The inspiring face of welfare

February 20, 2004

Everyone makes lists, for shopping (things we'd like to own) or CD and book collections (things we do own). Examples of early writing suggest that it may have been invented to make lists: Auden's inventory of "objects, books, girls, horses". An ordered list becomes a catalogue that contains information about a group of objects of cultural significance and may, in certain models of art history and given the correct scholarly apparatus, be the first necessary step towards a history. If a selection from such a list gains broad acceptance, it may become a canon.

The list that the British state makes of buildings of "special architectural or historic interest" was established under the two Town and Country Planning Acts of 1944 and 1947. It contains about 370,000 objects in England (Scotland and Wales have separate arrangements) assigned one of three grades from I, the highest, via II* to II.

Listing buildings places responsibilities on the owners: demolition is probably unthinkable, and alterations must be undertaken with advice from specialists. Such constraints on property and ownership might scandalise the Adam Smith Institute, but most European countries have similar arrangements for identifying and protecting built heritage. While the list for England is compiled by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, advised by experts at English Heritage, anyone can nominate a building for listing.

The volume under review is a revised and expanded edition of the first, impractically small, version published in 2000. Its square, chunky hardback format renders it a reference rather than a field guide. It catalogues the approximately 550 English listed buildings and sculptures from the second half of the 20th century, each described by a short text and one or more full-page colour photographs. There are, regrettably, no plans. The majority of the entries are those buildings commissioned between 1945 and 1979 by the agencies of the welfare state: housing, schools, universities, libraries and railway stations. This reflects the state's role in commissioning buildings and the consequences of the systematic typological surveys that English Heritage undertook in the 1990s; buildings for communications, transport and the military are now being considered.

The catalogue implies a proto-history of the period - the material for a history that Elain Harwood is writing. It can be read simply as a record of the success of modern architecture in the service of the welfare state, or as evidence of the determined advocacy of the popular media and of professionals and architectural journalists who competed to explain and admire, for example, the Royal Festival Hall (Grade I) of 1951. What emerges is the variety of the period's architectural output; the occasional "building of character" shines out from the general run of concrete or brittle metallic rectangles of the state's buildings to reveal the persistence of two other strands. One, the craft tradition, is exemplified in the listed churches of H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, such as the Most Holy Trinity of 1957-60 in London's Bermondsey. The second is that broad classicism inaugurated when Inigo Jones' Banqueting House in Whitehall was finished in 1622 - a classicism that quietly persisted in the 20th century in institutions and private houses by practitioners such as Raymond Erith, Francis Johnson and the partnership McMorran and Whitby. This catalogue can only hint at the broad social, political and economic forces that brought these buildings into being, but it is the raw material of the history that the period deserves.

Christopher Woodward was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, University College London.

England: A Guide to Post-war Listed Buildings

Author - Elain Harwood
Publisher - Batsford
Pages - 751
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 7134 8818 2

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