Preserving modernity?

I recently found myself with a little time on my hands in a particular area of Britain, and seeing a signpost with a town name I had never heard of I decided to go and have a look. It turned out to be a ‘new town’, one of those built in the period between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s and which were intended both as architectural and as social statements. Like many of these places, this one had not worn well. The building material was overwhelmingly concrete, and it wasn’t perhaps top quality and a lot of it looked in poor shape. In addition, as was often the case around then, facilities, amenities and services were not provided in an ideal manner, and civic pride never established itself properly. At any rate the place looked run down and neglected and unloved. I suspect that various social indicators, from education to crime, will tell a typical story here.

But as I was strolling through the area (taking some photographs), I came across a display board outside a public building, and one of the news items pinned up there was a proposal by a pressure group to have the town centre protected by a preservation order, as the town was, as the statement put it, ‘an iconic landmark of the 20th century’. I looked around at the crumbling concrete and heavily littered shopping precinct and the ubiquitous graffiti and I wondered about the statement.

In fact, in Britain the Twentieth Century Society has over recent years made increasingly urgent calls for the preservation of that century’s architecture, including the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s (including a good few of the concrete motorway bridges). The 1920s and 1930s produced some really great buildings, and I confess I love art deco. But the rather brutalist 1970s stuff? No, I find that much harder to like.

And now I see that a group called DoCoMoMo (which has as its mission to secure the preservation of the output of the modern movement) wants us to preserve the current Liberty Hall building (headquarters of the trade union SIPTU) as a ‘structure of national importance’. The union has plans to replace it with something bigger and better, and I suspect that not many people in Dublin are anxious to preserve the existing structure. It has rather dominated the skyline of Dublin city centre, with a kind of ‘I don’t look nice but hey, I’m here’ brashness. Surely we wouldn’t miss it! Or would be?

Maybe we need to think again about how we see the post-War years of the 20th century. We know how we hear those years: the soundtrack of the era has the Beatles and the Stones, and this will always be with us. Should we look again at the visual part, and give it another chance? Maybe, but it won’t work unless we can associate it with much more civic price and social concern. As long as litter and debris and burnt out cars set the tone for the new towns of the era, and graffiti is splashed across the motorway bridges, it’s unlikely that too many people will develop that sense of affection. But then again, when Liberty Hall last autumn had a display in 300 windows of computerised images and texts it created a new interest in the building. Maybe we could be won around, with an effort.

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3 Comments on “Preserving modernity?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I think a certain humility is required when making decisions about what to preserve. We tend to ascribe absolute notions of merit or beauty to current (particularly our own) values. The Eiffel Tower was considered by many to be ugly in its day and many wanted it torn down. Doubtless, the Pyramids had its detractors too!


  2. I agree, Kevin – that’s pretty much what I wanted to say at the end…

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Looking at that photo, juxtaposed to the Custom House, it really does look quite elegant and restrained. These two buildings, together with the nearby Bus Aras, constitute a mini architectural museum for the city, and contrast markedly with the corporate awfulness that makes up much of the IFSC or, perhaps worst of all, the Irish Life building! I’d agree with the move to retain Liberty Hall, only they will need to do something about the window frames.


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