How old does a building have to be before it is deemed a historic monument? In Britain, the answer now seems to be less than 30 years old.
Following an announcement by Historic England yesterday, the country will grant preservation orders to 17 Postmodernist buildings, the youngest of which was designed in 1991. To some, protecting such young buildings might seem a bit like preserving yesterday’s leftover sandwiches in a museum, but the sites chosen are unquestionably memorable and distinctive. They also come at a period of renewed enthusiasm for PoMo architecture in Britain, with the first exhibition overview of the subject opening at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum on May 16. It’s not hard to see why the newly listed buildings caught conservationists’ eyes. Beyond the high-water mark of the Victorian gothic revival, it would be harder to find a more aesthetically elaborate set of buildings in English architecture.
Do they deserve preservation? Yes. Such processes are as much about preserving representative or striking examples of a period’s architecture as they are about creating some unassailable canon that everyone agrees is impeccable. Furthermore, Britain’s system is a graded one, with varying categories of preservation that, in their lower rungs, do not rule out any adaptation but merely require it to be sympathetic.
If quality or achievement is the criterion for preservation, it’s true that some of the 17 buildings might seem to validate the criticism that PoMo architecture is about veneer over content, taking fantastical dress-up to extremes. For others, however, this might be their charm. It’s hard not to be won over by the sheer exuberance of buildings like John Outram’s Cambridge Judge Business School, an M C Escher whirl of colonnades and gangways that seems part Egyptian temple, part Victorian factory, all given a psychedelic surface makeover by Gustav Klimt. Meanwhile, CZWG’s Aztec West Business Park, completed near Bristol in 1998, is pure Beltway Babylonian, its dramatic capital-capped windows and sweeping curves looking a Cecil B. DeMille backdrop left on the edge of a parking lot.
Others on the list, however, match fantasy with care to make clear reference to English architectural history, an attraction for a nationally-focused institution such as Historic England. The Elizabethan/Jacobean inspiration of the jetties and gables on Green, Lloyd and Adams’ Founders Hall is plain to see, not least because some of the last of London’s structures from this era are a few doors down on the same street. Likewise, the apartment buildings designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and Wright around London’s Shadwell basin look much like the Victorian warehouses that line nearby wharves, albeit made over with bunny ear towers and lashings of 1980s hot red.
Protecting at least a few buildings of this age is increasingly becoming standard practice in Britain. In 2015, the country slapped preservation orders on a host of late 20th century concrete constructions, some built as recently as 1984. Meanwhile, seven major Postmodernist buildings were given protected status between 2016 and this winter. This 30- to 60-year-old bracket is indeed a vulnerable time for many buildings. The tenants that first commissioned them have long moved on and their fashionable glow has long dimmed, but they’re still young enough to attract the loathing of people who see any new construction as evidence of western civilization going to the dogs. As testament to the need to protect such buildings, a few key Postmodernist structures in England have already disappeared. Most notoriously, Terry Farrell’s TV AM television studio, a North London landmark, was stripped of its PoMo embellishments in 2011. The stripping of this building to a characterless shadow of its past self shows how important it is to preserve provocative, divisive buildings even—or especially—when they are still going through a difficult adolescence.