the East and West Thompson rivers in British Columbia are named? Just today tere is an article about the son of George Orwell trying to persuade the Spanish to preserve the trenches he fought and nearly died in during the Spanish civil war. So much can so easily be lost without people to care about it.


  7. I know the three buildings in the Strand you are referring to. I hope they do get to stay, just like The Aldwych Underground station building just up the road from it. I remember a kiosk in there that sold the best cheese and pickle sandwiches I’d ever tasted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I agree about the station, but I see tem as different. Just hanging on to old does not cut it for me when there are lots of better examples. till I’m a bit of a lone voice I expect in the blogsphere. Thanks for commenting and sharing

      Liked by 1 person

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