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11 December 2019

Catherine Croft: Getting Away from the Demolition Mentality in the UK

Catherine Croft is director of the Twentieth Century (C20) Society for 20th-century architecture in London and editor of C20 magazine. The author of the book Concrete Architecture, she is an expert on concrete conservation, which she also teaches. At the conference, she presents case studies including the homes of Richard Rogers and Charles Jencks.

For the uninitiated, what does the C20 Society do?
We campaign for the preservation of buildings in the UK constructed from 1914 onwards, right up to the present day. We’re open to a wide range of architecture, from high end to utilitarian – our only criterion apart from date is that it must be important in some way. We are funded mainly by our members’ subscriptions and donations, and we organize field trips for them – we’ve just got back from one in India.

You’ve been director of the C20 Society for ten years. What has changed in that time?
There’s been a huge surge in interest in Brutalist buildings, but that’s only just beginning to be appreciated by building owners and developers. Seeing concrete celebrated as a glamorous and desirable product is still a very pleasant novelty! We are now looking increasingly at High Tech and Postmodern buildings, including ones which were being built when I was a student. There are some amazing private houses amongst them.

What are you most proud of regarding the C20 Society’s work?
Our persistence – plus our pragmatism. I like the way we link up with local and national groups, which I think gives us a unique perspective. And then there are all the buildings – a really wide variety of them – that wouldn’t be here today without our work.

How would you describe the situation for post-1965 heritage in the UK?
Increasing pressure for redevelopment, and the housing crisis in London and the South East, plus little in the way of legal protection, means that the economic incentive to demolish and rebuild at a higher density has never been greater. With practically no funding for maintenance or repair, public housing is particularly at risk, as local authorities partner with commercial firms to cram more and more units onto tight sites.

What image problems do 20th-century British buildings face?
They’re seen as being poorly insulated, and environmentally unfriendly, particularly those built before the oil crisis when electricity was super cheap and climate change not yet a concern. We need to demonstrate that insulation can be sensitively improved and, above all, we should emphasize the irretrievable loss of embodied energy whenever a building is demolished. For the sake of the environment, we have to learn to re-use buildings and get away from the demolition mentality.

You talk about the Charles Jencks house at the conference – weren’t there some obstacles to it becoming a museum?
Unusually, money was not the issue here, but the fact that neighbours had concerns about the possible numbers of visitors and loss of privacy. Limiting visitor numbers and certain changes to accessing the house have solved that issue. Popularity with visitors can be a problem, as I saw in Mexico City, where the Frida Kahlo Museum has a huge impact on the neighbourhood, with lots of coaches, trinket sellers and so on. Anyway, Jencks’ house probably won’t attract such a cult following although it is a really important house and is becoming a museum at exactly the right time – Postmodernism is just beginning to be reassessed.

Your first encounter with Jencks wasn’t a huge success, I understand.
As a recent graduate, I had a job on an architecture compendium and I had to write up Jencks’ home for it. He hated it! He wanted to change everything, so I suggested meeting up to try to solve the issue. He gave me an extensive tour of his house and it turned out to be a very positive encounter.

As an expert in concrete conservation, what would you say is the biggest issue that Modern concrete buildings face?
I would say the lack of skills for repair work. Also, people are simply unaware of all the varieties of concrete and its surface finishes. There’s a lot of work to be done in increasing awareness and ability. On the plus side, concrete is valued and enjoyed far more as a material these days.

What other renovation issues would you highlight?
Well, I was concerned about the idea to restore Richard Rogers’ house to make it look shiny and new again – just because it’s a High Tech building doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look its age. Its faded appearance is a reminder of just how long we’ve lived in the world of Modernism.

Which is your own favourite young heritage house?
Möbius House (1993–1998), in Het Gooi, the Netherlands by UN Studio. When I was writing Concrete Architecture, I was lucky enough to visit it with architect Ben van Berkel. I loved the quality of concrete and light, the sheer craftsmanship of the building, and its truly radical reassessment of family life and interactions.

What gives you the most hope for heritage homes currently?
The fact that more and more people are keen to visit them!

Catherine recommends watching these interviews with Richard Rogers about the Wimbledon House that he designed for his parents and Charles Jencks about the Thematic House that he designed for his own family.

Richard Rogers interview: Wimbledon house, Architecture, Dezeen, 15 March 2018
 
Britain's Secret Homes Charles Jencks, 27 July 2013
 

Jane Szita

Curious about the lecture and tour program?
Check it out or register here >> www.aanmelder.nl/ihc2021

Posted 11 December 2019