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We should consider a Millennial Society to protect the past

In seeking to carve out our own architectural identity, we are in danger of destroying the precious work of previous generations

by John Darlington  |  15.04.2016
We should consider a Millennial Society to protect the past
Park Hill Flats are famous and iconic 1960s concrete housing above Sheffield Station. Once notorious they are now grade 2 listed (protected from demolition) and redeveloped. © Andrew Basterfield
Earlier this year, the British prime minister, David Cameron, pledged that he would demolish or overhaul 100 Brutalist housing estates across the UK. “Step outside in the worst estates and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers,” he wrote in an article announcing the Conservative government’s plans.

The raw, stripped-back nature of Brutalism, and its mammoth scale, was partly born as a response to the frippery of the 1930s and 1940s. But Brutalism quickly fell out of fashion in the early 1980s, to be replaced by postmodern styles interested in testing the boundaries of materials and new technology. The reaction against Brutalist architecture has been severe, with many estates and government buildings demolished in the past few decades. Yet we are now growing to appreciate those that are left, and with the passage of another decade, more of us will have fallen back in love with the austere, honest nature of the likes of Park Hill in Sheffield, a housing estate listed in 1998, or London’s South Bank.

Park Hill in Sheffield, England, before the renovation. © Paolo Margari
Too often, the architecture of the recent past falls into limbo—too young to be classed as heritage and too dated to be current and cutting-edge. Insufficient time has passed to allow a sense of legacy and value to mature. In a world with an already short attention span, and an increasingly disposable society, it is yesterday’s past that is at greatest risk. Is it time for a Millennial Society, a champion to conserve the best architecture of the 21st century? Do we need a campaigning conscience to help put the brakes on our throwaway approach and inspire a different way of thinking?

Why? What problem would we be seeking to fix? Like any child, we kick back against the previous generation. We strive to create our own identity, driving the pendulum of fashion from one extreme to another. The gap defines us. But there is a danger in our desire to be creative, fresh and new in that we delete the work of generations closest to us. Lancelot “Capability” Brown removed countless earlier gardens in his drive to create his signature pastoral landscapes with lawns that swept up to the windows of the grand mansion. Stuart and Jacobean gardens now make up just over 300 of the Registered Parks and Gardens in England, compared with more than 900 Georgian examples. Not all Brown’s fault, but he didn’t help.

How would a Millennial Society function? It might start by asking the question: “What would you save from the first decades of the 21st century?” I’m not talking of the national set pieces (the Shard or Olympic Stadium)—they are big enough to stand on their own two feet and will have advocates and detractors arguing for and against the wrecking ball when it comes. I am interested in the layers beneath these, the locally special and the everyday—in effect, recent heritage that provides the warp and weft of life.

Could anyone love a home built by the property developers Barratt enough to want to preserve it? I am not sure (unless they became so rare as to become museum artefacts), but what about an early housing estate that adopted sustainable principles, such as Redrow Homes’ Stamford Brook in Cheshire, which looks like a normal estate but is filled with energy-saving gadgetry underneath the homes? Or, on a similar sustainable theme, the Triangle, 42 terraced houses made of timber, Hemcrete (a concrete made from hemp) and lime render, which take their inspiration from Swindon’s tradition of railway architecture.

One role of the Millennial Society would be to punctuate change, to prompt a moment to pause and reflect, thinking about future generations before pressing the demolish button. We might hate Amazon’s enormous distribution warehouse in Peterborough (a 21st-century response to our changing shopping patterns, mirrored by changes to the high street), but others before us intensely disliked the Barbican, or Victorian mills, or squalid timber-framed Tudor buildings with their “nasty” interiors (Erasmus in 1530).

It is not easy trying to predict our future listed buildings and conservation areas. This may be to do with being too close—living in the period rather than beyond it—but it is also about the impact of globalisation. Trade, transport and the digital revolution have made global the new local, and the result is that places look increasingly familiar: same brands, same materials and same architecture. Southampton looks like Southport, looks like Southend. If there is one thing to mark the 21st century, it is the continuing loss of communal, distinctive styles.

So perhaps the Millennial Society would be a historical organisation that is about the future more than the past. It would encourage a conservation-led approach to new development—to think about legacy before construction, rather than focus on the ribbon- cutting, award-winning, blaze-of-glory moment of opening. Its ambition would be to encourage new listed buildings of the future; ones that are confident in the period of their time and locally distinct. It would be an antidote to the disposable society, a champion of slow architecture and places that look different because they are different.

To do this, you need to understand and appreciate history. Fittingly, a Millennial Society would perform a neat postmodern trick of being about the future, but a future rooted in the richness and character of the past.

Forward thinking: speed limits on the moon

Calling occupants of interplanetary craft: NASA is moving to protect and preserve sites of historical importance on the moon, including overflight exclusion zones. Courtesy of The Lunar and Planetary Institute
In 2011, Nasa published its recommendations to “space-faring entities” about how to protect and preserve the historic value of lunar artefacts, including Apollo Moon landing sites, the hardware used to get to the Moon, the tracks left by lunar vehicles and the human footprints that have been left behind. “It is anticipated that future spacecraft… will have the interest to visit these sites in the coming years… potentially destroying irreplaceable historic, scientific and educational artefacts and materials,” Nasa wrote. Its advice encompasses 2km overflight exclusion zones and no-go areas on the ground; to address issues of dust contamination, it even specifies speed limits for lunar vehicles (4.47 miles an hour in the vicinity of a site). In 2013, two US Congressmen submitted a bill to create a national park on the Moon. The Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act would protect the landing sites of the Apollo missions (11-17) from 1969 to 1972. The bill has reached no further than committee stage.


• John Darlington is the executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain. Twitter: @JohnD_WMFB

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