Why should we protect modernist architecture?



Sir John Nash’s Regent Street, Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, the Euston Arch, the art deco Firestone factory and Preston bus station: all, except one, are buildings demolished in the name of efficiency and progress that were said to have outlived their useful purpose, to be impractical and expensive to maintain, and whose loss was regretted forever after.

The exception is Preston bus station, which still stands, just, pending erasure by a huge retail development indistinguishable from huge retail developments elsewhere, which is presented as absolutely essential to the future health and happiness of Preston. Locals and experts alike have urged the preservation of the bus station, but the relevant ministers in this government and the last have turned them down.

You might think that Preston bus station does not belong in this august company – after all, an amusingly dull image of it featured in Martin Parr’s anthology of Boring Postcards – but you would be wrong. It is precisely like the old tyre factory or Soane’s out-of-date bank, in that it is a great work about to be destroyed just before its period comes to be fully appreciated and just when the functional justification for its existence seems weakest.

With its impossibly long horizontal lines, its surprisingly voluptuous curves, its generous waiting areas, it embodies the spirit of its 1960s age, but it faces the same fate as Preston’s Gilbert Scott town hall, long ago lost when out of fashion.

The bus station is not alone. It is part of a company of buildings from the 1960s and 70s that fall victim to a vicious compound of circumstances. They are tough, not obviously charming and carry a label no PR expert would have chosen, of “brutalism”. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated. They are a hard sell. You might be one of many who look at the images on these pages and hate them. But then, many had the same reaction to Victorian piles and Lancashire factories, which have become the heart of urban regeneration.

These works are mostly public buildings, built by local authorities, and by a kind of civic confidence going back to Victorian times that, it would turn out, was in its death throes. They are also socialist. They tend not to maximise the commercial efficiency of their sites, preferring a generosity of space that now makes them vulnerable to property developers who can multiply their profit-making area by factors of two, three, four and more. The modern descendants of the councillors who had these structures built now rush, in an Oedipal spasm, to slay them with the retail and leisure centres that will make their city look like everywhere else.

In theory, the system of listed buildings should protect works over 30 years old that are of historic and architectural interest, also younger buildings that are of exceptional quality and under threat. The usual procedure is that English Heritage makes recommendations and the culture department accepts or rejects them. Yet, either because the relevant minister has turned them down, or because English Heritage has not supported them, many buildings of undoubted interest are lost, threatened or refused listing.

Birmingham central library

Birmingham central library. Photograph: Stephen Cooper/AlamyThey include the bus station, Redcar library, the Get Carter car park in Gateshead, Birmingham central library, and, in London, Pimlico school, the Robin Hood Gardens estate and the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. Meanwhile, the BBC’s relatively insipid Television Centre has been listed, because it inspires fond memories of John Cleese, the early Doctor Who and the Blue Peter dogs.

The listing system is a miraculous thing and does not always duck difficult decisions – Milton Keynes’s 1970s shopping centre is listed, for example. The current listings minister, John Penrose, seems more open-minded than his predecessor, Margaret Hodge, who declared her hostility to most things modern.

But the system has failed with this particular class of buildings. Taken together, their loss would amount to an editing of history, the forgetting and smoothing over of a vital period in British politics and architecture. With, incidentally, the environmental loss of all the energy and material that went into their construction, which now has to be spent again on new buildings and the remains that now have to be sent to landfill.

Now the wheel of time is bringing early Thatcherite monuments up for consideration, most notably the Lloyd’s building and Broadgate in the City of London. The former almost certainly will be listed when its time comes. Broadgate is more complex, as listing risks offending the mighty international business of UBS, and its merit lies in its overall plan rather than individual buildings. But, at its best, listing has always been about asserting value over immediate gain, as a result of which we still have buildings such as the universally admired St Pancras station. If it can recover its nerve, Prestons of the future can be avoided.

Rowan Moore, the Observer



What is modernist architecture and what is modernism?



Modernist architecture emphasizes function. It attempts to provide for specific needs rather than imitate nature. The roots of Modernism may be found in the work of Berthold Luberkin (1901-1990), a Russian architect who settled in London and founded a group called Tecton. The Tecton architects believed in applying scientific, analytical methods to design. Their stark buildings ran counter to expectations and often seemed to defy gravity.

Modernist architecture can express a number of stylistic ideas, including:

Modernist architecture has these features, as is shown above in the utilitarian design of Skelmersdale swimming pool.:

  • Little or no ornamentation
  • Factory-made parts
  • Man-made materials such as metal and concrete
  • Emphasis on function
  • Rebellion against traditional styles.



The term Modernism applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the arts that emerged from the middle of the 19th century, as artists rebelled against traditional Historicism, and later through 20th century as the necessity of an individual rejecting previous tradition, and by creating individual, original techniques. ……Modernism was not merely defined by its avant garde but also by a reforming trend within previous artistic norms.

The second half of the 19th century has been called the Positivist age. In the visual arts this modernistic or positivistic spirit is most obvious in the widespread rejection of Romantic subjectivism and imagination in favor of the faith in the positive consequences of the close observation and the accurate and apparently objective description of the ordinary, observable world. The term Realism was the label used around 1850 by the artists and critics who pioneered the development.   In the modern opposition to this current historicism were a series of ideas, among which some were even direct extensions of the Romanticism itself- the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for example. But Impressionism– painting school originating in France, had particular impact on Modernism. It was initially focused on work done, not in studios, but in the “plain air”. They argued that human beings do not see objects, but instead, they saw light itself. The school became increasingly influential and the work of Eduard Manet attracted tremendous attention.  At the turn of century crucial ideas were:

  • the importance of the machine as being part of beauty,
  • the importance of subjective experience,
  • the necessity for system to replace the concept of “objective reality”.

These concepts were often in competition with each other.



In the first 15 years of the 20th century, the landmarks of Modernism include artists such as Gustav Klimt, Matisse, Mondrian, the abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, culminating with the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich, the Surrealism, the rise of Cubism with the work of Picasso and Georges Braque. Modernism’s cutting edges, to this point had been the exploration of subjective experience and the clarification and simplification of structure.



 The rise of cinema and “moving pictures” in the first decade of the 20th century gave the modern movement an artform which was uniquely its own. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, also strongly affected Modernism.  In period 1910-1930’s there were two trends of Modernism, to some extent, at cross purposes – Subjectivity and Criticism. Many early modernists were seeking increasing sophistication, and hence for greater difficulty in understanding a work, and others a greater transparency, and hence easier understanding.


On the eve of World War I the break out of the Russian Revolution introduced the increasing number of works which either radically simplified or rejected previous practice. Underlying strand of that thinking can be called the shift from idealistic to critical. This tendency mirrors that art is to communicate clearly.



Subjectivity, on the other hand, led to an increasing exploration of primitivism, with Paul Gauguin‘s paintings. Arts from Africa became increasingly prominent in the public consciousness, because of their geometrical nature, their perceived reaching for original or basic drives, and their phantasmagoric quality, such as is seen by ceremonial masks.



Thus in the immediate post-war years, the tendency to form “movements” and develop systems became increasingly entrenched in the modern movement. Examples include Dadaism, the “International style” of Bauhaus and Socialist Realism. By 1930, Modernism had entered popular culture with “The Jazz Age” and the increasing urbanization of populations. Such ideas rapidly became labeled “modern” or “hyper-modern.



 The pressures of communication, transportation and more rapid scientific development began placing a premium on search for simplification of diction in the work of various art forms. One example was the movement towards clarity, and the embracing of new technology, found in Futurism.



After World War II, Modernism began to merge with consumer culture, especially during the 1960s. In Britain, a youth sub-culture even called itself “modernists”. Modernist design also began to enter the mainstream of popular culture. The merging of consumer and modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of “modernism” itself. Firstly, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Secondly, it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as Postmodernism.

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Modernism – From Liverpool to Preston


Skelmersdale main library

North West Lancashire provides a rich environment for the fan of modernist architecture ,  from the stunning Catholic Church in Leyland, Preston’s dramatic bus station to the elegant public buildings of Skelmersdale New town, there is much to be seen.   But many of these buildings are under threat from the developer, and as we speak campaigns are being organised to save some of these buildings.  In my blogs about modernism I will be describing  these buildings, their placed in the history of architecture in this country and how safe they are from the wrecking ball.

Community church, DigmoorDigmoor shopping centre, Skelmersdale

The Artists and sculptors

Elsewhere in my blog you can read discussions with some of the artists responsible for creating these works,  but, let’s start off with some images




A philosophy gaining a good deal of popularity in the early 20 th century arguing that the problems of cities could be overcome by a central vision. An idea that struck a chord with the architects and planners espousing modernist design to create their utopian new towns.  Some theorists argued  that the physical problems of cities were an indication of a wider social malaise, others, that by reconstructing the physical space, the social problems could be overcome.

Utopian visionaries included Le Corbusier, and his invention of ‘machines’ – high rise towers in beautiful landscapes where we would all live and work, changed the modern landscape for ever. Many of architects designing the the New Towns of the1960’s were hugely influenced by Le Courbusier, and in Skelmersdale New Town, Lancashire we see a rather uncomfortable mixture this and of the garden cities of Britain created by Ebenezer Howard.

Part of the Skelmersdale Basic Plan for the centre of the town


All the addresses in Skelmersdale are in alphabetical order for the ease of the postal service, (Ennerdale followed by Elmrigde, followed by Elmstead etc. ) if not for the ease of the locals – adding to the sense that everywhere looks the same

Although the Skelmersdale engineers demolished the existing hamlets, for example Windy corner and Summer Street, and overlook the natural shape of the local environment, they did not suggest that this demoliton was part of a master plan, instead they called it a ‘basic plan.’


  • Assumes a top down approach to population and social management
  • Economically convenient, but whilst it might look good initially to the accountants, the longer term  implications may not be worked through at a cost to individual inhabitants and the wider community
  • Tends not to be an organic bottom up approach which allows the community to genuinely have a say in what happens and flourish (all a bit vegetative that analogy)
  • Tends to be driven by a dominant ideology which may be at variance with the beliefs of different members of the community  –  and therefore problematic (think of the issues in Northern Ireland here). This is very different to a shared purpose or belief system
  • If people are obliged to live in a housing environment where everything looks the same – (and they ‘don’t like it’ irrespective of their genuine feelings about it.  will they want to rebel against this by the most direct means possible by defacing it?  I don’t like it, so I trash it
  • However, in times of housing crisis, and the need to produce a considerable amount of accommodation very quickly, it is a difficult task to genuinely engage all of the community all of the time.  And the trouble with community involvement, it is usually the few politically minded, assertive individuals who shout loudest.

FROM NEW TOWNS TO GROWTH AREAS – JIM BENNETT, IPPR, 2005 provides  an in-depth analysis of history of new towns and their impact on present development.

More discussions with Ian Henderson


But was there a discrepancy between what art could achieve and what the senior managers wanted to pay for?

Skelmersdale Development Corporation was made of different professional groups and individuals; this was problematic.  A strong team of engineers was responsible for road systems and structures, and it was the architects’ responsibility to create a aesthetic and a workable new environment.  Planners were in charge of the overview.  But they did not follow master planning principle.

Most significant is the work Henderson did to improve the environment for the children and as described, their “boisterous joy of living,  by enabling them, in the middle of the Radburn estates, to have stimulating places to play.  He stressed the Importance of allowing space for exploration and imaginative play encouraging children to congregate in areas of their own choice.  In this he echoed Swedish and Danish schemes that incorporated children’s play areas within housing developments.These early projects were realised in the success of the Lancashire new town. People were happy to bring their families to live in Skelmersdale and it became a social and economic success.

“If rough landscapes, for example old quarries, are made into safe, terraced play areas, sadly the options for children’s imaginative use of landscape are lost and with it that input to their imaginations and growing intelligence.”  


Alan Boyson and the gradual destruction of modernism


Alan Boyson was responsible for building the most well known of the Skelmersdale monuments, the Pyramid.  It was demolished many years’ ago, as other works by this significant modernist sculptor.  But, some still survive in the Manchester area, and one day in March 2011 I decided to visit them all.  There are about eight works, and I described a few here.

The first image is that of the concrete screen around multi-storey car park. Boyson, along with many of his contemporaries in art and architecture, used concrete. It was cheap, could be assembled by relatively unskilled labour, and it soon became associated with a new age, new materials and a post-war vision that rejected the constructs of the past. These days we tend to think that concrete is a dull, functional material associated with cheap, mass produced building design, but then in the 1960s it offered an exciting, new method of working.

Alan Boyson’s work suffered from being associated with a later rejection of all things concrete, and much of it was demolished.  But, at last, it is being recognised as important. Most famously, the Tree of Life in Salford, Manchester, decorating the former Salford Girls school, was saved, at the last minute from the bulldozers.  The massive wall decorated with ceramic tiles, now sits on its own in an empty  demolition site, whilst the local council decide what to do.