Thursday 10 September 2009

The Joy of Listing - Revisited

(c) Ruth Sharville,,uk/ , licensed under a creative commons licence.

My very first post was about the evil machinations of Plymouth City Council and their determination not to admit that the post-WWII city centre they have inherited is actually one of the most remarkable pieces of urban design in the country. It therefore gave me no little leap of the heart to discover this week that another of its key buildings - originally the south west of England headquarters of the National Provincial Bank (above), of 1956-8, has been listed Grade II, thereby denying the "City Fathers" another site on which to erect some commercial tat of the sort they've been favouring recently, such as the notorious "Drake's Arse" shopping centre (below).

To quote from the list description:

The Royal Bank of Scotland, St Andrew's Cross, Plymouth, is designated for the following principal reasons:
* It is an inventive re-working of the traditional architecture of the bank which remains substantially intact, creating a compelling synthesis of traditional and modern architecture.
* It integrates high-quality decorative art works.
* It is one of the most important buildings of post-war Plymouth.
* It is a prominent and distinctive landmark.

This entirely welcome development comes hot on the heels of the listing of three Plymouth post-war churches, two by the exotically-named Louis de Soissons ("Louis-Emmanuel Jean Guy de Savoie-Carignan, Baron de Soissons" to his friends), and one the last work of Giles Gilbert Scott ("Giles" to his).
On the other hand, the City Council's press release "celebrating " the listing is a masterpiece of frustrated ambition, to anyone who has watched recent proposals with a fearful dread:
One of Plymouth city centre’s most impressive and imposing post-War buildings has been granted listed building status by the Government.
On the recommendation of English Heritage and with the support of Plymouth City Council, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has listed the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) building at St Andrews Cross at Grade II.
Although the building was not completed until 1958, the site adjacent to the Bretonside bus station had been identified for a flagship bank building as early as 1943, when Sir Patrick Abercrombie and J Paton Watson drew up a plan for Plymouth’s reconstruction following the widespread damage to the city centre during the bombing raids of 1941.
Abercrombie and Watson saw much of their Beaux-Arts plan come to fruition in the post-War rebuilding of Plymouth – the legacy of which (the planned city centre around the major axes of Armada Way and Royal Parade) is still with us today and will continue to influence planning decisions made both now and into the future.
The building stood at a visually prominent position within the plan at the east end of Royal Parade and was chosen to be not just a branch bank but the regional headquarters of what was then the National Provincial Bank. The architects (under the direction of BC Sherren) were therefore given a very generous budget allowing the extensive use of Portland stone for the exterior cladding and Travertine marble for the interior finishes.
Professor Jeremy Gould, Chair of Architecture at the University of Plymouth, has described it as the best ‘new’ building in Plymouth. Its listing represents a counterpoint to that in 2003 of the Pannier Market on the other side of the city centre – a very different building in terms of design and purpose but just as significant in the renaissance of Plymouth after the War.
The listing comes hot on the heels of the publication of the City Council’s Area Action Plan (AAP) for the city centre, now out for public consultation. This plan, which sets out the vision for the future of the city centre, recognises the important contribution made by high quality buildings along Royal Parade to the city’s character. The RBS building is specifically mentioned as an example of the grandeur and vision of the original Abercrombie and Paton plan.
On a wider scale the APP says: "It is crucial that key elements of the city’s heritage are respected and integrated into any changes made to the city centre." The listing of the RBS building gives it a statutory protection and acknowledges it as a nationally important landmark structure and therefore one of the key heritage elements of the City Centre AAP.
The Council's newly appointed Assistant Director of Economic Development, David Draffan, said: "The city centre is often criticised for having no buildings of significant quality. However, we have in the Royal Bank of Scotland a prestigious building of the finest quality which has now been recognised by English Heritage and I welcome this decision. The recently published City Centre Area Action Plan takes a realistic and sensible approach to protecting buildings of the highest quality but also ensures that future development in the city centre is encouraged to meet wider regeneration objectives.”
Councillor Ted Fry, Cabinet Member for Planning, Strategic Housing and Economic Development added: "Plymouth is a city of progress and development, yet one which is mindful of high quality buildings. The Royal Bank of Scotland building, in its commanding position at the end of Royal Parade, is an excellent example, as are the Dingles and Debenhams buildings along Royal Parade. This recognition by English Heritage is to be applauded.”

Though it's good to see them quoting Jeremy Gould (whose "list everything and declare a Conservation Area" report the City paid for then studiously ignored), do please refer back to the links in my very first post to see how highly Dingles and Debenhams were rated a mere 9 months ago...

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Portacabins are crap

OK, I'll admit I've not been very active here of late, and I'll also admit that the title of this post is purely to arouse the wrath of an officious git, and hopefully lead to some entertaining correspondence.

Many years after his officiousness was first revealed.

Normal service will, I hope, be resumed relatively shortly.

Saturday 23 May 2009

It seems it's just as bad in Wales, after all.

OK, that’s EH wrecked, now time to look at the previously pretty blameless CADW:

Mon Mam Cymru – Anglesey, Mother of Wales they used to say, on account of the fertile corn-growing lands. And with cereal crops go mills to grind them. On an island like Anglesey, watermills were a rarity and windmills were the norm. But, to have both in one building – wind and water powered - was extraordinary, and yet a combined wind- and water-mill existed on the island, until children playing with matches burnt down Melin y Bont at Bryn Du in the early 1970s.

Even then, having mostly iron machinery which survived the fire, it could have been saved, and a couple of years ago, CADW dug deep in their pockets and agreed to finance the preservation of what was left:
“Melin Y Bont, Bryn Du, Isle of Anglesey £40,000 to restore the historic fabric of the building including the internal water wheel. Melin Y Bont is the only corn mill on Anglesey to utilise both wind and water power, a unique combination which meant that the sails turned in the opposite direction to the other windmills on the island. Its windmill tower is substantially intact and it is one of only 18 surviving on Anglesey and one of only two to retain some of its original machinery.”

But something slipped, 'twixt cup and lip. Despite the £40,000 grant, the last of the working parts seem to have been removed, and now it’s another bijou holiday cottage.

Will CADW be asking for their money back?

More to the point, did they clearly explain to the owners what was expected in return for the cash? I understand Careless CADW's inspector is “surprised” by what has happened. Where was he when the work was underway?

Even more galling, this travesty has been given an award by the local Building Inspectors, those well-known paragons of taste, virtue and conservationist sympathies:

All modern fittings such as plastic extractor fans had to be concealed.” So that’s alright then.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Dead in the water?

I've moaned before about those, set by chance as custodians of our historic environment, who have no vision. But what happens when the vision is desperately wrong, and at odds with a century or more of best practice?

I was going to hold off from this, but:

Tit of the Week (and probably Tit of the Year) is Dame Simone Thurley, known (behind his back at English Heretics) as Gloriana. Anyone who doesn't understand this opprobrium has presumably not watched the previously media-savvy Thurley wrecking his organisation's reputation by inviting in the same TV crew who gave the National Trust a good kicking a couple of years ago. Exactly what he expected to gain by this four part BBC 2 series is unclear, but those of us "at the coal face" are less than enchanted by last week's episode where "the squint test" was introduced (if you squint at a Grade II* listed building after it's been gutted, it looks the same, so plastic windows, concrete tiles, the sophistication of the original design with varied but controlled infill, etc, no longer matter, according to EH), while this week's performance hints at familial corruption (we never imagined he even had a wife, though she made Lady Macbeth look like the kitten cuddling type - which in itself speaks volumes) which would make the Dear Leader Gordon blush.
No doubt Simone would say something about the recipe for omelettes requiring broken eggs. But note that English Heritage's impoverished relative, CADW, in Wales, for all its own failings dictated by circumstance, has at least managed a few notable conservation successes (not least in presenting its own properties), without them being tied to the "personality" of its own Chief Executive. Can anyone name him? I thought not.

Simon Thurley is an architectural historian of modest ability, who in normal life might be expected to make a living at a minor university (like the one I attended, except that my tutors had open eyes and minds, and encouraged the same in their students - even me). But his slight media talents (as a young Dan Cruickshank-in-waiting) have propelled him beyond his abilities. And now he has allowed that deficiency to be broadcast to the world.
If anyone fancies a (hollow) laugh:
Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

A Slice of Unmitigated Nostalgia

Nothing much to do with architecture, but too good not to add. I'm a complete sucker for this sort of socialist realist (ie utterly fictional) film-making (Nightmail, anyone?), so here's "English Harvest" of 1938 in glorious Dufaycolour, courtesy of the British Film Institute and currently doing the rounds as part of a tour entitled "Britain at Bay"

Monday 27 April 2009

Local Authority impotence

(Thanks to Mark Savage for the pic, from
Today's prats are West Lancashire District Council, and their victim is Greaves Hall at Banks near Southport, a Grade II listed house which, under the local authority's nose, has been allowed to deteriorate to the point at which they have become minded to compulsorily purchase it, for demolition, though they did grant consent for its conversion to flats a few years ago (following many, surprisingly well-maintained, years as a hospital )
Here's the list description:
SD32SE NORTH MEOLS GUINEA HALL LANE (East side), Banks 1759-/2/10001 Greaves Hall - II Country house, now disused hospital. Dated 1900. Timber framing with rendered nogging, brick plinth, plain tile roofs. Brick gable, ridge and side wall stacks, with octagonal coped flues, many of them multiple. Tudor Revival style, with multiple gables and patterned timber framing imitating the local vernacular. Windows are mainly casements with wooden mullions and cross mullions, and leaded glazing. 2 storeys plus attics; 16 windows. T-plan. Single range of exaggerated length, punctated by projecting gables, with parallel range at left end, and a substantial rear wing. Entrance front has in the centre 3 gables, stepped back from left to right. Left gable has full~width cross-mullioned windows on each floor. Other gables have smaller windows to each floor and to attics. To right, 5 windows, then a projecting double gable with cross mullioned windows. In the return angle, a gabled porch with double doors. To left of centre, 4 windows, then a projecting gable, then a single window. Right return has to left a large external stack. To right, a projecting rounded gable with a cross mullioned window on each floor. Rear elevation has to left a small central gable flanked by larger end gables, that to left with an external stack. To right, parallel range with regular fenestration and 3 dormers. Central rear wing, 2 storeys plus attics, has a jettied end gable with a full-height canted bay window, with brick ground floor and segment headed door. At the left corner, an octagonal brick stair tower with slit lights and crenellated parapet. Left return has 2 full-height canted bay windows under jettied gables, and 2 dormers. Right return has 2 external stacks and box dormers. Interior: entrance hall has four-centred arched ashlar doorcase with glazed double doors. Half~panelled hallway has elaborate open well wooden staircase and matching landings, with bulbous balusters and square newels. Plaster cross ribbed ceiling. Stair window has stained glass with coat of arms dated 1900. Ground floor spinal corridor has an elliptical arched opening with screen, doors and fanlight all with diamond glazing bars. Ante room with Renaissance Revival style wooden chimneypiece, with columns and segmental pediment. Panelled recess at opposite end. Rear wing contains a half-panelled hall, 2 storeys, with strapwork ceiling and span beams on heavy curved brackets. At the far end, a wooden gallery on square posts with mid C20 balustrade. Doorway under gallery, and four-centred arched window recess above. Remaining rooms have cornices, and some attic rooms have original fireplaces.
And here's the developers plan - which is an exercise in ignoring the "elephant in the room" as far as the listed building goes, beyond following the local council's lead in condemning it as having "no prospect of retention or conversion" - you'll note that the site plans show the building, but don't propose anything at all for its footprint:
The remainder of the site is being developed with new housing, but without an agreement over the repair (which ten years ago, wasn't needed) of the listed house. Congratulations to all concerned. You must be really pleased to be in the vanguard of "progress".

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The Decline of Civilisation

An architectural photographer's disappointing experience of the boys in blue combines the elegant work of one of the best firms of architects working in the period 1945-70 with further evidence of the paranoid new barbarism into which we are sleepwalking. All who spend any time enjoying, and recording, the built environment would do well to read Edward Denison's piece here:

Particularly poignant as McMorran and Whitby's work was, in part, the subject of my RIBA Part II thesis nearly 20 years ago, going unchallenged as I - a scruffy student - photographed Hammersmith and Wood Street (above) Police Stations, and the Old Bailey. But that was before the current madness of those who believe they are in charge descended.

Do order the book, though, it promises to be a treat.