Listed buildings: What's the point!?

News that the four chimneys on the Grade II listed Battersea Power Station have all been rebuilt as part of the site’s £9bn redevelopment will keep conservationists happy. The building’s listed status has meant that the developers have had to demolish and rebuild exact replicas of the four crumbling chimneys as a condition for redeveloping the site. Why?

In reality all that remains of the original listed building are: four reproduction chimneys perched on four original brick podiums linked by a bit of original brickwork and … that’s it. The power station’s roof has gone, the upper walls have been removed and the buildings adjoining it have disappeared. In reality it is a pastiche of the brick industrial cathedral it once was. So why keep it?

The news comes at a time when the listing system is celebrating its 70th birthday. But, after three-score years and ten has the time come to rethink listing?

The listing system was launched in the wake of the widespread bombing suffered by the country during the Second World War. It is said that Battersea Power Station was only spared the German bombs because the plumes of white smoke issuing from its two chimneys were an important navigational landmark for the Luftwaffe (its second pair of chimneys were only added after the war).

Following the war there was an expectation that a huge amount of redevelopment would be underway in bomb-damaged cities nationwide. Listing was intended to save historically important buildings, sites and landscapes from the wrecking ball so as to preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations.

Today the list, which is maintained by Historic England, is about 400 000 entries long and includes everything from a sixties petrol station to the gravestone of Wallace Hartley, the violin player who was the band leader on the doomed Titanic. The list even includes Central Milton Keynes Shopping Building which, at the time of its listing, heritage minister John Penrose conceded was not universally loved. It being awarded listed status was not much loved by the shopping centre’s owners either. At the time they said they were disappointed with the decision, arguing that it would effectively strangle commercial development of the site.

And therein lays the rub with listing: one body’s decision to preserve a 1970’s shopping centre for the enjoyment of future generations has, potentially, deprived the burghers of Milton Keynes the opportunity of a contemporary shopping experience.

The same argument can be made for the preservation of Battersea Power Station. This brick edifice is currently being turned into luxury flats, a shopping centre and offices. I would argue that its demolition and the site’s subsequent imaginative redevelopment would have delivered a new, more dynamic use of this prime riverside site, one that would far better serve the Capital and future generations rather than creating an up-market living and retail destination.

Cities develop, technologies advance; working practices evolve; the needs of communities change. A building designed and built to meet a particular purpose decades or even centuries ago may no longer be relevant today, particularly if it cannot be adapted to accommodate current working practices or to meet current fire and energy regulations. So why keep it, particularly if it is preventing a more relevant scheme being built in its place?

Historic England argues that listed buildings are integral to the nation’s culture in much the same way as collections are to museums and galleries. I would argue that the problem with listing on this basis is that it takes a building out of its urban context by regarding it as an object in isolation rather than as an inherent, dynamic part of the urban or rural fabric. If towns and cities are populated with too many listed buildings then evolution will be stifled.

We need to construct buildings that are of our age if we are to create a thriving modern metropolis. We have the architectural skills to design schemes appropriate to their context that will enrich our urban environment. If cities to thrive and evolve we need imaginative designers, developers with vision and planners with the courage to reject inferior schemes not assiduous conservationists.