The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat

by Adam Sharr and Stephen Thornton (Ashgate, 320pp, £70)

Reviewed by Henrietta Billings

Sir Leslie Martin (1908-2000) is best known for his designs for London’s Royal Festival Hall, drawn up while he was head of the design team at the London County Council Architects Department. Less familiar are his astonishingly radical plans for the demolition of Whitehall, which would have seen the flattening of the whole area from Downing Street to Parliament Square and St James’s Park to the Thames and its replacement with a ziggurat-profile concrete megastructure.

This book by architect and academic Adam Sharr and political historian Stephen Thornton sets out the plans in detail. They included demolishing the Victorian Foreign Office and other government buildings and creating a new parliamentary building,  offices and halls of residence for MPs. A new riverside road tunnel with open space above was to be constructed, narrowing the Thames and allowing the new Whitehall blocks to extend towards the river. The plans, in eight development phases, were presented to government in 1965, but interestingly no costings or time frames were provided.

The authors skilfully locate the scheme within its intellectual, architectural and cultural contexts. It may seem outrageous and destructive to us today, but in the early 1960s Victorian architecture was deeply unfashionable in most quarters, and there was tangible optimism about the imminent technological and automated future. It was the era of space travel, Concorde and opposition leader Harold Wilson’s memorable ‘white heat of technology’ speech of 1963.  It seemed that modern architecture could  help  fulfil the widely-felt wish to break with tradition and make Whitehall less hierarchical and more democratic.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plans were initially championed by many Conservatives: the decision to demolish the Foreign Office and commission Martin was taken under Harold Macmillan’s administration and supported by foreign secretary Lord Home. But after Labour came to power in 1964, a shift in public mood and a lack of government enthusiasm led to the plans being lost in a bureaucratic tangle, to be finally abandoned by the Heath government in 1971. This is the fascinating story of how and why that came about.