Magazine article History Today

Twentieth Century Society

Magazine article History Today

Twentieth Century Society

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago, there were societies for the defence of the architectural heritage down to Victorian and Edwardian times, but there was no organised body to raise a voice for twentieth century buildings. This gap was filled in 1979 with the founding of a group which called itself the Thirties Society, though it set its alarm clock back to 1914. It changed its name to the Twentieth Century Society in 1992, to reflect the true scope of its interests.

The first chairman was Bevis Hillier, then the antiques correspondent of The Times and an ex-editor of The Connoisseur, and more recently the biographer of Sir John Betjeman. He says he was talked into it by Simon Jenkins, a future editor of The Times, and Marcus Binney, the founder of SAVE Britain's Heritage. The three of them persuaded Osbert Lancaster to be president and enlisted support from Betjeman, Lady Diana Cooper and other notables. The Society's chairman today is Gavin Stamp, the architectural historian.

A crucial factor in getting the new society off the ground was the destruction, soon after it was formed, of the Firestone Factory on the Great West Road. This Art Deco masterpiece by Thomas Wallis (also the architect of the Hoover works in Western Avenue) was the jewel in one of Britain's most exciting groups of modern industrial buildings. Cranes wielding giant balls demolished it over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980 for the property developers, Trafalgar House, just before the factory was to be listed by the Department of the Environment. Marcus Binney described it as the most brutish and calculated act of vandalism he had ever witnessed. The Department of the Environment, which had been dragging its feet over the protection of post-1914 buildings, was now spurred into listing some fifty of them and the uproar gave the fledgling Thirties Society a powerful boost.

The Society does not carry the clout of its older sisters, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, but it works hard for its fundamental objective, 'to campaign for the preservation and understanding of buildings and design of the twentieth century from 1914 onwards'. It has no statutory right to be consulted about proposed demolition or alteration of buildings, but the Victorian Society filters the post-1914 cases through to it and members keep a sharp eye out for threats to landmarks in their own areas.

Membership is about the 1,200 mark and has been climbing quite rapidly lately. There is one part-time case-worker and the Society would dearly like to be able to employ an education officer. It publishes a scholarly journal at irregular intervals and a good newsletter three times a year. There is a lively programme of visits, guided walks, lectures and conferences. Trips to cities abroad, such as Paris, Vienna and Copenhagen, are led by expert guides.

The Society lives frugally on its membership subscriptions and donations. It gets nothing from the taxpayer. David Brady, a member of the Society's council who helps with the events programme and leads visits, says that government money is 'occasionally waved' at the Society, but never actually arrives, but so long as the membership keeps rising, the Society will manage. …

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