The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Disappearing Post-war Commercial Architecture

The recent debate about the future of No. 23 Savile Row – old Fortress House, the home of English Heritage until April 2006 – has thrown into sharp relief the steady loss of post-war commercial architecture from the capital. In the City, which was until quite recently the best place in Britain to compare the changing fashions in planning and elevation, the rate of attrition is especially high. Of some 220 examples recorded in the City sections of , 1973 edition, just over 110 now remain. Exclude public architecture, livery halls and the reconstructed Inns of Court and the figure falls even more steeply. When buildings that have been reclad or otherwise drastically altered are discounted too, the survival rate is low indeed.

It is strange that the disappearance of so much architecture has attracted so little general attention. Perhaps the regular clearances of failed housing estates have accustomed people to the idea that 1950s and 60s buildings were never really meant to last. Where office blocks are concerned, there is much truth in this, and not just in the City of London. All across Britain, post-war reconstruction plans and futuristic perspective drawings anticipating a new, car-based Modernist townscape were framed without much attention to how the commercial property market would work. To the banks, pension funds and real estate companies who actually own them, these buildings are not worth keeping once they have earned a good return on capital outlay. Once their rental value is less than the redevelopment potential of the site, it is time to call in the demolition men.

Sometimes the freeholders seem to have forgotten these inexorable laws too. Lord Holford’s Paternoster Square precinct by St Paul’s Cathedral vanished in one go because its shared basement made piecemeal replacement all but impossible. Other 1960s’ casualties include the gritty Tower Place precinct (George: Trew: Dunn et al.), levelled in 2000, and Owen Luder’s Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth. This type of complex may well disappear completely, because large sites are at once the most valuable for redevelopment and the most intractable when they go wrong.

Certain office types are lasting rather better. Ian McInnes’s article shows how the Lessor Scheme blocks that made up London’s first post-war wave of reconstruction have endured surprisingly well. Even when drastically refurbished, blocks of this kind also tend to preserve their external appearance of brick and stone (the pity is that the most interesting, such as Fortress House, seem set to disappear sooner than the dullards.) Take the story forward to 1970, however, and the picture is very different. The curtain-walled, single-glazed finishes that came into favour in the mid 1950s have proved both less durable and more vulnerable to new expectations of how buildings should perform, quite apart from wider changes in architectural fashion. Refurbishment is possible, as Chris Rogers points out; but this often involves reskinning, which may leave the building scarcely recognizable.

Does it matter? Perhaps, not very much. Especially outside London, many of these buildings were dreadful architecturally, disastrous in terms of townscape (or urbanism, as we would say nowadays), and not even especially good to work in. And the most remarkable themes in British architecture during the period lie elsewhere: innovative housing, schools and hospitals for the Welfare State, the creations of a few celebrated designers such as Stirling or the Smithsons, the enduring pre-war traditions of craft and neo-Georgian, the first stirrings of High Tech… the list could go on for ages before reaching urban office blocks. A handful of superior examples are now protected by listing, such as Sanderson House (Slater, Moberly and Uren) or Centre Point (Seifert), the former purpose-built, the latter a bold and controversial speculation. So it should still be possible in fifty years’ time to get some sense of the best work of the period.

Yet there are still painful losses of buildings considered not good enough for listing, but which have always shone out above the common horde. Take Clements House, by Trehearne & Norman, Preston & Partners (1954-57): the survivor of six post-war office slabs that lined the west end of Gresham Street, all designed before the City of London adopted its disastrous strategy of elevated ‘ped-way’ planning. Here are the visual pleasures of the Festival era – muted but cheerful colour, spandrel panels like crazy paving, or of mosaic with a curly ‘W’ motif (for Messrs Wates, the builders), a roof terrace under an airy open canopy, and a double-height foyer with an open-framed staircase up to a first-floor balcony. None of the other 1950s blocks in the street was as crisp or as fresh. So it is sad to have to sign off with a recommendation which will also apply to some good buildings in many other cities: ‘Enjoy it while you can’.

Simon Bradley