The Modern Movement represented a profound shift in cultural values in which fresh creativity displaced stale conformity.
Brilliant new forms of building technology were introduced hinting at endless possibilities for improving the world.
Much was produced that was untested, however, and many important building failed in use. Others have simply degraded in time, as all buildings do.
In addition, after the impact of their initial novelty, many important buildings were allowed to fall into neglect, altered insensitively or even demolished.
These pioneering buildings are now part of our past, and we face unprecedented questions about how to conserve or replace them.
The problem was first addressed comprehensively by Docomomo International, our parent body, which was founded in the Netherlands in the late 1980s with the aim of documenting and conserving the world's Modern heritage.
It now consists of some 70 national and regional Docomomo chapters worldwide, of which Docomomo.UK—a non-profit organisation run on a voluntary basis—is the British branch.
Working independently but pooling information, we have helped government bodies, architects and planners reappraise the importance of retaining and skilfully refitting 20th-century buildings, thereby protecting one of modern civilisation's most important cultural resources.
The history of our organisation appears on this page. The history of Docomomo International can be found here.
Docomomo.UK’s origins date from the late 1980s when Professor Hubert Jan Henket approached the architect Christopher Dean to advise on the formation of an organization in the Netherlands to promote the documentation and conservation of Modern Movement buildings and sites.
The ambition was that this should become an international initiative with national representation of as many as possible of those countries where the Modern Movement had flourished.
At this stage the name of the organisation had still not been settled. Acting as coordinator, Dean quickly assembled a number of British contacts already engaged or interested in the field, and convened the first meeting of the “DoCoMoMo-UK” Working Party on 1 March 1990.
An Executive Committee was formed with John Allan as Chairman, James Dunnett as Honorary Secretary and Geoffrey Ashworth as Honorary Treasurer. Early actions included establishing the group’s constitution and syllabus of work, applying for charitable status, canvassing wider support and preparing for the founding conference of the international movement, which took place in Eindhoven in September 1990.
At this stage contacts outside the Netherlands had been established with 20 other countries including Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Finland, East & West Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Rumenia, the USSR, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. (The international representation now extends to almost 70 countries world wide.)
Docomomo.UK was substantially assisted in its first three years by the generous benefaction of the property developer Peter Palumbo, who had been Chairman of the Arts Council. Lord Palumbo addressed the founding conference in a keynote speech.
Progress ensued with the initial tasks of compiling a national register of significant UK Modern Movement buildings and staging an exhibition entitled Modern Architecture Restored which opened at The Building Centre, London on 13 February 1992. The exhibition featured 26 British and overseas projects illustrating respectively “the problems”, “the solutions” and “the results”. The display was also presented at the 2nd International Conference in Dessau in 1992 and toured several other venues.
Docomomo.UK has participated in every bi-annual international conference of Docomomo International and has continued to develop its own local programme of events, tours, campaigns and lectures, having also now published over 30 editions of its own newsletter.
Succeeding chairmen have included Sherban Cantacuzino, Dennis Sharp, Catherine Cooke, James Dunnett and the present incumbent Judi Loach.
The substantial publication Selections from the Docomomo Registers, co-edited by Dennis Sharp and Catherine Cooke, was published in 2000.
The Docomomo network is unique in its worldwide commitment to the wider understanding and conservation of the Modern Movement, and Docomomo.UK continues to play its full part in this endeavour.
The first co-ordinator of Docomomo.UK was Christopher Dean and among the earliest cases that he had to deal with was the restoration of the then very run-down Grade 1-listed Lawn Road Flats (1934) by Wells Coates, on which he worked with the architect’s daughter. His efforts contributed significantly to bringing about their eventual exemplary renovation by Avanti Architects under Docomomo.UK’s first Chair, John Allan.
Another early case concerned the works to Eric Mendelsohn’s Cohen House (1936) in Chelsea Old Church Street designed by Norman Foster on behalf of then-owner Paul Hamlyn. The house had had a timber conservatory added to it at its southern end and Foster proposed replacing this with a larger two-storey steel and glass conservatory, as well as adding a similar-looking extension at the north end. He also proposed converting the original squash court into a library, requiring windows to be cut through an architecturally critical area of blank wall on the garden façade. These were major disruptions to an important early Modern Movement house, but English Heritage supported them and Kensington and Chelsea Council granted consent. Docomomo.UK opposed the changes and, with the Twentieth Century Society, organised a protest meeting in the Chelsea Arts Club, which was across the road. Mendelsohn’s co-architect Sergei Chermayeff and the critic Bruno Zevi wrote to support Docomomo’s opposition and succeeded in blocking the proposed north end extensions, but the remaining works went ahead.
Not long afterwards Basil Spence’s Queen Elizabeth Square, or Hutchesontown C, flats in Glasgow (1957) were threatened with demolition. The flats were designed at the same time as Spence’s Grade 1-listed Sussex University and were probably his most spectacular work, although attempts to list them were turned down. Christopher Dean and Docomomo member James Dunnett pressed Glasgow’s City Architect to find an alternative occupier who would preserve the flats but, after seeming to make some headway, Glasgow went through with the proposed demolition. The rough concrete had needed repair, and the two 20-storey, structurally-expressive unequal blocks clashed with the new image that the City sought for the Gorbals.
A further effort in defence of Spence’s work followed when Camden Council in London tried to demolish his Swiss Cottage swimming pool, also rejected for listing even though Spence’s adjacent Library, part of the same design, was accepted. The Pool was a fine space with distinctive external concrete louvres, of equal merit to the Library, but protests failed. Recent efforts to list a third building by Spence—his Hyde Park Barracks in London—have also failed and this building could now also be targetted with demolition, especially in view of the high value of the site that it occupies.
In 2005 a successful campaign by Docomomo.UK led to the preservation of the Gulbenkian Wing of H.T. Cadbury-Brown’s listed Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore in London. , Nicholas Grimshaw had designed a replacement building with an elliptical block that would have stood between the RCA’s principal Darwin Block and the Royal Albert Hall, destroying the carefully considered relationship between the two and the space between them. Grimshaw’s design had been supported by English Heritage and Westminster Council, with only Docomomo.UK and the now defunct Royal Fine Art Commission opposing it. Docomomo, acting also for the Twentieth Century Society, argued successfully that the application should be called in by the Government and be the subject of a public enquiry. In face of the evidence prepared, the RCA withdrew its planning application.
An attempt shortly afterwards by the Twentieth Century Society acting also on behalf of Docomomo.UK to have Allies and Morrison’s proposals for the Royal Festival Hall auditorium called in was not successful. The alterations, supported by English Heritage and Lambeth Council, involved a radical re-shaping of the stage end of the hall and the loss of its famous curved plywood canopy. In spite of the building’s Grade 1 listing, the proposals were carried out.
Since its creation in 1988, Docomomo has seen a number of successful nominations for listing. These include Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (now Grade 2* listed) and subsequently the remainder of the associated Cheltenham Estate. Also listed, albeit late in the day after damaging alterations, is Goldfinger’s former Alexander Fleming House at Elephant and Castle in south London, now converted into housing and renamed Metro Central Heights.
More recently still, and also in south London, has been the successful nomination of Kate Mackintosh’s Old People's Housing in and the nomination for the raising of the listing status of Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower from Grade 2 to Grade 2*. But a major effort to secure the listing of Cadbury-Brown’s Ashmount School of 1954-56 on Hornsey Lane in Islington, in conjunction with the Highgate Society, was unsuccessful and the school has been demolished.
Post-war buildings are generally not viewed with warmth either by their owners or by the public and only with continuous effort can the survival of exceptional examples sometimes be secured. The challenge goes beyond getting such buildings listed because, as Docomomo.UK has found all too frequently, the protection that listing is intended to afford is not in fact guaranteed in buildings of this period. In addition, the open spaces around such buildings, often an important part of their conception, can be a target for damaging development proposals even if the actual fabric is preserved. Docomomo has found that it is easy for authorities to say one thing by listing but do another.
Consequently, those who value some of the architectural achievements of the Modern Movement and the ideas behind them, and wish to see major examples retained, face a constant battle and are very often liable to disappointment.
Docomomo.UK exists to help them where it can.
John Allan writes
James Dunnett writes
For an appreciation by Charles Rattray of our first chair, Christopher Dean, please click here.
For an obituary of Christopher Dean written by Dennis Sharp and published in the 30 April 1998 edition of the AJ, entitled "Architects pay tribute to Modern champion", please click here.
Docomomo.UK was later chaired by Dennis Sharp (1933–2010)—architect, lecturer, curator, historian, author and editor. For more information on Dennis, click here.