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The fragility of architecture - Modernist classic turned to a pile of ashes


The Built Environment


construction methods, heritage

At a recent RICS & Historic England seminar the fragility of buildings was starkly illustrated by a series of presentations showing how the concerns and demands of 21st century owners can impact on the built environment. The vulnerability of buildings to the vagaries of personal taste was graphically illustrated through the story of Greenside. This Le Corbuiser inspired private house was one of only 60 of its kind. Designed by modernist architects; Connell, Ward and Lucus in 1937, Greenside was one of a very few cubist inspired domestic properties in the UK. Greenside - modernist architecture - residential The Twentieth Century Society: Photo John Allan, 2003 - Greenside The inherent value of this modernist building was not appreciated by either the owners or neighbours, labelling the structure ‘extremely ugly’ and ‘unsuitable for modern needs’.     Greensides’ value was acknowledgement, somewhat belatedly when English Heritage awarded it Grade II Listed status in 1988. However this status didn’t protect the building from the whims of the local planning officers who agreed to a request from Greensides’ then owner for permission to demolish it! In response, English Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society and The Twentieth Century Society did their utmost to stop this destruction. Together these bodies took the council to judicial review and ultimately succeeded in reversing the planning decision. Despite its reprieve Greenside met an ignominious fate by being demolished one quiet night in November 2003.   Greenside before and after wrecking ball The Twentieth Century Society: Casework Defenders of this ‘modern movement’ house were shocked at the demolition and further scandalized by the £15,000 fine levied. This didn’t seem to reflect the enormity of the crime of instigating an act which both flouted the law and destroyed an irreplaceable piece of modernist architecture. A precedent had potentially been established whereby an owner could take the law into their own hands, destroy a Grade II Listed property and ultimately profit from it. Greensides’ owner had effectively freed up a highly valuable piece of real-estate on which he would later seek to build a far more marketable property. Such a precedent could potentially put the power of the Listing process to protect historically and or architecturally valuable buildings from such actions in the future in jeopardy.  To obtain justice for Greenside and prevent such a precedent being set, the conservation bodies continued to apply pressure until finally a Government enquiry was instigated. As a result of this enquiry, in July 2005, a decision was made by the Deputy Prime Minister to the effect that: The subsequent application for planning permission to build a new house was not a replacement building for Greenside and constitutes inappropriate development in the green belt,” and that in his view “the proposal would cause significant harm to the openness of the greenbelt.” Furthermore: “In demolishing the building without consent, the applicant has by his own actions returned the site to open land in circumstances where he could not be said to have had any legitimate expectations that a new and different building could be erected on the site. In this way, the applicant has himself brought about a state of affairs where there is no building on the land which the proposed new dwelling could properly be said to replace”. The result of this verdict was a vindication to the heritage/architectural bodies who wanted justice for Greenside. It also drew a line in the sand in regards to how far an owner can go in respect of their own property when that property carries a Listed status. According to D H Tomback FRICS Development Economics Director this verdict has remained in force to the current day.