SBHD: Why does the UK have so many listed properties and how are they selected? Sutherland Lyall explores the avenues leading to Grade 1 and 2 buildings and questions the reasons for selection by English Heritage and the motivation of its enforcers
I WAS going to tell you all about those post-war buildings which English Heritage might list. I won’t, because I fell asleep halfway through reading the names. There are some smart cookies working at the EH master, the Department of the Environment, so maybe there’s a second agenda here – DoE people are smart enough to view the EH listing process as a way of keeping a large number of people aboard a gravy-train. They’re also smart enough to bring it to a halt.
We have more listed buildings than any other country in the world, including Italy. That’s an odd statistic since most of the grand buildings on our lists are amateurish copies of Italian models. Yet, even as you read this, there are listing policemen out in the field busily adding to this over-inflated catalogue of architectural second-handness.
The story runs that senior DoE people, deeply disenchanted with the Gestapo-like listing antics of EH, have approved this ridiculous list. They have done this in the full expectation that everybody will say “What a load of rubbish” and demand the whole listing process be reworked in the form of a small list of really significant buildings taken from the existing Grade 1 and upper echelon Grade 2 buildings.
This list would be set in stone for a couple of decades and the whole list- ing machinery abandoned. National Heritage Secretary Stephen Dorrell’s announcement that owners would in future be consulted before a building could be listed comes a bit late since listing policemen have been scraping the barrel for at least a decade. This would have avoided the unseemly spectacle of chaps having to bring in bulldozers after dusk before the dozy Heritage policeman could get a spot-listing application on their desk the following morning.
I don’t call them Heritage policemen without good reason. I heard the other night that the interior of the Bride of Denmark – currently in boxes – might well be re-established in a basement in the RIBA Architecture Centre. An unpleasant looking person in specs near me immediately began foaming at the mouth. I gathered from his remarks that he was a Heritage policeman who wasn’t going to allow this reconstruction.
The Bride of Denmark? It was the Architects’ Journal basement pub assembled in the late 1940s by a semi-crazy editorial boss using fragments from redundant hostelries. It may have been a nice place to get legless in, but it was a complete sham, a crudely constructed set, the joins of which you didn’t notice through the haze of booze and carefully attenuated lighting. If it had been done by, say, a wretched lower-class, tenant publican, English Heritage wouldn’t have bothered.
Now I see Brunel the Elder’s 1843 Wapping to Rotherhithe tunnel under the Thames has got the Heritage policemen bouncing anxiously on their pogo sticks. Apparently, London Underground wants to smear concrete all over the brickwork to prevent water getting in. Though nobody gets to see this famous brickwork, it must, according to the heritage folk, be preserved at all costs.
SBHD: Peddling old England
On a similarly irritating note, regarding the standard indignant letter from Gavin Stamp of the Twentieth Century Society (DW 3 March), I liked the little list of post-war buildings he trotted out as “proof” of the catholicity of the society’s views.
Now, I really want to believe the society isn’t peddling the same old England-as-theme-park line. And I genuinely believe they all had a Road to Damascus experience. However, when the Thirties Society became the Twentieth Century Society, all its members’ names stayed the same. Along with their prejudices.
What Stamp didn’t discuss was whether his cronies have been signed up as assessors for the Millennium Fund.
Finally, I’m not at all sorry to see cartoonist Louis Hellman has migrated to this page. The great humanist Colin Ward once described him in these terms: “Inside every satirist is a bruised idealist outraged at the ease with which we abandon principles and cover our tracks with rhetoric – which we begin to believe ourselves.”