“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.”
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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.