Some of the most widely disliked buildings in Britain, so called “concrete brutalist” structures of the 60s and 70s, including a bus station in Preston, a library in Birmingham, and parts of the South Bank centre in London, have been listed among the world’s most endangered treasures.
The UK has seven places on the World Monument Fund’s watch list for endangered sites – more in proportion to its size than any other country.
The sites are usually nominated by campaigners to save them – the 20th Century Society in the case of the brutals – and inclusion is often followed by hefty grants from a trust fund based in the Empire State Building in New York and backed by American Express, which has just committed a further $5m (£3.2m).
The seven UK nominations the island of St Helena, that speck of land in the south Atlantic where Napoleon was imprisoned; Quarr, a 20th-century abbey on the Isle of Wight; Newstead Abbey, Byron’s family home; and the medieval ruins of Coventry’s old cathedral, levelled by a night of German bombing but still standing beside Sir Basil Spence’s new building.
The most controversial, however, will undoubtedly be the harsh, uncompromisingly grey concrete buildings jointly nominated as “British brutalism”, which though they have passionate admirers, have also often been voted the structures people would most like to see demolished.
In the case of Birmingham central library, they are likely to get their wish. Although the 1970s building is still in use, the most ambitious new library project in the country, a towering £200m complex including a new home for the Birmingham Rep theatre company, has already started to rise above the rooftops. When the books and collections are transferred in 2013, the old building will be demolished, and many in Birmingham – including most of the staff – will dance on its grave.
Preston’s monumental bus station, the biggest in the world when it opened in 1969, and still doing the job for which it was built, is also threatened with demolition.
Like the Preston and Birmingham structures, the Hayward Gallery in the South Bank complex has been refused listed building status, although it is flanked by the Grade II*-listed National Theatre and the Grade I-listed Festival Hall. Many artists including Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin have mounted spectacularly successful recent exhibitions there, but over the last decades several redevelopment proposals for the South Bank complex have envisaged flattening it and its neighbouring Queen Elizabeth concert hall.
Jonathan Foyle, chair of the UK branch of the WMF, said: “Britain has a high level of statutory protection and guardianship, but it also has a very wide and rich heritage and inevitably things fall through the cracks in the floorboards. We are independent and non-governnmental, and we see it as our job to stick up for the underdogs, to flag up the importance of places that might not immediately strike everyone.”
A total of 67 sites have made it on to the list this time, ranging from the enigmatic Nasca lines which run for miles across the Peruvian desert, to the American civil war site of Charleston in South Carolina, considered at risk from unsympathetic tourist development including rows of moored cruise ships. The floating fishing villages of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam are included, along with a fire-damaged railway station in Istanbul.
Sites devastated by natural disasters have also made the list, including hundreds of traditional villages and historic sites destroyed or damaged by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and monuments in Christchurch, damaged the New Zealand quake.
“The watch [list] reminds us of our collective role as stewards of the earth and of its human heritage,” Bonnie Burnham, president of the fund, said in New York.
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