Institute for Social Renewal

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Architect’s grand plan to wipe out Whitehall

Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat is based on Sir Leslie Martin’s idea to demolish the Foreign Office building in the 1960s and radically change the setting of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Architect Professor Sharr, of Newcastle University – writing with political historian Stephen Thornton at Cardiff University – examines the impetus behind these plans, which included a tunnel in the river alongside the Houses of Parliament and halls of residence for MPs.

One of the outcomes of Martin’s plan would have been a less hierarchical and more democratic space, with the public using the government buildings as routes through the city. “In a sense it was the welfare state made architectural,” says Professor Sharr.

“Today, the idea of demolishing grand palaces of state like the Foreign Office seems ludicrous,” he adds. “But in 1965, highly ornamented Victorian architecture like this was seen as excessive and distasteful.

“At that time, London was full of bomb gaps, with smoke blackened and propped-up buildings. The idea of creating a modern new city and doing away with this damaged, tired relic of an Empire seemed rather appealing.”

Pulling down the Foreign Office - described at the time by Foreign Secretary Rab Butler as a “white elephant stabled in the middle of Whitehall” - and replacing it with a modern building - was only a relatively small part of a wide-ranging proposal.

The plans would have rebuilt the whole area from Downing Street to Parliament Square, and St James’ Park to the Thames. It would have also reframed Parliament Square and cut a grand axis through two miles of Central London to connect up Whitehall with the British Museum.

“This plan, which seems wholly implausible now, has to be put into the context of the time,” explains Professor Sharr. “In many ways it’s quite appealing – a pedestrianized Whitehall and Parliament Square to replace one that was choked with traffic even then - with grand public arcades and riverside cafes. I actually like the ambitions of the project but it’s just a shame it had to be at the expense of what was already there.”

This research earned a commendation in the RIBA Presidents Awards for Research in the Outstanding University-led research category, announced on 6 November 2014.  The judges noted the passion of the authors for the subject and that in covering various points of view, including design and politics, the research was a good polemic with just the right amount of provocation for readers.

During the time between Harold Wilson’s famous ‘White Heat’ conference speech in 1963 and the devaluing of the pound in 1966, a bright new technological future seemed not just possible, but imminent, ushering in a new social order.

It was the time of NASA’s space images, Concorde, hovercrafts, the Post Office tower and the first computers fed with punch cards, when televisions and washing machines were just becoming commonplace in British homes, and architects and planners saw themselves as contributing to this new modern future.

Inspired by Edward Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, the sides of the new Whitehall blocks were to be tiered back at each storey to form a series of concrete terraces with leafy courtyards in-between.

The riverside tunnel proposed as part of the plans would have linked Embankment with Victoria Street, removing passing traffic from Parliament Square by narrowing the Thames and appropriating one arch under Westminster Bridge.

A grid of underground service roads and car parks beneath the new buildings would have given politicians and civil servants fast and easy access to London’s road network.

One surprising supporter of the plan was Conservative foreign secretary and, briefly, Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home “not many people's vision of a moderniser”, according to the book's co-author Stephen Thornton. It was actually the Conservatives under Harold Macmillan and Douglas-Home who really the championed the plan. Labour's Harold Wilson was not at all interested, indirectly helping to bring about its downfall after he came into office.

“After Charles Pannell (the Minister for Public Building and Works) left office there were no ‘policy entrepreneurs’ backing Martin’s plan from the Labour benches, and enough people managed to obstruct it for long enough for the idea to become unfeasible,” says Dr Thornton. “It failed to progress largely due to the currency crisis, but also because of a shift in the public mood and a loss of faith in experts and the vision of a ‘grand technological future’.”
photograph

published on: 6 November 2014