Twentieth Century Society chair Catherine Croft looks back at the organisation’s successful campaigns during its first 40 years
When I arrived as director of the Twentieth Century Society 17 years ago, I was surprised that my first big case involved Greenside in Surrey, a grade-two-listed 1930s house by Connell, Ward & Lucas. I thought I would be campaigning for much less understood architectural styles such as Brutalism, but this brought home to me that even a fine Modern Movement house by a celebrated practice could be at risk. Despite our best efforts, which included me getting thrown out of the public inquiry for breast-feeding (I have to confess Tilda was a bit squawky), Greenside was demolished in 2003 without consent. We subsequently succeeded in getting the owner convicted of a criminal offence, and although the fines levied were small in comparison to the potential value of the site, it represented an important deterrent.
Thankfully, however, there have been many successes for the society, 40 of which are highlighted on our website as part of our anniversary celebrations, and all are buildings that wouldn’t have survived without our intervention. One of our most memorable campaigns was in the 1980s when we went up against the might of the newly privatised British Telecom, which had announced the wholesale replacement of Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic red telephone boxes (the K2s and K6s). Our late chairman Gavin Stamp cleverly managed to persuade the Department of the Environment to recognise them as ‘miniature buildings’ so they could be listed. When the last in the line of the red boxes, the K8s, came under threat, I visited their designer, Bruce Martin, at his timber-framed cottage with modernist alterations and a phone box in the garden. Although we were successful, sadly not so many have survived, but it is gratifying to see those that have been repurposed as libraries, coffee kiosks, and to house defibrillators, once again fulfilling an important role in the community and demonstrating the longevity of good design.
Preston Bus Station (1968-69), designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of Building Design Partnership, with engineer Ove Arup & Partners, took three attempts at listing before eventual success in 2013. Now it has been refurbished by architect John Puttick Associates, in consultation with ourselves, to great acclaim. We failed to get Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station (1947-63) listed, but undeterred we worked behind the scenes to suggest new uses for the building, including arranging an incognito tour for Francis Carnwath, then deputy director of the Tate Gallery, who was charged with looking for a site for a new gallery of modern art. And what a triumph that has been.
Our campaigning work to build professional and public understanding of Postmodernism has included hosting a conference when there were concerns about plans for unsympathetic alterations to some buildings. One case involved James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s No 1 Poultry (1994-7). We successfully launched a legal challenge against the decision to reject our application to list the building at grade-two*.
Although the tide of opinion is changing for Brutalism and PoMo, it is still very niche, and we have to fight hard to convince some planners that they are dealing with a masterpiece and not a problematic eyesore. So although our portfolio of periods (from 1914 onwards) increases, we cannot say that any period or style is truly safe.
Just look at what is happening in Durham with the Brutalist student union building, Dunelm House, which is under threat of demolition, although we are challenging the decision not to list. And I find it hard to believe that London’s South Bank Centre remains unlisted despite four applications, all supported by Historic England.
There are still fundamental prejudices against twentieth-century architecture which make its best exemplars less likely to be listed. Many are built of non-traditional materials and clients and owners are often worried about whether it is possible to repair or upgrade them. The embodied energy of these buildings is an important aspect to take into consideration and we are looking at ways to more carefully calculate this.
Although there is much work to be done, we are proud of what we have achieved over the 40 years since we were founded as the Thirties Society, later changing our name to the C20 Society to better reflect the period of our work. We do not need to demolish great architecture to allow room for innovation and economic growth. These buildings are a valuable legacy which add to the richness of the fabric of our architectural heritage.