Simon Roper-Pressdee, Planning Director, and Daryl Page, Principal Built Heritage Consultant at WYG, consider the Post-Modernist style as the ‘marmite of heritage’.
The inclusion of seventeen Post-Modernist (PoMo) buildings on the Statutory List of Buildings, has led to considerable discussion over the inclusion of this style of architecture on the list, effectively giving these buildings some of the highest protection within the existing system. So, why have these buildings gained listed status? How do they comply with the requirements for listing, and does the listing dilute the influence of the listing?
To answer this, we must examine the framework in which listed buildings sit.
The definition of a listed building according to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, is: “A building of special architectural or historic interest”. Statutory criteria on the age and rarity of a building, particularly post-1945 modern buildings states that “particularly careful selection is required, and that buildings of less than 30 years old are normally listed only if they are of outstanding quality and under threat.”
PoMo began in the early 1970s as a reaction that challenged, and even outwardly rejected, the failed utopian idealism and design philosophy of the Modernist movement. Criticism intensified in the post-war period as cities became increasingly saturated with mundane high-rise concrete slabs, often thrown up with little concern of existing communities or the surrounding context.
The motto “less is more” adopted by Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was rebutted by architect Robert Venturi who replied: “Less is a bore.” Architectural historian and critic, Charles Jencks, believed this new movement offered a warmer, brighter and more experimental style compared to the perceived banality of Modernism.
Post-Modern architects set out to play on individual tastes and apply a sense of humour and irony in their buildings. This was characterised by combining modern construction techniques with historicism, celebrating richly coloured edifices, and working with a diverse range of patterns and iconography.
Post-Modernism later became synonymous with new commercial developments and yuppie flats during the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era of financial deregulation and big business. The once fashionable architectural style was gradually rejected and even vilified by architects and the public as superficial and complicit to a profit motive. Retrospectively, however, this movement represents an aesthetic that influenced cultural developments in the late twentieth century.
So, what is the impact on the status of listed buildings? We have to consider one of the first principles of protecting our heritage, that each generation should shape and sustain the historic environment without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.
With PoMo now part of the emerging historic environment, it’s clear that the movement has had a significant impact on our built environment, shaping our towns and cities. As with many architectural movements and styles, there are buildings of low status and quality, often designed by hijacking different schemes for detail. However, as with all styles and movements, there are designs and buildings that stand out from the rest, and provide an insight into the evolution of architecture, not just in this country, but throughout Europe and the Americas.
We also need to recognise the impact and influence of architects’ who have reacted to previous movements and styles and helped shape our built environment. Considering the impact PoMo has had on our towns and cities, and our every-day life, it is important that the most significant elements and examples of this controversial, ‘marmite’ style of architecture should receive the same protection.