The Twentieth Century Society

Casework

Risky buildings

What do a waste incinerator, a lift testing tower and a multi-storey car park have in common? The new website of the Twentieth Century Society, www.riskybuildings.org.uk, shows some of the uncelebrated and forgotten examples of twentieth century architecture suffering from neglect or the threat of being bulldozed. But the list also features icons of last century’s design: Battersea Power Station and Brighton’s Embassy Court have shaped our understanding of modern architecture, but nevertheless they are in a sorry state and their future is not yet predictable.

When in autumn 2003 a group of volunteers started research on buildings at risk, there was only a slightly dated register, published by the Society in 1998, to draw upon. As ideas took shape it was decided not to offer a comprehensive at risk list but instead put together a selective website as well as an exhibition of images for the London Architecture Biennale. Over more than half a year a group, initially led by main committee member Maria Speake, set out to investigate buildings all over the country that show some of the most dramatic problems twentieth century buildings face today: a severe lack of maintenance, often driven by a lack of appreciation of the buildings’ qualities, or the ongoing search for a new use that is sometimes difficult to find.

While we worked on this project, we sadly lost two great buildings that were amongst the stars of our selection: Knap Lido (local architects, 1920s) in Barry, Wales, a derelict but much loved and beautifully designed modern structure, was razed earlier this year, and Owen Luder’s Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (1966) was rejected for statutory listing and only a few days later demolition started. The list shrank and then grew again; another massive Luder building up in Newcastle, his 1967 brutalist multi-storey car park, had long been subject to controversy. It will almost certainly go, even though it is still partly in use. The local council is talking about the regeneration of the area but so far the suggestions for replacement structures do not go beyond shopping centres and, not surprisingly, parking; will we see the demolition of a car park in favour of another car park? This case illustrates some of the absurdities we sometimes face. Our attempts to at least locally list the building failed, and another Luder might soon be history.

The list of buildings was intended to show twenty five outstanding examples to celebrate twenty five years of the Society. In spite of this important anniversary we finally published thirty one buildings. Too many important at risk cases came up during day to day casework at the office, and we wanted the website to show the most urgent current examples. A private house on Kenilworth Road in Coventry, designed by Robert Harvey and built in 1957, has recently been sold. The new owner is solely interested in the value of the land and immediately submitted an application to demolish the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house. The Society put the building forward for listing in order to prevent this, and luckily the local council co-operated and has promised to wait for the outcome of the listing application. The house was designed as a pair with a very similar building next door. This combination of two good post-war houses next to each other by the same architect is rare, and their high-quality design a good reason to fight for their future.

But we also discovered positive examples of reuse and repair during the research. Creekvean, the dramatically located Team 4 house in Feock, Cornwall (1964-7) has changed owners and the new inhabitants, architects themselves, are currently looking for ways of repairing the building, mainly to stop water leaks. It was a great relief to see the building, after being on the market for a while, going into the hands of sympathetic owners who understand and value its qualities. And Embassy Court, the tired modernist hero at Brighton’s seafront, is on a slow but steady path out of its misery. Long overdue concrete and service repairs have started after the tenant lead initiative Bluestorm convinced the owners of the apartments to pay for these works out of their own pockets. Conran and Partners are taking the restoration job very seriously, and we hope to see a more healthy looking building around this time next year.

While the team researched the state of the buildings on the list, we also had to think about how to illustrate our findings. One evening during the autumn lecture series we made a wonderful discovery that lifted the project up visually. The photographer Sarah Duncan showed her images at Cowcross Street. Stunning pictures of Battersea Power Station and Gateshead Car Park! Sarah was prepared to help us and travelled the country to visit most of our buildings. The result of her far reaching trips was beautiful images of rather unknown structures such as Newbury Petrol Station, but also great photos of important buildings like the Smithfield Poultry Market, Crystal Palace Sports Centre and Drapers Gardens in the City of London. Sarah also brought Nigel Sutton on board who photographed and researched some cases for us. The rest of the team (Tim Pitman, Luke Tozer, Tom Houston, Cecilia Jagu, Sarah Ciccone, James Furlong and myself, supported by our director Catherine Croft) supplied texts; guest authors Eddy Rhead, Eva Ling and Gavin Stamp wrote about cases in Preston, Birmingham and Stratford, and our most recent volunteer Zoe Forster helped me pull the strings together in the end. We funded the project through various private sources: some of our members generously donated money that helped us pay our designers Hyperkit, who worked day and night to set up the website and produce the exhibition posters and postcards, and Assael and Foster Architects paid for the printing. During the London Architecture Biennale in Clerkenwell, a one-week event on St John’s Street, large images of our cases were put up on the walls of a derelict factory building that had been turned into an exhibition space. This brought us interesting discussions at the Biennale and a number of new members.

The project so far has been a success. It has stirred up interest for some cases that so far had been very quiet. The Market Hall in Huddersfield (J Seymour Harris Partnership, 1970) has since been portrayed a number of times on radio and TV; the website nourished a local discussion started by a pressure group, and brought the building into the public eye.

The long term intention is to keep the site updated, and possibly add more cases. We are also planning an exhibition in the North. For this project we need the help of members and volunteers. If you are interested, please contact us on 020 7250 3857 or write to cordula.zeidler(at)c20society.org.uk

Cordula Zeidler

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