Liz Truss joins Bob the Builder’s PM crew | Rowan Moore

Has the British political class reached peak hard hat? Margaret Thatcher was an early adopter, touring construction sites at Battersea power station and Canary Wharf helmeted like Britannia, sending out messages about building the future and getting the job done. Tony Blair and David Cameron enthusiastically accumulated hi-vis jackets, goggles and boots in line with advances in health and safety rules and Boris Johnson loved to parade around in the stuff like a less toned David Hodo from Village People. The fetish has reached the point where there’s a Twitter account, @PPEinPPE, about people with degrees in philosophy, politics and economics who wear personal protective equipment.

Last week, Liz Truss managed to roleplay Bob the Builder in the middle of a party conference, which may be a first, but as so much that she touches turns to dross, the look may at last have lost its shine. Then again, the Thatcher-blessed project at Battersea spectacularly failed and the original developers of Canary Wharf went colossally bust, so perhaps it’s a fitting outfit for someone set on crashing the country.

Fluming marvellous

Crowds at a swimming pool under a glassed dome
Britain’s first Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest, photographed in the 1980s Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

The heritage movement has come a long way since it was a matter of Victorian antiquarians objecting to the rearrangement of medieval church furnishings. We’ve got used to the idea of tower blocks, car parks and signal boxes being acclaimed and protected as outstanding examples of their genre. Now the Twentieth Century Society, which campaigns for recognition of the best buildings from 1914 on, has turned its attention to the wave of leisure centres that went up around the country from the 1970s to the 90s.

Appealing to nostalgia for “flumes, verrucas, palm trees, the smell of chlorine, the sound of laughter”, the charity wants statutory protection for the “soaring engineering and playful pop imagery” of structures that are now threatened by funding cuts, the aftermath of Covid and a global chlorine shortage worsened by war in Ukraine.

The society wants to ensure the survival of such gems as the nation’s first Center Parcs, in Sherwood Forest, and the Concordia leisure centre in Cramlington, which brought a dash of the tropics to Northumberland. Sometimes, the listing of modern buildings can be caricatured as one of those experts v the-people culture wars – “call that concrete monstrosity heritage?” But saving these palaces of fun must be something that almost everyone can support.

Razzmatazz, please

Passengers on an airport travelator under an undulating roof
Stirling work: the terminal building at Madrid Barajas airport designed by Richard Rogers Partnership Spain won the 2007 award. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

Next Thursday, the Royal Institute of British Architects will announce the winner of the Stirling prize, the award for the most “significant” building of the year.

It’s fair to say that it will be a less dramatic event than it was when glossy airports, skyscrapers and modern art museums, designed by big beasts such as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, competed for the honour on national television. This year’s list, which includes a community centre, some housing, schools and a speculative office building, is more careful and thoughtful, concluding a long march by at least part of the architectural profession away from the excesses of the noughties.

Which is welcome, and there are certainly one or two worthy winners in contention, but the overall tone has gone a bit beige. Is it too much to ask for more buildings that perform a public service and bring some energy and amazement to users and passers-by? Here, contemporary architects might have something to learn from those leisure centres championed by the Twentieth Century Society. The Coventry Sports Centre, a road-straddling, abstract metallic elephant, favourably compared by some residents to the city’s cathedral, would give any of this year’s entries a run for their money.

Rowan Moore is the the Observer’s architecture correspondent