Lost Futures

London, Portsmouth, Brynmawr

21 February 2017

When Alison and Peter Smithson designed Robin Hood Gardens in the late 1960s, they believed they would bring “a style of life that has more quality, and more control” to the residents of Poplar, east London.

That vision is now, for better or worse, due to be reduced to rubble. In 2008, English Heritage declared that the brutalist housing estate “fails as a place for human beings to live.” Despite a high profile conservation campaign involving figures such as Toyo Ito, Robert Venturi, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, the judgment stood. If you want to witness the Smithsons’ work, you’d better hurry up.

Robin Hood Gardens is one of the subjects of Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain, a new book by architectural historian Owen Hopkins. Although Britain’s post-war architecture has experienced a resurgence of interest in the past few years, much of it has either been demolished or marked for demolition. Lost Futures focuses on 35 of these structures built between 1945 and 1979, tracking the process from initial idealism to eventual demise. Lost Futures has been released in tandem with Futures Found: The Real and Imagined Cityscapes of Post-War Britain, a display at the RA's Architecture Space that sees Hopkins and five other guest curators explore the contrast between Britain’s post-war architectural ambitions and the reality that was implemented.

Below, Disegno is delighted to publish a series of excerpts from Lost Futures.

IMAGE Sam Lambert, 1965. Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Tricorn Shopping Centre
Portsmouth, Hampshire, 1965. Demolished in 2004. Designed by Owen Luder Partnership.

It is relatively unusual for an architect to be able to draw together the thinking behind a project in a few succinct sentences. But that is precisely what Owen Luder managed when defending his Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth after it had been included in 1967 in a Daily Mail poll of Britain’s ugliest buildings:

We deliberately set out to get a Casbah feeling into the market and to make it aggressive. After all, shopping is an aggressive thing. Portsmouth is a pretty nondescript city, and at least we have now built something which will make people stop and stare. It is not streamlined or slick because it is not intended to be. If you have done your job properly, you will be ten years ahead and the public will not have caught up.

Anyone who saw the Tricorn Centre, which was demolished in 2004, will attest to the sincerity of Luder’s vision. Few buildings were quite as bloody-minded in their attitude to their surroundings and their users. For many observers, the Tricorn Centre put the ‘brutal’ into Brutalism; yet for others, it was one of that movement’s greatest monuments, a building with strikingly sculptural energy.

As with Luder’s other major key work of the early 1960s, Trinity Square in Gateshead, the Tricorn Centre combined a market with retail units and car park, as well as pubs, a restaurant, a nightclub and originally several flats. The placement of the market on the first storey and the need for it to be accessible to large lorries ensured a certain massiveness in the structure, while the low budget dictated the roughness of the finishes. The response of Luder and his collaborator Rodney Gordon was simply to emphasise these qualities with complex geometries, bold spans and spiralling access ramps.

The result was so overpowering that it seems unlikely the Tricorn Centre would have succeeded commercially even if its key shop units had been large enough to attract major retailers and its walkways better connected to the surroundings. Nevertheless, attempts were made to get it listed during the 1990s. Its eventual loss after decades of neglect and decay was lamented by many observers – though celebrated by rather more.

IMAGE Reginald Hugo de Burgh Galwey, 1952. Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Brynmawr Rubber Factory
Brynmawr, Gwent, 1951. Demolished in 2001. Designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership.

The Brynmawr Rubber Factory was one of the great architectural follies of the post-war era: built to fulfil a need that did not yet exist, overly ambitious architecturally and ultimately doomed to failure. Despite all that, however, the building was a major and influential architectural achievement on the part of its young designers, Peter Cocke and Michael Powers, and their practice, the Architects’ Co-Partnership, together with the building’s engineers, Ove Arup and his partner Ronald Jenkins.

The idea for the factory had emerged as a response to the unemployment brought about by the downturn in the fortunes of the South Wales coalfields before the war. A socialist peer, Jim Forrester, saw an opportunity to alleviate the area’s social and economic ills by establishing a new factory there for his Brimstone Rubber Company. Having managed to convince the government to invest in the scheme, Forrester went to Cocke and Powers for a design that would embody his bold democratic ambitions for the factory: a single entrance and canteen for both workers and management, and on-site health and welfare facilities for staff.

With building materials still in relatively short supply, the engineers proposed the idea of a concrete-shell structure. The result was nine shallow domes supported only by their pedentives, allowing the creation of vast interior open spaces, lit by wide windows at the dome edge and perimeter walls. The overall effect, particularly at night, was almost Byzantine in its economy of expression and spatial clarity.

Unfortunately, Forrester’s ambitious plans for the factory failed and he was forced to sell to Dunlop Semtex, which redeployed the building for manufacturing rubber floors. It continued operating until 1982, but never at the capacity originally envisaged, and quickly fell into disrepair after its closure. Despite attempts to find alternative uses and restore the building – and the fact that it was the first post-war building in Wales to be listed – the factory was demolished in 2001.

IMAGE Unknown photographer. Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Pimlico Secondary School
Lupus Street, Westminster, London, 1970. Demolished in 2010. Designed by John Bancroft for Greater London Council.

John Bancroft began working for the LCC schools division in 1957, and was involved in a number of projects that helped to shape the ideas he brought to bear with full force when designing Pimlico Secondary School – one of the last large-scale inner-city comprehensives built by the LCC.

The tight site for a school that was intended to accommodate 1725 pupils required some clever thinking. By the mid-1960s, lifts were already deemed to be out of the question for schools. So Bancroft conceived a building of four storeys, the first of which was sunken into the ground to the level of the basements of the townhouses that had previously occupied the site. The building emerged from this hole in a vast mass of interlocking volumes, overhangs and step-backs, with its glass and concrete materials palette given a clear sense of order through a carefully composed arrangement of angles and planes, which defined the sophisticated arrangement of interior spaces. This complex organisation was intended to bring natural light deep into the building. Unfortunately this feature became one of the building’s biggest problems when the air-conditioning machinery was vandalised soon after the school opened. The problem was never properly overcome.

Despite the school developing a reputation in music and the arts, thanks in part to the high-quality facilities that Bancroft had designed, in 1995 Westminster Council proposed redeveloping the site. To some extent this was a consequence of negative attitudes towards the architecture and the values it expressed; the council leader claimed the building was ‘entirely without merit and … a significant cause of the difficulties that have faced the school for many years’. But it was also because of the high value of the inner-city site and the money that could be made by allowing a portion of it to be developed for residential use. Despite a spirited campaign led by Bancroft and widely supported by others, including Richard Rogers, the school was demolished in 2010 and replaced under the Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.