The Twentieth Century Society comes of age
In two decades the society has risen from a group of enthusiasts to a major force for conservation of modern buildings.
Twentieth Century Society membership leaflet.

Thirties Society Journal No 1 published 1981. Six further issues were produced in this format, followed by the journal Twentieth Century Architecture, of which three issues have appeared since 1994.

In November 1999, the Twentieth Century Society celebrated its 20th anniversary. The organisation founded in November 1979 was called the Thirties Society, but when it changed its name in 1992, the change was, literally, nominal, since the society had been set up to protect British art and design since 1914 and educate the public in these matters. One of the reasons for changing the name was that it had never, from the outset, accurately reflected the scope of the society's activities. The original name was the result of much debate by the founders, Marcus Binney, John Harris and Bevis Hillier, and was never deemed wholly satisfactory, although it had a good ring to it. People were apt to enquire whether it was a dating organisation for 'thirtysomethings' and perhaps it was occasionally.

The focus on the 1930s in 1979 was not accidental, however. At the same time that the society was founded, the Arts Council held its comprehensive exhibition on the decade at the Hayward Gallery, the result of academic and curatorial study by a group of mostly younger scholars who had been fascinated by the variety of aspects of the visual culture of their parents' generation. For some, the 1930s offered a field on which the battle of styles, current in the 1970s when Modernism was under attack, could be investigated in historical terms. There was a perception that such official protection as existed for inter-war buildings in the form of listing was too heavily biased towards the modern and that re-education was necessary. Altogether, the Thirties Society in its early years shared many of the characteristics of postModernism, with an iconoclastic sense of fun and style, seldom looking below the surface of things.

To be stylish in conservation was an imperative deriving from a curious meeting of cross-currents between art history (there was a preponderance of Cambridge graduates from the History of Art course taught by Dr David Watkin) and the various forms of theatrical direct action cultivated in the campaign to save Spitalfields in the mid 1970s, carried forward by Marcus Binney in the work of SAVE. A group of colourful individualists would set themselves up against the grey mass of officialdom and, by attracting media attention, they would stir up public emotions and expose the venality and laziness of bureaucracy.

Within the microcosm of the conservation world, the Thirties Society was a fledging of the Victorian Society, which until 1979 dealt with whatever casework occurred beyond its original terminus date of 1914, which was also the date at which listing was cut off, except for special cases. The immediate impulse for the foundation of the Thirties Society was the application to demolish the Lloyds building in Leadenhall Street to make way for the replacement by Richard Rogers. Designed by Sir Edwin Cooper in 1927, the old Lloyds was unlisted, but Binney was shocked by the dismissal, within the Victorian Society, of the whole of its genre of inter-war classical Portland stone office buildings. The growing interest in Sir Edwin Lutyens, particularly, exposed the unreasonableness of purely chronological cutoff points. The enthusiasm of Roderick Gradidge for finding the continuity between late Victorian and 20th century 'traditional' design, in defiance of Modernist Puritanism, was a major source of the society's early inspiration.

The other significant early figures in the society were Clive Aslet, the founding honorary secretary, who was working on The Last Country Houses and revelling in various forms of architectural eccentricity. More sober and correct was Gavin Stamp, who succeeded Bevis Hillier as chairman of the society and brought a fierce vigour to the society's debates. Alan Powers became the first honorary caseworker in 1961, too late to carry any responsibility for not having second-guessed Nigel Broackes's bulldozers on August bank holiday 1980 when they made their pre-emptive strike against Wallis Gilbert & Partners' Firestone Factory. In retrospect, this sad loss did our cause a lot of good. Michael Heseltine ordered his historic buildings staff at the Department of the Environment to begin an 'accelerated survey' of listing, opening the lists to many more pre-1939 buildings. The society's task was to educate the historic buildings world about the richness and variety of the period, through visits, seminars and a journal, as well as to conduct a trickle of casework.

Landmarks of early casework included the 1985 public for Goodhart-Rendel's c St Wilfrid, Brighton wh won, although since t quiry was non-statutor scheme to convert the grade II* church into flats still went ahead. We argued against Terence Conran about the shop windows at Heal's (a partial victory) and got involved in pubs cinemas and other miscellaneous building types.

Three larger campaigns of the 1980s stand out in the memory and helped to bring us to notice. The first was the Red Telephone Box campaign which was at its height between 1985 and 1986. It was a confrontation between modern privatised corporate management, with its inflexible concern with image, and our own affection for the symbols of a settled public realm; for that is how the Giles Scott boxes still appear. The tigh restrictions on listing boxes were gradually broken down, while British Telecom was shamed and ridiculed in the national and local press.

Factory by ACP: a battle won but a war eventually lost.

Over the same period a different kind of campaign was conducted to dissuade the trustees of West Dean College in Sussex from dispersing items from the private collection of Edward James, the collector and patron of Surrealist art. At the centre of the dispute was Monkton House, the Lutyens house on the West Dean estate which James had converted into a Surrealist fantasy. This, we argued, could be kept with its contents and shown to the public as an important representative of the 1930s. The newly-founded English Heritage offered some support, but not enough to prevent the sale from going ahead. We defiantly held a study day on James at the ICA in aid of the campaign. Although Monkton House passed into sympathetic private ownership, it could and should have been made available to a wider public. The National Trust, for which Monkton was altogether too stronglyflavoured, redeemed itself when it raised the money to buy and open Erno Goldfinger's 2 Willow Road, starting in 1992 and opening in 1996.

The third campaign was a response to a programme of rapid and ill-conceived alterations to stations on the London Underground. The network was seriously underlisted and the control of design within the organisation was inadequate. The public service ethos of Frank Pick was being replaced by a typically 1980s commercialism, which only thinly covered over the lack of proper investment. Our report End of the Line, issued jointly with the Victorian Society, was published in 1998 and taken up by all the national papers on the day we had a meeting with the chairman of London Transport and his staff. They had been prepared to dismiss us as the lunatic fringe but were forced to pay more than lip service to the appearance of their stations.

Most of our cases concerned inter-war buildings, although as early as 1983 we applied for the listing of the National Union of Mineworkers' Building on Euston Road, a fine piece of design by Moiret and Wood in 1957, then being abandoned by Arthur Scargill for a new headquarters in Barnsley. Postwar listing and conservation had two spearheads, one being the 1985 listing by CADW of the Brymnawr Rubber Factory by ACP at grade II*, leading to a public inquiry the following year which brought a reprieve for the building without, alas, any long term solution. The other was the successful campaign to list Sir Albert Richardson's Bracken House in Cannon Street (1955-58) which was threatened by a redevelopment scheme. The listing in 1987 established a precedent which inevitably opened the way to further post-war listing. Although the initial selection exercise under the 'thirty year rule' was something of a false start, owing to a perceived political opposition to listing the still vilified products of postwar social democracy, the programme of specially researched building types organised by English Heritage's post-war listing steering group was the beginning of a new positive attitude, only periodically scuppered by wilful ministers.

The shift of focus into the post-war period was one on the reasons for the name change. The other was a truce in the battle of the styles, as much the result of having made our point about plurality in the official hierarchy as the result of any shift of ground. It came at the same as an increase in professionalism, with the employment in 1991 of a part-time caseworker, Julian Holder, and the establishment of a permanent office at Alan Baxter & Partners, in Coweross Street. This in turn required some staffing arrangements and pushed us into finding ways to achieve this. The society's membership went over the 1,000 mark about this time and by means of a highly successful events programme we made money, educated our members and enjoyed ourselves with visits, conferences and lectures. Only in 1997, however, did the society begin to receive any funding from the government to support casework, an arrangement which has been altered in 2000 to give parity with the other amenity societies.

The 20 years of growth have brought us to the end of the century to which we have attached our name. Public and official attitudes to the conservation of modern buildings have changed considerably. If there is another barrier to cross it is not the chronological one, but a recognition, in line with the values of much 20th century architecture, of the use value of buildings, public spaces and landscapes, rather than merely their ,architectural and historic importance'. Our 1991 campaign for lidos was in this sense a pilot in that it was arguing for the social value of buildings, most of which were well below the threshold for listing, but were important community assets representing the noncommercial values of another age.

Meanwhile, Wallpaper* magazine has marketed nostalgia for the 1970s in a way that would have been inconceivable at the time we began. Or would it? Conservation in Britain is based to a large extent on responses to irrational impulse and a love of the neglected and overlooked, so that we should never be surprised to find Freud's return of the repressed, or magicians turning geese into swans.

CONTEXT 66 : JUNE 2000