The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Slough’s impending tragedies

The DCMS has chosen—once again—to disregard English Heritage’s advice and refused to list Slough Town Hall, which was recommended at Grade II in 2008. Revealingly, the Secretary of State was ‘persuaded by the evidence provided by others’, in this case a consultant working for the very council that wants to tear down its own headquarters.

Slough Town Hall was built to the designs of the architects Charles Holloway James (1893–1953) and Steven Rowland Pierce (1896–1966), a specialist firm also responsible for Hertfordshire County
Council Offices (listed II*) and Norwich City Hall (listed Grade II*), considered by Pevsner to be the ‘foremost public building of between the wars’. But Slough’s hall is simpler in its style and reflects a
contemporary trend towards more modern, northern-European-inspired civic buildings. In this family, it bears comparison with Reginald Uren’s Hornsey Town Hall (Grade II*) or Clifford Strange’s Brent Town Hall (Grade II). Slough’s style achieved a deliberate balance between the traditional language of classical architecture and its historical associations, and the clean lines of the modernism coming into fashion. The scheme was selected following a design competition instigated by the council which was eager to complete a new civic building in anticipation of the granting of borough status by Royal Charter in 1938. The competition received much public attention at the time and was managed by the RIBA, the winner being selected from the 205 entries by Professor H S Goodhart-Rendel.

The DCMS’s decision shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the building’s style, despite the minister visiting the building and having its subtleties explained in an excellent report by English Heritage. A principal reason for it being turned down was its ‘lack of decorative work outside of the public spaces’. This fails to take into account the Scandinavian-inspired stripped-classical nature of the Town Hall, and the fact that to the new progressive authority providing a proud civic realm was more important that lining its private corridors.

As a reason, it displays ignorance: if we were to only list buildings because they were covered in ornament, we might as well start de-listing virtually all of Britain’s wealth of Modern architecture now. Goodbye then Finsbury Health Centre, ta-ra National Theatre, on your way CIS Tower, and the C20 staff had best pack their bags too.

Many other good buildings have been demolished in Slough in recent years, including grand Art Deco-styled factories by the likes of Wallis Gilbert and high-quality post-war offices, such as a handsome inverted-pyramid shaped office, the former HQ of Slough Estates, by Geoffrey Salmon of Speed Associates.

Tragically, more are to come down as the town tries to erase its past and reinvent itself from scratch. Furthermore, the town does not have its own conservation officer and the council appears simply to borrow a neighbouring authority’s as and when it sees fit. The town centre is the most affected: by
the loss of a 1930s library building, a high-quality 1960s public library and the somber but expressive Brutalist bus station which defines the opening landscape of the BBC’s The Office series, as well as being a landmark for passing train commuters. Of the survivors of these, none is of listable quality, but they do give visual interest to the town and could easily be converted or adapted for other uses.

Paul Hamlyn Library

A further proposed loss is the Paul Hamlyn Library (named after the publisher and philanthropist whose foundation supported the building), completed as late as 1995 for Brunel University. Designed by the then Richard Rogers Partnership, the library cost a pricey £3.2 million, evident in its high-quality materials, which include exposed steel trusses, glass-tread stairs and distinctive Rogers fixtures and fittings in primary colours of blue and yellow. Today the library remains an impressive structure
and is in an excellent condition, but has a Mary Celeste-like character with rows of books untouched, computers switched off and not a student in sight. Why demolition? The university clearly didn’t
have a long-term plan for the library and is relocating the facilities elsewhere. Slough Town Council intends to squeeze 1,200 apartments on the site.

The ‘Heart of Slough’ proposals add up to the destruction of three perfectly good library buildings, only to be replaced by a new ‘landmark’ library and media centre: a rather menacing orange-clad
blob to overshadow the parish church. Sadly it seems Slough is gambling on the old mantra of ‘retail-led regeneration’ and hopes that building generic high-rises and a new shopping precinct will persuade thousands of commuters to make the town their home.

John Betjeman famously heckled ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!’ However in 1948, when revisiting the town with John Piper, he did single out the town hall’s architecture as ‘a striving for unity
out of chaos’. His words have never been so relevant as today. C20 believes that the redevelopment of the town hall would be an act of vandalism to the civic centre and is supporting the Campaign to Save Slough’s Heritage in its request for a review of the decision.

Jo Moore