The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Plymouth Civic Centre Listing

The listing at Grade II of Plymouth’s Civic Centre has caused a furore in the city. The Twentieth Century Society asked English Heritage to assess it in April 2006, due to its innovative design, important art collections and its historical significance to Plymouth’s rebirth after the devastation of WWII—we were convinced that it was a nationally important example of post war architecture

The result of the decision by EH to list the centre, has meant that The Twentieth Century Society has come under fire from local people, the local press and local politicians, three of whom have recently handed a petition to Downing Street to get the decision overturned.

A flood of emails, and letters, many using language not suitable for a press release, have come into the office expressing acute displeasure about our actions but on the flip-side, we are pleased to note that we have also had a great deal of support from people in Plymouth.

Assuming the building remains listed (and no evidence to challenge the relevant critieria has been produced to date) , what is needed now is proper, open debate about its future and a full assessment of the costs of refurbishment or re-use. Figures in the press have so far ranged from £10 million to £40 million, suggesting that no detailed assessment has ever been made.

English Heritage have here made a landmark decision, not just for Plymouth, but for the preservation of our post-war heritage nationally. The C20 Society, despite the local storm, remain convinced that this is a significant building that should lie at the heart of the city’s current regeneration and will be an asset to future generations.

Please support the decision to list Plymouth’s Civic Centre by signing the online petition to the Government at

Society Caseworker Jon Wright set out our views in a letter which was published in the Plymouth Herald on 11 July 2007 as follows:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Re: Listing of Plymouth Civic Centre at Grade II

Following in the wake of a series of articles regarding the listing of the Civic Centre, The Twentieth Century Society would like to make its position clear.

Firstly, The Society did not list the building, it simply put it forward for assessment. This decision was taken by English Heritage and finally by DCMS who assessed the architectural merit and historical significance of the building in a national context and made their decision accordingly. EH found that the building compared well with others nationally and forwarded an advisers report to DCMS suggesting that the building be given Grade II status.

The Society is far from the only organisation to put buildings forward for listing, indeed, any one individual  can. English Heritage are therefore not at liberty to publicly name the applicants. We, however, did not submit this application anonymously.

We remain convinced that whilst under direct threat of demolition, a forwarding of the building for assessment was the correct course of action for any group concerned about the future of this important building and it’s impressive internal collections.

Secondly, the idea that as a small charity, fighting to preserve the best architecture and design from the 20th Century, we could not be sympathetic to the concerns of local people is absurd. We very often work closely with local people on campaigns to save buildings and indeed in Plymouth the Society was instrumental in saving the Tinside Lido and Colonnade

Thirdly, to clarify our remit and scope of involvement with this case, we feel we should reiterate out goals. It is not our remit to comment on the economic impact of a listing decision made by EH and DCMS. There are, it is clear, issues regarding the maintenance of the building over the years, as such and we recognise that the building is in need of care. Having it listed, as your readers will know, does in no way mean that it is set in aspic, but rather that any new scheme for renovation of modernisation must be conservation-led, with the importance of the historic fabric of the building in mind.

Fourthly, it is the Society’s firm belief that this building was and still has the potential to be a symbol of Plymouth’s Civic and municipal pride. Built as an expression of the creativity and sheer will that saw Plymouth resurrect itself after WWII, the centre remains a tribute to the city’s pioneering spirit of that time and The Society are pleased to note that English Heritage made specific reference to this in the list description.

Finally, there are wider issues at stake here than a simple vote on whether a building is ugly or not and should be knocked down. If we had acted on those impulses in the past, many great buildings which we rightly see as important now would have been lost long ago. In addition, we are starting to understand the importance of a sustainable approach to suit the changing needs of our towns and cities. Knocking down perfectly good buildings and replacing them is something we simply cannot afford to do any more. The embodied energy in a building like the Civic Centre is huge and we must find more creative solutions than demolition.

Having the building listed does not mean it cannot be modernised and made fit for 21st century Plymouth – indeed, the building has the potential to be a shining example of how a forward-thinking city can bring ideas of conservation and sustainability together.

The Society has received many letters and emails, both in support of and against its actions in putting the building forward for Listing. We welcome all these views and are encouraged by the debate, which has raised key issues about the architecture and heritage of the recent past. It is a debate that must continue if we want our towns and cities to not only move forward, but also reflect the past.

Yours faithfully,

Jon Wright
C20 Society

Click here to see the List Description

Jon Wright