A war is being waged upon a significant part of Britain’s architectural heritage. It is a stealthy war, fought behind the concealment of hoardings and swathes of green mesh and prosecuted by planners and developers. Its victims are the first buildings to have struggled into existence after World War II, and they are losing.
The commercial buildings of the 1950s and early ‘60s are being demolished at an alarming rate. They seem to occupy a curious blind spot for critics, planning committees and society at large, hiding as they do between the thriving thirties and the swinging sixties. Even when they are considered, the accusation is of blandness or facelessness, yet this is grossly simplistic. Many are average but some are superb, with a modesty about their Portland stone façades and a lightness of touch in their detailing that is utterly beguiling.
This is the “friendly style” (Simon Bradley) of Trehearne & Norman, Preston & Partners, Victor Heal and Brian O’Rorke, the last generation of architects to marry traditional materials with high levels of craftsmanship, creating a softer form of Modernism which possesses a level of visual and tactile interest utterly absent from today’s airbrushed, slickly-smooth commercial architecture. Thus exteriors feature cut and dressed stone of many kinds, beautifully laid brickwork and slate or copper detail, whilst inside decorative hardwoods and metalwork reassure and provide a humanising link to the past.
And there was colour! Instead of an achingly dull monochrome palette of steel and glass, we see pretty primrose, stunning scarlet and bold blue infill panels, and the wonderful stylistic signature of the age – mosaic, decorating a doorcase or lining a canopy, in a jaunty mix of hues with scattered highlights in gold leaf to catch the sun. The decade also saw the absolute final appearance of figurative sculpture as an integral part of a building, by such major artists as Sir Charles Wheeler, PRA and Gilbert Ledward, RA yet always in a reserved, sensitive manner in keeping with the architecture.
Unfortunately, it seems that this very self-effacement is what makes such buildings so easy to erase. Many of the best have already been lost.
The magnificent 1957 Lloyd’s of London, only their second purpose-built home and by Sir Terence Heysham, had at its heart the vast, elegant Room, clad in marble and lit by immense arched, aluminium-framed windows. Ronald Ward and Partners designed the Marine Engineers’ Memorial Building, commemorating the war dead of that organisation and completed in the same year. Studded with delicately-moulded bronze bosses, it contained a wonderful elliptical stair whose walls were sheathed in iridescent Venetian glass mosaic. And at Goodenough House, Barclays’ Dominion, Colonial and Overseas office designed by Ley, Colbeck and Partners, Ledward’s superb frieze decorated the exterior whilst the truly amazing double-height banking hall was overlooked by a mezzanine supporting a vast marquetry map of Empire.
The latest victim, its fate sealed by the time you read this, is Heal’s New Change Buildings, specifically designed in 1953 to provide a backdrop to St Paul’s which recalled the brick-built houses which once surrounded it. With its exquisite concave façade and profusion of intelligent and often witty historically allusive sculpture, it marks a high point of the type.
So why the destruction? After all, you would have to work pretty hard to get a Deco building of even average merit demolished without protest these days, yet suggest saving one from the post-war period and you’re immediately frowned upon. Fifties buildings? Do me a favour. Let me knock it down and put you up a lovely big glass box instead. Here, pass me the keys to that JCB…
Big glass boxes are indeed ‘in’, but do we really need such massive street-swallowers?
That the post-war block as a type is ‘life-expired’ is a fallacy; plenty are in good structural order and simply need revitalising. Wireless working is rapidly removing the need for deep floors, whilst the humble flat-screen monitor actually allows denser space planning; both make old buildings more adaptable and thus more saveable. And what view would you prefer from your desk – a soulless atrium, or the landscaping and bustling street life visible from the shallow, ‘alphabet’-shaped floors of the post-war office? Intended to supply natural light and air when that was the best available, half a century later this approach becomes relevant once again as the desire for natural ventilation and amenity returns.
So pause a while the next time you pass another forlorn, dusty-windowed 1950s block awaiting the ball and chain. Take a look and think, should we save these gentle reminders of a more civilised era? And if we don’t, who will? Where does responsibility lie to raise the alarm before the last of anything is lost? What did the Easter Islander think as he cut down the last tree? What happens when the last one goes?