These are confusing times in the business of protecting the country’s architectural heritage. Certain structures are deemed worthy of preservation forever, at a hidden cost of hundreds of millions, as Grade I listed buildings. Other works, with equal claim to respect, are denied protection and cast into oblivion. At the same time, planning officers and committees alternate between painstaking preservation and bizarre moments, such as Edinburgh’s decision to approve, on the edge of a Unesco World Heritage site, a spiralling, bronze-coloured hotel (“iconic”, inevitably) that opponents appetisingly compare to both walnut whips and turds.
Recently, two large modernist buildings were up for consideration for listing: the British Library in St Pancras, and an East End council estate, Robin Hood Gardens. Both have been controversial: Prince Charles, who has never had the decency actually to visit it, called the library a “secret police academy” and a committee of MPs called it “one of the ugliest buildings in the world”. Robin Hood Gardens is a particularly tough work of New Brutalism that was used to represent Soviet Moscow in a 1980s Levis ad.
Both have benefited from changes of aesthetic wind. The MPs’ judgment of the library now looks bizarre. The interior is airy and uplifting and benefits from a quality of finish and detail that, in public buildings, now seems to belong to a bygone age. The gnarled concrete of Robin Hood Gardens is also beginning to look more appealing, compared to the flat-pack panel construction of modern blocks of flats. […]