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Outrage: ‘We are in danger of losing whole chapters of our architectural history’

Dunelm house

Britain may have once led the world in 20th century building conservation - but it is now chronically under resourced

With Brutalism gone mainstream – so many books have come out recently, with a proliferation of mugs and tea towels – why are so many great 20th-century buildings not being valued by owners and developers?

Most ‘Buildings at Risk’ lists feature wrecks, or buildings that look decidedly unloved and dilapidated, with buddleia blossoms in the gutters and the palpable stench of pigeon. By comparison, the C20 Society’s recently published top 10 at risk are in surprisingly good shape: to destroy them would be both a massive cultural loss and an enormous waste of resources. Despite this, all 10 are threatened with demolition, and there are many other buildings of the last 100 years facing the same sad and irreversible fate.

Once Britain led the world in the conservation of 20th-century buildings. Now conservation in the UK is chronically underfunded and under resourced. We are lagging behind a growing international surge of research and enthusiasm, and our buildings are bearing the brunt of a lack of nerve and confidence.

Take, for example, Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate, built 1972-78, which has now been listed grade II* for nearly a quarter of a century, but despite ever-increasing academic recognition of the innovative work of Camden’s Architects’ Department (and rocketing market values of the flats themselves), similar recognition for the majority of the other equally good estates Camden built in the same period has not followed. I think even Alexandra Road would probably struggle to make it through the system today.

Elephant coventry

Elephant coventry

Coventry Sports and Leisure Centre’s ‘elephant’ annex

Now, Durham University’s spectacularly sited Brutalist student union building, Dunelm House (by ACP with Arup as engineer and adviser), is on the C20 Society top 10 buildings at risk list as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has just refused it listing, citing unproven concerns over the potential future cost of concrete repair as a major reason. Back in 1993, it was the tenants’ dissatisfaction at poorly matched concrete repairs at the Alexandra Road Estate which led to its appraisal, and when listing went ahead, it paved the way for research into sympathetic concrete conservation, restoration of the Estate’s park and a new appreciation of the design qualities which seek to promote a sense of community.

Ted Hollamby’s legacy of south London housing estates, including Central Hill which is also on the C20 list, is arguably equal to the Camden achievement, but is in danger of being obliterated, as council-owned land becomes a soft target for local authorities desperate to increase housing provision and starved of money for repairs and maintenance of the properties they already have. To demolish it would be extravagant and wasteful short termism. Holborn Library and Coventry’s Elephant Sports and Leisure Centre and adjacent swimming baths are similarly plagued by cutbacks in local authority spending, while the Manchester Reform Synagogue and the Neoclassical 1930s police station are threatened by rising land values and commercial speculation.

3045155 the existing estate central hill

3045155 the existing estate central hill

Central Hill Estate by Ted Hollamby and Rosemary Stjernstedt

One seeming anomaly on the list is High Cross House, on the Dartington Estate, Devon. Designed by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze, the house was built in 1932 for the headmaster of the progressive Dartington Hall School – it’s the only interwar building on the list, but an important reminder that even a building considered to be one of the finest examples of classic flat-roofed early Modernism in the UK is not necessarily secure. All looked to be going well for the headmaster’s house. Its restoration in 1995 saw John Winter, a respected later generation Modernist architect, demonstrate how a calm and pragmatic approach to conservation can have excellent results. It became the first British Modernist house to open to the public, but whereas the recent Iconic Houses Network now publicises over 150 architect-designed C20 houses open to the public worldwide, High Cross is closed and forlorn. Suggested reuse as a columbarium (ie, shelved with niches for cremated human remains – presumably for deceased secular Modernists) gets my vote for the barmiest recent conversion proposal of any 20th-century building.

The C20 Society is not seeking a massive government grant (like the £7.6 million recently earmarked for 18th-century country house Wentworth Woodhouse) to secure the futures of the buildings on our list. What we want is greater recognition of the growing public interest in 20th-century architecture to be reflected in local and national government decision making. This can only be achieved if more effort is put into understanding the value of what’s out there, and encouraging people to be proud of the recent past, and that means investing in the provision of expert services. Without the endorsement for a sensibly resourced listing system by the architectural profession, the public and government, we are in danger of losing whole chapters of our architectural history. 

In Full: The Twentieth Century Society’s top 10 Buildings at Risk 2017

Compiled by Kate Youde

Dunelm House, Durham

This five-level Brutalist student union building was constructed between 1964 and 1966 by the river Wear to the designs of Richard Raines of the Architects’ Co-Partnership, under supervision of the partner Michael Powers. It connects to Ove Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge, which was constructed four years earlier. Arup acted as structural engineer and architectural advisor and is famously featured in a bust on one of the outside walls. Winning both a Civic Trust award and the RIBA Bronze Medal for 1966, this concrete building is a remarkably intact survivor of its era. The secretary of state turned down an application for Grade II listing, disregarding the view of her heritage advisers (Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society). The Twentieth Century Society Society is now appealing this decision.

BHS Murals, Stockport & Hull

The Hull BHS store, formerly a Co-op, features what was believed to be at the time of its installation in 1963, the biggest mural in Britain. Sitting above the store entrance, the ‘Three Ships’ mosaic is 66ft high and 64ft wide (20m by 19.5m) and contains over one million tiny cubes of Italian glass. Inside on the fourth floor is a smaller Fish Mural, depicting ceramic fish swimming in a tiled background of bubbling water, set between massive columns of kelp-like fronds in stone. Designed by Alan Boyson, a highly successful and influential figure in post war public art, the murals celebrate Hull’s proud maritime heritage and form part of an important record of the reconstruction of the city after the war. The BHS Stockport mural is situated on the outside of the building and comprises five concrete panels with brightly coloured mosaic, depicting the history of the town across six centuries. The work was designed by Henry Collins and Joyce Pallot, who were leading proponents of historically themed post war concrete murals. All three murals are at risk following Historic England’s recommendation to reject the Twentieth Century Society’s applications to list both at Grade II.

Manchester Reform Synagogue & Police Station

These two fine 20th-century buildings are part of a historic row in the centre of Manchester which is under threat from development plans by two former Manchester United football players, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, in partnership with Make architects, to build two skyscrapers and a luxury hotel. The synagogue was designed by the architects Levy and Cummings and is of particular historic interest as the first new post-war building to be constructed in the city after the Second World War, funded by war reparations. The synagogue is almost completely intact internally, and notable for containing what the Twentieth Century Society understands to be some of the earliest examples of figurative stained glass in a Jewish place of worship. The Twentieth Century Society has submitted an application to have the building listed. Bootle Street Police Station (1937) is a distinguished Neoclassical building by the architect G Noel Hill.

Central Hill, London

This high-density low-rise estate is a strong example of the important legacy of progressive public housing created by Lambeth Architect’s Department under Ted Hollamby, demonstrating the use of a variety of unit types to suit different age-groups and family sizes, complex layering of mixed size units, the spatial interest of the planning, the exploitation of natural topography, the arrangement of blocks to create a genuine community, the provision of private patios and balconies to give residents privacy, the simple robust detailing of the architecture, and the integration of community and welfare buildings. Lead architect Rosemary Stjernstedt was one of the pioneering female architects of the time. The decision to turn down the Twentieth Century Society’s application for listing places one of London’s most exceptional and progressive post-war housing estates in a hugely vulnerable position.

The Elephant and Swimming Baths, Coventry

Coventry’s iconic landmark, the Elephant sports centre, was built in 1977 and its shape reflects Coventry’s elephant and castle coat of arms. It sits alongside the 1966 Grade II-listed 50m Olympic-size swimming pool, designed by city architects Arthur Ling and Terence Gregory and principal architect Michael McLellan. The main pool hall, with seating for 1,174 spectators, was designed to meet international competition standards. The pool has become the regional competitive centre for the Midlands – recognition of the impressive facilities provided. Both buildings are under threat following Coventry Council’s decision to close the centre and replace it with a £37 million leisure centre holding a pool half the size of the 50m original. The Twentieth Century Society’s application to list the Elephant building was refused.

High Cross House, Dartington, Devon

Designed by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze, the house was built in 1932 for art establishment patrons Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst as a home for William Curry, then headmaster of the nearby progressive Dartington Hall School. Despite being considered to be one of the finest examples of a Modernist home in the UK, the building sadly fell into neglect from 1987 and was used as a student hostel. It was restored in 1995 by architect John Winter and became the first British Modernist house to open to the public. But less than two years after signing a management lease, the National Trust abandoned the property, citing low visitor figures as the reason (despite the fact that the home attracted 21,000 visitors, almost double the number attracted to Erno Goldfinger’s Willow Road home in Hampstead, also owned by the trust).The Twentieth Century Society is urging the owners to address ongoing repairs and to find a use that is compatible with the building.

Cumberbatch North & South Buildings, Oxford

Named after the college’s benefactor and former student, Hugh Cumberbatch, and designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, these two student accommodation buildings represent a sensitive three-dimensional urban infill, flanked by T.G. Jackson’s Gothic Revival New Building of 1881-2 and the War Memorial Library of 1925. Writing in a monograph produced by RIBA Publishing with the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage, author Gerald Adler highlights how the practice managed some interesting variations on its ‘traditional’ brief. The north building, nicknamed ‘the pagoda,’ features protruding oak framed window boxes held between bands of board marked concrete, capped by a slate pyramidal roof. Cumberbatch South shares the aesthetic of the ‘pagoda’ opposite but has quite a different organisation within. The ground and attic storeys comprise conventional two room sets which sandwich a piano nobile of six duplex sets. It looks out onto the main quad which Adler describes as having a pleasing textured stone floor – underneath is an innovative storage solution for Blackwell’s bookshop, designed with a coffered ceiling sporting concrete manhole rings. An ingenuous piece of planning and design which gave the college an unexpected additional rental income from the book shop. Both buildings are the subjects of Certificates of Immunity which the Twentieth Century Society fought against. A planning application is expected to be made soon which the Twentieth Century Society will campaign against.

St Leonards Church, St Leonards-on-Sea

Following a direct hit from a doodle bug in 1944, the brothers Giles and Adrian Gilbert Scott rebuilt St. Leonards Church in a dramatic modernistic Gothic Revival style. This Grade II building of pale buff-coloured brick and cream-coloured stone opened in 1955, with the south tower being completed five years later. The dominant feature is a set of parabolic arches which form a giant arcade leading the eye from the west end to the chancel. The previous church was designed by James Burton, the founder of this Sussex seaside town who dug into the seaside cliff to position the building at the centre of his Regency seaside terrace facing out to sea. There are concerns about the impact of rock falls and subsidence on the structural condition and the church is currently closed. The Twentieth Century Society is seeking details of the structural issues and looking at options to secure its future which may include new community issues.

60 Hornton Street, West Kensington

Representing an important example of Modern Movement domestic architecture, 60 Hornton Street was designed by architect James Melvin as a home for himself and his wife. Constructed of dark Warnham Wealden stock bricks, the house is served by a lift and spiral staircase to all floors in a space saving move over a traditional staircase. The AR in 1971 praised its ‘fixed section and spatial attitude’ that seemed to ‘hark back to early Corbusian days of the modern movement’ while House and Garden paid tribute to the fact ‘that a house on so restricted a site should be so spacious and still manage to incorporate a sizeable swimming pool … tribute indeed to the imagination and ingenuity of its owner-designer’. In 1994 the acclaimed architect Sauerbruch Hutton carried out an extremely sensitive refurbishment which stayed true to the original intentions of the house but at the same time seemed to increase its sense of theatricality. In 2014 it formed the location for Joanna Hogg’s movieExhibition. She described it as being like the third character in her film, saying: ‘It’s like a Modernist doll’s house and the spiral staircase its spine.’ The building is threatened with complete demolition and replacement by another domestic dwelling. The Twentieth Century Society is fighting to save the building and is seeking listing at Grade II.

Holborn Library

Holborn Library was a milestone in the history of the modern public library, both as the first large, multi-functional, post-war library in London and for its pioneering architecture, with an elegant façade, striking entrance canopy and influential internal planning. Built in 1960 by the Holborn Borough Council Architects’ Department under Sydney Cook, the four-storey building has a reinforced concrete-frame and a non-load-bearing façade on Theobalds Road in narrow russet brick with a generous expanse of metal-framed glazing, which looks particularly striking when lit up at night. A large galleried reading room, reached by an open-tread staircase with a striking mosaic, has a zigzag metal and glass balustrade and timber rail, all adding to the light ‘Festival’ feel of the architecture. The Twentieth Century Society supported two applications to list the building in 2000 and 2010, both of which were turned down. Plans are currently underway to remodel the library and redevelop this and a neighbouring site to include studio spaces and over 100 new homes. The Twentieth Century Society is planning to object.