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Must we always demolish the past? The culture police always feels it has the right to dismiss and destroy

The final moments of Wrexham Police station. Credit: Simon Pemberton, Leader Camera Club

The final moments of Wrexham Police station. Credit: Simon Pemberton, Leader Camera Club


November 24, 2020   4 mins

“These types of events are always very popular”, said Wrexham County Borough Council. “We know many of you would love to witness this historic event, but due to the current ‘firebreak’ restrictions we’re asking you to stay away. It will be recorded and shared on social media so we’ll all be able to see how it went.”

The demolition of Wrexham Police station, a distinctive and assertive 10-storey concrete tower dating from the mid-Seventies took place at 08:30am on Sunday 1 November. Online footage shows the building tumbling over as if swatted by a giant hand. The event will feature in next year’s season of Scrap Kings, a TV show in which “the nation’s kings and queens of destruction . . . bang, blow, smash and crunch their way around the UK.”

Let’s hope that together with local politicians everyone in the Welsh market town is happy when, after the crunching rubble is cleared, a new Lidl supermarket, a drive-through coffee shop and 151 car parking spaces emerge from the ashes.

One Westminster politician in particular may have relished the banging, smashing news from Wrexham. In October, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said that the Government’s new planning reforms will create a “big opportunity to demolish some of the mistakes of the recent past . . . empty derelict buildings in town and city centres that were put, often poorly constructed, not within the character of those places, particularly in market towns in the Sixties and Seventies.”

Although unlisted, the Wrexham Police headquarters was an interesting building. Designed by a team led by the Denbighshire County Architect Eric Langford Lewis and opened in 1975, it fitted into a canon of British civic buildings of its era labelled “Brutalist”, its offices spreading up and out from a central concrete pillar — the tower’s service core — to reach a height of 140ft. This was the tallest new building in Wrexham since the completion of the tower of St Giles, the town’s glorious Tudor parish church 500 years earlier. The police headquarters ought to have been fashionable by 2020, as such Seventies architecture can be, and converted, perhaps, into a hotel or workspaces and laboratories for hi-tech start-ups or whatever the collective local imagination might have in mind for Wrexham’s future.

A local petition hoped to protect the nine-acre building site from becoming the home of just another supermarket — Wrexham is brimful with them — but the prevailing official view was evidently Jenrickian. Will, though, the new Lidl supermarket be a better and more beautiful building than the smashed Seventies police headquarters?

Aside from an unease about the lack of imagination shown in Wrexham, my wider concern here is with politicians and cultural commentators who find the architecture of the generation or two before them hard to understand, much less to like, and thus to protect and renovate for the future. Much the same is true, of course, of music, fashion, art and design.

There is though an irredeemable arrogance at play when it comes to the fate of buildings when a new generation takes against previous architectural styles it feels it has the cultural competence and a kind of divine right to dismiss and destroy. In 1961, Harold Macmillan, Conservative prime minister and arch moderniser, ensured the demolition of the Euston Arch. This monumental Greek Revival propylaeon, or triumphal gateway, designed in a severe Doric style by Philip Hardwick, fronted what had been the London terminus of Britain’s first long distance passenger railway, the London and Birmingham. Opened in 1837, this was the 19th century equivalent of a Roman road, the scale of its engineering epic, its architecture noble.

When Jim Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, went to 10 Downing Street with fellow ‘Save the Euston Arch’ campaigners, “Macmillan listened, or I suppose he listened as he sat without moving and with his eyes apparently closed. He asked no questions; in fact he said nothing except that he would consider the matter.” With official apathy over the matter on the parts of the government, the London County Council and the British Transport Commission, Macmillan let the wrecking balls get to work.

What, though, could have been going through the Prime Minister’s mind? This, after all, was the same Harold Macmillan, who as a wounded young captain on the Somme waiting in a foxhole for rescue, read Aeschylus in Greek for comfort. Why the tragic gap between Aeschylus and the Greek Revival Euston Arch? Because, I think, Macmillan and those of his generation, especially following the destruction caused by two world wars, wanted to escape at least part of their Edwardian and, at root, Victorian hinterland.

It was Macmillan’s Conservative government that championed motorways, high-rise mass housing and tall commercial buildings on the London skyline alongside the destruction of unfashionable 19th century architecture.

St Pancras station and that great Victorian dragon of a building, the Midland Grand Hotel that fronts it, only just escaped demolition after determined battles by conservationists resolute after their failure to protect the Euston Arch. However, even John Summerson, the distinguished architectural historian, refused to support St Pancras. Why? Because, I think, St Pancras was a reminder of what, in spirit, had been a coal-fired Victorian childhood. The old order needed to change yielding place to the crisp, rational, white and new.

While John Summerson was making his mark, at the same time as John Betjeman who helped lead the fight for the Euston Arch and St Pancras, Harold Clunn wrote The Face of London (1932) in which the author praised the ambitious new commercial architecture of the capital. As for Nicholas Hawksmoor’s early 18th century Baroque church of St Mary Woolnoth this was little short of a modern scandal. How could such a building out of keeping with the style and scale of modern streets be allowed to occupy a City of London site worth a million pounds and ripe for redevelopment?

If, as Robert Jenrick argues, new buildings will have to comply with design codes “so that local people this time around can decide what they want these buildings to look like which are so central to their lives”, there will be no contemporary equivalent of daring Hawksmoor churches, much less soaring Gothic cathedrals nor, of course, police station’s like Wrexham’s.

Sometimes, just sometimes, there are balanced outcomes. The 1960s Preston Bus Station — cinematic, sculptural, heroic — designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of the Building Design Partnership, survived prolonged attempts to have it demolished to make way for more shopping. Between 2016 and 2018 it was renovated by John Puttick Associates. Against Wrexham’s and Jenrick’s grain, local people truly like this Sixties adventure in concrete.

I wonder what if Wrexham had followed Preston’s path, realising that architectural fashions change but tend to return to favour. In the meantime, we should think much harder than politicians seem to have been able or willing to do in recent decades and not so much to demolish what we don’t like at one particular moment, but to build more intelligently and caringly than we tend to do in the first place.


Jonathan Glancey is an architectural critic and writer. His books include Twentieth Century Architecture, Lost Buildings and Spitfire: the Biography


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Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago

It’s not about hating the past. Or the architecture of the past. If that were the case we would cheer on the destruction of Georgian, Edwardian, or Victorian buildings. It’s about hating brutalist buildings, ugly inhuman monstrosities that they are. Ironically the architects who promoted brutalism did in fact hate the far better architecture that proceeded them, and were happy to build wildly inappropriate eyesores with no regard to the past. We don’t owe them anything, but we do owe to posterity they elimination of most of their buildings.

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Hi Eugene, you don’t buy the suggestion every era hates the period of architecture before it? There wasn’t much love for Victorian buildings in the early twentieth century, and *everyone* hated brutalism in the 1980s.

polidoris ghost
polidoris ghost
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

Fair point.
But, we were wrong about Victorian architecture and right about brutalism.

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
3 years ago

OMG Prince Charles is posting on unherd under a pseudonym!

Terry Mushroom
Terry Mushroom
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

Portsmouth gave its opinion of The Tricorn Centre by spray painting and peeing on it. Such behaviour is normally criticised by others. Instead they cheered it on to hasten the Tricorn’s demise.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry Mushroom

Oddly enough there are still people who mourn its passing.

What was a shopping centre with car park on top – is now a car park at the ground level – with nothing else!

polidoris ghost
polidoris ghost
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

It is worse than you think – I am not Charles.

We are legion.

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
3 years ago

I actually think you *are* legion. I do get the criticisms of brutalism. I think most fans – like me – were kids in the 1960s/70s, and these buildings bring back some spooky memory, like modal jazz flute.

polidoris ghost
polidoris ghost
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

” like modal jazz flute.”
I don’t remember that!
Maybe it is a blessing.

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

Good for the Prince, who took on the pompous and self-righteous architectural know-alls. Time has proved him largely correct, just as his views on organics are now mainstream.

Gordon Fraser
Gordon Fraser
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

Don’t agree with Prince Charles about much if anything but I do agree with him regarding ugly architecture from the 70s onward.

Barry Coombes
Barry Coombes
3 years ago

Victorian buildings and even inter-war ones often look like someone has made an effort to please. There’ll be decorative stonework or ceramics; it looks like someone has opened their wallets to make it look attractive, to hold the eye. Maybe there were factories churning these elements out, but they often look bespoke. More recent work looks cheap and lazy in comparison.

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  James Jenkin

Many ““ even most ““ people still loathe brutalism, not least because so many of its creators enjoyed living in their own handsome Georgian properties.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

Many years ago I recall talking to one of the architects/planners of the soon to be built new town of Milton Keynes.

They lived in a charming oolitic limestone cottage in a nearby village, and certainly had no intention whatsoever of moving into their new creation, when it was completed!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

But many of these brutalist (and sometimes not quite so brutalist) buildings from the 1960s/70s can be ‘repurposed’ to good effect, as the writer suggests. Look at Wibaut Straat in Amsterdam, a wide and quite ugly street/road leading out of the city. Over the last 10 to 15 years its many buildings of that era have been renovated as hotels and restaurants etc and the street is now hip and thriving. Those buildings offer big spaces for reception areas, bars and cafes. One of them even hosts fashion shows. With a little vision and imagination – granted, there is not much chance of that in local government in Britain – it can be done.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

That’s true Fraser, I suppose. Concrete itself is not the problem. But to reclad a brutalist building is to change the architecture- since the idea was to expose the building materials, however ugly. Of all places to expose grey concrete, grey Britain was surely the worst.

peter lucey
peter lucey
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Agree – and wrt the structure pictured, I would think that it was poor quality and cost a fortune to maintain and heat.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

Destroying Euston Station wasn’t tearing down the previous generation’s architecture — it was 130 years old at that point. Brutalist architects were simply showing complete contempt for history, culture, and context. There is no reason to keep the monstrosities they created. They were never meant to last.

Dave H
Dave H
3 years ago

Brutalism is a uniquely ugly style in the main. I’m happy to concede that a lot of the current “glass towers everywhere” style is bland, but it’s better than structures which appear to have been designed to be oppressive and to make the individual feel small and insignificant.

Brutalist buildings aged very poorly, became streaked, stained grey hulks. They provided ample cover for criminal behaviour, even seemed to encourage it in their dreary-yet-stark spaces, and my enduring memory of many of them in city centres around the UK is that they smelled of urine as there was always a dark corner that got used as a lavatory.

It’s a style that should be, for the most part, consigned to the dustbin.

“Function as Form” as an architectural creed was a failure. I find it baffling that people protest their removal, seeking to condemn town centres across Britain to live with these grey-brown lumps in perpetuity.

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

Hi Dave, after Le Corbusier, the Smithsons etc, I think Brutalism moved well away from function as form. A lot of architects saw their work as scuptural and emotional.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago

The Arts and Crafts movement saw the creation of beautiful things, including buildings, as a shared egalitarian undertaking — part and parcel of building a fairer, kinder world. The Brutalist movement saw the creation of ugly things as the necessary honest expression of life’s nastiness. A single ugly building, terrifying in its ugliness can serve as a sort of social protest. A whole district of them, in every city and town on earth, just shows how socialist realist and anti-bourgeois architecture can really take off when the bourgeois capitalists get a hold of it and discover that is cheap to build.

Adam Buckland
Adam Buckland
3 years ago

As someone has grown up near Preston, I can guarantee the author that nobody I have ever met likes the monstrosity that is the bus station. In my experience support for it has tended to come from people living in other parts of the country who have never seen the eyesore in person

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam Buckland

To be fair, the world is hardly chocka with attractive bus stations. At least Preston’s stands out!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-40) we had about 55 Great Churches, that is Churches of about 300 feet and more in length, and covering roughly 28,000 square feet upwards.

Today perhaps 23 survive.The impetus for destruction was venal, not aesthetic or even religious.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Thanks, v interesting.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Sadly your fine Augustinian Abbey (now, belatedly Cathedral) was in the process of major rebuild in 1540, and thus does not qualify.

By rights Bristol should have had its own magnificent medieval Cathedral, but thanks to the blatant toadyism of Bishop Wolfstan of Worcester, after the Norman Conquest, Bristol remained in the Diocese of Worcester, until the reorganisation of 1540-1.

bearden
bearden
3 years ago

I think what is often forgotten is that Brutalism was hated when it went up (except by some architecture critics). It has remained hated by nearly everyone all during its long rain-stained existence (except for some architecture critics). Victorian, Georgian, Edwardian etc. buildings WERE liked by the society which produced them. That means that the chances of people liking them again after a few years is very high. But Brutalism – nah – those buildings just said “you there- human beings – you don’t matter at all.”

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

Removing the Brutalist buildings of the 60s-70s is a very different matter from destroying attractive and functional buildings of earlier eras. As any fule kno.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Conservation is often driven by a (perfectly rational) fear that what might come afterwards will be far worse. That may be the case with Wrexham’s promised supermarket, though I suspect the new building will be banal rather than hideous, and probably equally ephemeral. I get Jonathan’s point about demolishing the recent past; it’s sometimes said we hate the things our fathers built and revere the things our grandfathers built. Like him, I belong to the generation that revolted against modernism and brutalism and embraced conservation in the 1970s and 80s, though he (like the late, sorely-missed Gavin Stamp) now seems to be a born-again brutalist. And I admit that such architecture often had a rigour and seriousness that is absent in the trashy games with cladding that often pass for architecture today. But look at the photo. Does the police station display any of the three elements identified by Vitruvius as necessary to good building: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (roughly translated as strength, utility and beauty)?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes to one and two, definitely no to three.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

So it rightly falls. To merit preservation a building has to meet all three criteria

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Vitruvius, that noble Roman, would certainly have agreed.

The tower appears to fallen to the north, had it, by accident fallen to the south, it would have taken the equally undistinguished Wrexham Memorial Hall.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

In Bristol, heedlessly, the yahoos spray
unlettered filth and their own DNA.

Richard Budd
Richard Budd
3 years ago

asdf

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard Budd
Dave H
Dave H
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Budd

Repurposing may not be cost-effective. Not all office spaces can be converted to housing in any sensible way, and the result may not be as housing-dense as a new build could be.

So while I agree in principle, I don’t think it’s always a possibility. Especially in central London where the clamour for space and the race to build upwards is immense.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

Well the Dutch generally seem to manage the process of repurposing very effectively (see my comment below).

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

The irony is that rulers and residents of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea decided that ‘brutalist’ Grenfell Tower (built 1974), was an aesthetic carbuncle, and that it somehow it had to be ‘beautified’.

Hence they inadvertently created a “towering inferno”, much to their everlasting disgrace.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago

While I agree that we should make more effort to reuse buildings instead of knocking them down and starting again, this can have poor outcomes. In Portsmouth we have a number of empty office blocks that are being repurposed for housing. Because planning regs have been weakened you can convert them into what are effectively high-rise bedsits (the developers have a swankier name), merely by informing the planning committee – who have no say in how it is done. So we end up with tiny single room flats and shared facilities. And no thought to the impact on the surrounding area for parking, etc.

As to this weird structure – can it be called architecture? – why not replace it with something more practical? Those who want to save such buildings never seem to think: what did it replace? Probably some Victorian housing was there before – with residents shoved out so some ghastly housing scheme miles from the town centre!

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

And yeah, a new Lidl with parking might not make the place any more attractive, but at least it’ll be easier to knock down and start again should it no longer be needed,

J Roberts
J Roberts
3 years ago

There must be truth in the intention to build a new world after the destruction caused by WW2 and seeing an opportunity to erase memories of a by gone era and associated disdain – but some of these monuments/buildings must be left as a marker in history and something to reflect upon. We live in an era where we are quick to see the world through modern eyes and once something is destroyed it’s gone forever.
Growing up in Portsmouth in the 80s/90s the Tricorn was such a building- hated! But was also part of the city…

Josh Cook
Josh Cook
3 years ago

Very good article – I’m surprised how little architectural criticism makes it into the public conversation, given how important it is to our lives.

David J
David J
3 years ago

The apogee of Brutalism is surely to be seen in the remains of the Atlantic Wall, built by the Nazi regime. It was entirely relevant to build such military structures from solid concrete.
I cannot say the same for defacing our towns and cities without care, courtesy, or relevance to their surroundings or history.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

so if the statues, buildings, and memorials are demolished, the events can be forgotten, too, right? If you’re going to have a memory hole….

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago

I love old buildings but by old I mean three hundred years plus. There are many more recently built buildings that deserve to survive but also a huge number that don’t. The Victorian evangelical movement built a lot of very big churches that were ambitious and never filled even at the time they are now mostly white elephants which consume fortunes just to keep the roofs on. The old buildings we love are survivors of a much larger number that served their purpose when they were built but have been pulled down either because they became a liability to maintain or because someone wanted to build something else on the site. We shouldn’t be prisoners of our past.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

A few years ago I was at a lecture in Oxford given by Frank Gehry. He was asked how he felt the first time one of his buildings was demolished. He replied that it was no longer suitable for use as it was not practical or economically viable to install the sort of technology required by business, so it had to be knocked down.