Late 20th century architecture - beautiful or brash?

Published by Turley on 22nd February 2020 -



In property we talk about development cycles, but what about fashion cycles?

Late 20th century architecture, once considered hideous or even ridiculous, is now assuredly ‘en vogue’. As the sector focuses on how to repurpose buildings, towns and city centres to meet changing retail, working and leisure needs, which modernist, Brutalist and Post-modern buildings should be saved? 

This summer we held a seminar with Glenn Howells Architects in Birmingham, a city famed for its post-war redevelopment, to discuss what makes buildings and places of this period ‘beautiful’ or ‘brutal’. 

It is not an easy question to answer, with architecture of this period remaining divisive. Whilst some are attracted to the modernity, sculptural forms and rough textures of late 20th century architecture, others find the appearance oppressive and lacking in human scale and intimacy. During the seminar, we explored how decisions to demolish buildings of this period are made, and whether there is ever a qualitative assessment of an existing building vs the replacement building irrespective of statutory listing or other protection, to ensure we maintain or enhance our built environment. Has sufficient time passed for us to objectively assess what is ‘good’, or is our judgement clouded by fashion cycles and negative associations?

In considering the example of the now-demolished Birmingham Central Library (John Madin, 1969-74) we deliberated whether a building, flawed in terms of its town planning, should nevertheless be retained due to its architectural merit and evidence of our past urban thinking.  

Given architecture of this period is so polemic, how can advisors, developers or investors manage the risks posed by the growing interest in late 20th century buildings?

It’s a question we’re often asked and we have therefore compiled a selection of our key projects focused on late 20th century architecture. The below brochure, which is available to download, includes works by leading 20th century architects including James Stirling, John Outram, Arup Associates and Sir Frederick Gibberd, as well as a broad range of building typologies; from offices to universities and schools, religious retreats and even water treatment works. 

These examples show just how varied architecture from this period can be, and that a building’s architectural or historic interest is not always immediately apparent. Understanding risk starts with a robust assessment of significance to inform decision-making. Our commercially focused advice is underpinned by this understanding of what is important about a building or place, combined with our experience of the legislative and regulatory tools available to bring certainty to the development process. 

Iona Stonehouse

We are a full service national planning and development consultancy.

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