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Why we should fear wiping out our design heritage

Last week, 14 historic buildings were given listed status in England. What made this particular group of buildings interesting is that they were all modern postwar examples of concrete, steel and glass architecture and design.

This led to a lot of debate in the media and online about what should be preserved and what should be demolished and replaced with something new. Many people see concrete buildings as ugly, utilitarian and uninteresting and would rather they were replaced than protected.

If, however, you start to look at the list of buildings that have gained protected status you can begin to understand why we should preserve them. These buildings are more than just concrete boxes. They were groundbreaking shapes and structures that redefined building functions and the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces.

These 14 new listings are office buildings and, according to English Heritage, “recognise the work of leading modern architects”. They reflect changes to the way we work. They also recognise the importance of architecture and design across the country, not just in the capital. They include buildings in Basingstoke (Gateway House), Bristol, (Central Electricity Generating Board), Chatham (Gun Wharf), Birmingham (Alpha Tower) Leeds (the Bank House) and Cosham (IBM Pilot Head Office).

Just as we look to old mills, workhouses and Victorian factories as examples of how we used to work and how function influenced design, these more modern workplaces can help future generations to understand the postwar workplace and the incredible social as well as technical changes that occurred during this period.

English Heritage writes: “Office buildings shape the face of our cities… Listing helps the nation acknowledge and understand its shared history. It marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest.”

What concerns me most about the urge to remove something perceived as ugly is that we would be in danger of wiping out an entire era of postwar architecture and losing all the great buildings of that time. Without these real-life examples, future architects and designers would be without a real-life reference.

PHOTO: English Heritage

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