A new book by Elain Harwood profiles England’s extraordinary variety of buildings listed after 1945, from humble prefabs to top-secret Cold War bunkers
Elain Harwood and James O Davies
Review by Cate St Hill
England is home to some 376,000 listed buildings, monuments and landscapes, ranging from single telephone kiosks and AA boxes to whole terraces and groups of houses. Most of these designations range from the 18th to 19th centuries, with only 0.2 per cent structures created after 1945. Yet what post-war listed buildings lack in number they make up for in their rich diversity, from humble prefabs, bathhouses and bus shelters to country houses, concrete high-rises and high-tech offices.
This book presents more than 650 of these remarkable listed entries, expanding and more than doubling on the entries author Elain Harwood first presented in 2000 in her Guide to Post-War Listed Buildings.
In the post-war years from the late Forties to the early Seventies, Britain saw a radical transformation of its towns and cities; new modern shopping centres, mass housing and car parks rose up, while more churches were built then than at any time since the 1860s, and private homes sung the praises of open-plan living. Following a series of research studies in the Nineties, campaigns and exhibitions for their protection, we now have more listed post-war buildings than anywhere in the world.
The process of listing first began in the Second World War, when members of the RIBA raised concern over superficially bomb-damaged buildings being needlessly demolished, and in 1943 'salvage' lists were hastily drawn up to safe-guard them. Today, Historic England (prior to April 2015, English Heritage), founded in 1984, advises the Government on which buildings should be listed, but it is the Minister for Culture and Creative Industries that makes the final call.
Neck Building, Boscombe Pier, Bournemouth (1958-60), Grade II listed in 2004. Image James O. Davies
Buildings need to be more than 30 years old to be eligible for listing - Richard Rogers' iconic Lloyd's building in London became the youngest Grade I listed building (the highest grade, comprising only 2.5 per cent of all listings) in 2011 - meaning buildings of the Eighties are only just coming to attention.
Recent surveys have included war memorials and high-tech buildings, and studies of public art and post-modernism are in the pipeline.
'Experience has shown that listing has to be one step ahead of fashion,' says Harwood. 'There is now a general acceptance of the need to identify the best buildings of all periods for the future, and the ultimate success of post-war listing has been to move it from a vanguard into the mainstream of heritage protection.'
Yet here the intrigue is not so much in the overly familiar buildings saved from demolition at the very last minute in 'spot listings', such as Preston Bus Station, Park Hill and Bankside Power Station, but in the more unusual places that might not normally be seen or experienced: top-secret Cold War bunkers, electricity sub-stations, giant telescopes and obsolete atomic bomb stores. Indeed, most of the listings in the book are strictly private and closed to the public.
Fort Halstead in Kent (1947, listed Grade II* in 2012) for example was a research facility where scientists, guided by the physicist William Penney in close collaboration with the RAF, developed Britain's first atomic bomb and tested explosives in heavily reinforced concrete buildings.
Sealed behind thick blast walls, the Central Government War Headquarters (1957-70) was built in the 60 miles of tunnels of Corsham Mines in case London should be destroyed, while a Cold War bunker in York (1961) is the outstanding survivor of a network of more than 1,500 underground monitoring posts and headquarters where explosions could be recorded.
These structures may not be architecturally outstanding, but they capture a particular moment in time when the fearful possibility of a nuclear attack loomed large over the country.
Richard Rogers' Lloyd's Building, London (1981-6), Grade I listed in 2011. Image James O. Davies
Other buildings too are listed for their cultural significance and interesting back stories, albeit for very different reasons. There's 20 Forthlin Road (1949, Grade II listed in 2012), a modest terraced council house, unremarkable except for its famous resident, Paul McCartney, who grew up there and practised guitar in the bathroom. John Lennon's teenage home, Mendips (1933), is also listed, as is the Casbah Club in Liverpool (1959, Grade II listed in 2006), where the Beatles regularly played. The kitsch and flamboyant Rivoli Ballroom (1958-59, Grade II listed in 2007), meanwhile, is the only intact Fifties' ballroom remaining in London.
Places of worship account for almost half of all buildings listed. Brought to life by the photography of James O Davies, churches and cathedrals form a large chunk of the book, due in part to comprehensive surveys jointly funded by Historic England and dioceses since 2010. Featuring dynamic concrete blocks, impressive soaring roofs, faceted timber ceilings and uncluttered plans brought over from Europe and Scandinavia, Anglican churches demonstrate a fascination with pushing structural possibilities, while Roman Catholic churches make their mark with bright colours, semi-abstract work and vibrant stained glass.
One church, The Finnish Church in Rotherhithe (1957-8, Grade II listed in 1998) even has its own sauna. It's the little quirks and peculiarities that make each building worth pausing over as you flick through this heavy tome.
Although the book could benefit from more critical analysis of listed building types, it is full of heritage gems and treasures that show the true variety of post-war architecture. There's something for everyone, whether you like brutalist monoliths or sculptural parabolic structures.
Main image: James O. Davies