If there’s one thing that can get the architectural community up in arms, it’s the threat of demolition being placed over a much-loved building. Whether it’s a 44-year-old bus station, a 38-year-old hospital, or even a 12-year-old art museum, few other news stories can raise such a sustained outcry. And recently, some have started to turn their eyes toward the next wave of preservation battles: the upcoming crop of Postmodern buildings which are increasingly being placed under threat. But in all of these heated debates about preservation, do people really know what they’re arguing for?
The issue of historic preservation was thrown into focus this week in an exchange on Twitter between architecture writers Adam Nathaniel Furman and Gillian Darley, after Furman tweeted a link to one of his recent articles discussing the need to preserve Britain’s postmodern architecture. The link was accompanied by an image of the ruins of Marco Polo House, a building which many saw as an icon of late 1980s postmodernism, yet one that Darley was clearly not fond of:
However Darley’s response - and indeed to some extent Furman’s original article - both hint at a common misunderstanding about the role of historic preservation in architecture; whether a building is worthy to be saved does not depend upon anybody’s personal experiences of that building or whether it is liked. In fact, it doesn’t even depend upon whether a building is any good.
When it comes to preserving buildings, there are two prevailing logics that dictate what should be saved. One is based on a mixture of sustainable thinking and pessimism, arguing that if a functional building already exists on a certain site it is wasteful to destroy it only to build another building - especially one that (in the eyes of the proponents of this logic) will inevitably be worse than what was there before. However, this understanding of preservation is far eclipsed by a much more balanced attitude, one that believes buildings are a necessary document of our history.
In the field of history, it is now generally accepted that understanding our past is key to making better decisions in the future. Just as this is true in politics and culture, it is true in architecture, and allowing any architectural period to be lost to memory would be a dreadful loss. While other events, periods and people might be best remembered through documents, images and trinkets, the best record of an architectural period is unquestionably the buildings that represent it.
If, then, architectural preservation is an act of recording history, what matters is not whether a given building is good, but rather whether it is important - or, to put it in the language used by the British Government in its Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings, whether the building is “of special architectural or historic interest.” Excluding the word “good” from the selection criteria, that document even goes as far as stipulating that “the Secretary of State cannot take any other factors into account when considering his decision.”
It’s not just the government that takes this line of reasoning either: the 20th Century Society, one of the leading champions of British architectural heritage, states that their objectives “are conservation, to protect the buildings and design that characterize the Twentieth Century in Britain, and education, to extend our knowledge and appreciation of them.” Once again, the word "good" does not enter into the equation, and is instead replaced by whether the building is characteristic of the period in which it was built.
As revealed by the exchange between Furman and Darley, then, it is entirely possible that architecture some people judge to be bad could be worthy of preservation. Of course, with any luck important design will usually coincide with good design, but when they don’t it is not up to us to erase the past simply because it doesn’t conform to our current values.
In the case of other types of historical record, the rule for preservation is is simple: more is always better. Keeping every item of correspondence from a political figure, for example, will always have the potential to reveal more about our past than destroying some items that were initially deemed not important enough to keep. But when the piece of history to be remembered is an architectural movement its documents are somewhat larger, and this leads us to an interesting set of ethical conundrums.
The first is that every building preserved also means its potential replacement never come to pass. This may well have economic implications and stifle growth, or it may prevent the forward march of history and the development of new works of architectural importance. Take for example the foundational case of the 20th Century Society itself: in 1979 the society was founded in part to support the preservation of Sir Edwin Cooper’s neoclassical Lloyds of London building. Had they been successful, Richard Rogers’ seminal replacement - the youngest ever Grade-I listed building in the UK - would never have existed.
The second ethical issue is one that arises in the divorce between important architecture and good architecture. If a bad building must be preserved, what is the ethical thing to do with it? It could be left empty, becoming a dead cell in the organism of the city; or, it could continue to be used, subjecting more people to its bad architecture. Both solutions are less than desirable.
Preserving a building should therefore not be taken lightly, and each case requires careful discussion to balance a building’s historical importance against the ethical implications of preservation - a discussion which is not helped by arguments over whether a building is good or bad. Societies such as the 20th Century Society and Adam Nathaniel Furman’s Facebook group for what he is calling The Postmodern Society will be key in deciding which buildings in a movement are worthy of keeping. If journalists and the media are responsible, as is often said, for writing the rough first draft of history, then architecture history’s second draft is composed by these groups - let’s hope they keep in mind exactly what they’re debating.