Social engineering

Perhaps one of the most notable changes which has occurred in society in modern times is the erosion of class divisions, and a recent appeal case offers some insight into how our environment has been deployed to drive this change (DCS Number 200-008-064).

In this case an inspector refused to sanction the removal of a secondary staircase from a listed terrace house in central London. He considered that the terrace exhibited Arts and Crafts influences, noting that part of the ethos of the Arts and Crafts approach “involved the attempt to break down social and class barriers through the reintegration of aesthetic and craftsmanship in order to address the dehumanizing effect that the division of labour was considered to have created.”

It was apparent from the design, the inspector observed, that the architect was forcing interaction between servants and occupiers as only some floors were accessible from the secondary stairs; servants would have needed to use the main stairs in order to service rooms that the secondary staircase did not open out onto. At the same time, he reasoned, the choice of stone over timber for the secondary stair and its cantilevered construction appeared quite extravagant for stairs which were traditionally used by servants and kept out of sight. He concurred with the council that this pointed to attempts by the architects to erode the servant/master distinction prevalent in the pre-First World War period.

The inspector held that the significance of the staircase, and its contribution to the significance of the listed building as a whole, lay in part in the fact that it acted as a lens through which occupiers and visitors to the building could appreciate the social structures of Edwardian England prior to the outbreak of the world war which acted as a catalyst for much social change, and the underlying long term social trends which the war itself magnified into the 1920s and beyond. He decided that the loss of the staircase would reduce the ability of future generations to understand the importance of the secondary stairs within the heritage asset and how this contributed to the significance of the listed building. As such its removal would have a negative impact and would fail to preserve the special interest of the listed building, he concluded.

Further appeal cases involving the removal of staircases from listed buildings can be found at section 27.2333 of DCP Online.