We were consulted recently on two inter-war office buildings in cities at opposite ends of the country: both unlisted, both in conservation areas and both positive contributors to them. When we became aware of plans for their redevelopment, we realised that they would be a fundamental test of the strength of conservation area (CA) protection, especially as the buildings are located in the heart of their respective cities, where commercial development pressures are particularly strong.
Century House stands on the corner of St Peter’s Square in Manchester. It is a well-detailed, neo-classical Portland stone office building built in 1934 to a design by A W Roques FRIBA, and one of a series of buildings he designed for the Friends Provident Society. He worked in close collaboration with key architects of the time, such as Giles Gilbert Scott, with whom he designed the Friends Provident offices in Bristol. The materials and detailing of Century House in particular reflect the detailing of other buildings in St. Peter’s Square, notably the contemporaneous Grade II* listed Town Hall Extension by Vincent Harris. This deliberate relationship is evidenced by the work of the same sculptor, Joseph Hermon Cawthra, on both buildings.
Praised at the time of construction as providing ‘a distinctive contribution to the transformation of St Peter’s Square’, it continues to be a vital element of the square’s historic appearance. English Heritage’s designation team consider it ‘well-designed’ and ‘of strong local interest’. Century House is a key contributor to not only the George Street Conservation Area in which it is located, but also the adjacent Albert and St Peter’s Square Conservation Areas.
We objected to the loss of this building on the grounds that it is a non-designated Heritage Asset of significance, for its architectural solidity and styling, its group value and its contribution to the streetscape in this high profile location. Of particular concern is the substantial number of developments already proposed or underway in the vicinity: the proposed loss of Century House will degrade the CA even more. And we were not alone in objecting: a local pressure group, ‘Save Century House’, campaigned vigorously on its behalf and Manchester City Council’s own Historic Buildings and Conservation Areas panel advised that it should be retained.
In the City of Westminster, another striking building is also under threat. 69-89 Oxford Street is a mixed retail and office building completed in two phases: the seven east bays dating from 1929-30 and the remainder of the building from 1952-53. The early part of the building was designed by Gordon Jeeves and H A Welch for Drages department store. It was highly regarded by the architectural press of the day, the Architect and Building News considering the outside to be ‘of notable excellence’ with the building combining elements of ‘fantasie’, ‘surprise’ and ‘intriguing Gallic gaiety’.
Gordon Jeeves was an eminent and prolific architect who collaborated on many landmark buildings in London, such as the National Radiator Building, Berkeley Square House, the Earls Court Exhibition Centre and Dolphin Square. He was well known for being at the forefront in new technology. The quality of this building is evident from the use of materials such as the Swedish blue granite of the façade and the silveroid metal panels, stunningly decorated with zig-zag motifs – redolent of the 1925 Paris Exhibition, according to Pevsner. The extension to the building in the 1950s by Burtons’ in-house architects continues the same styling in a different shade of granite. The decision to use the same design over 20 years later is testament to the enduring attraction and impact of the original concept.
This building is located in the Soho Conservation Area and is also locally listed as a ‘Building of Merit’ by Westminster City Council. As with Century House, it is proposed to demolish the Oxford Street building to make way for new development. This building stands between two current redevelopment sites: one for a new Crossrail station and the other for a commercial building.
We objected to the proposals as causing substantial harm to a building of merit, as well as harming the overall character of the CA. 69-89 Oxford Street is a rare survival of a particular type of inter-war commercial architecture, and the dramatic façade adds a richness and distinctiveness to the area which will not be matched by the new development. Our concerns were shared by English Heritage, which cautioned Westminster City Council against granting consent to demolish the building.
So, what of the outcome of these two applications? Both City Councils agreed that these buildings were positive contributors to their CAs, which would be harmed by their loss. But despite this, both City Councils have granted consent for demolition, apparently considering that the public benefit of replacing these buildings outweighed their heritage value. The existing C20 buildings had no place in either Council’s ‘vision’ for revitalising these locations.
We regret the loss of these buildings, but the concern here is much more far-reaching. It is not unusual for English Heritage to cite location within a CA as sufficient protection for a building that does not quite meet the criteria for listing, but this protection appears to be weak in areas under commercial pressure. We believe that the erosion of the surrounding areas directly contributed to the decisions the city councils made: neighbouring buildings have been demolished, therefore this building is no longer of value. In the Century House case this was explicitly stated in the planning officer’s report on the application.
Apart from economic imperatives, changes in the law may mean that saving buildings such as these is about to get even more difficult. CAs have always had few means of enforcing protection and from next year, when particular provisions of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013) come into force, even Conservation Area Consent will cease to exist. Demolition will then be dealt with as part of the planning application for redevelopment. This ‘streamlining’ of the planning process will inevitably dilute the concept of the CA. There is already poor understanding of the role of CAs and the contribution that ‘background’ architecture can make to the sense of place. Removing a planning requirement that makes people stop and think about their locality as a whole rather than as individual plots of development opportunity can only harm CAs. The ability of amenity societies like ours to comment will also be affected: while there is currently no statutory obligation to consult us over a Conservation Area Consent application, in practice many local authorities do so. This unofficial trigger mechanism will be lost, and identifying these cases will become more difficult for us.