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Plymouth A 20th Century City

May 13th, 2010

31121Many British cities — Hull, Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Canterbury and Exeter — were flattened by bombs and rebuilt themselves after the second world war. But Plymouth was unique in that it commissioned Patrick Abercrombie to make a new plan in 1943 and stuck with him and built its new city, which was totally different from anything before.

Plymouth was the first city to realise its post-war plan, and the first to discharge its public inquiry, to compulsorily purchase land on a massive scale and to complete new buildings. Dingles department store, designed by Thomas Tait, opened in September 1951, long before such buildings appeared in Bristol, Coventry or anywhere else.

Scroll forward 60 years and the new website www.20thcentury-city.org.uk, developed by the Architecture Centre for Devon & Cornwall (www.acdandc.org.uk) with Heritage Lottery funding, proclaims that Plymouth has more 1950s listed buildings than any other provincial city. There are 10, all listed grade II and St Andrew’s Church, repaired by Frederick Etchells, at grade I. Rove over the city plan, click and they pop up — with information more detailed than a Pevsner, a timeline, archive pictures, walks (available as a Google map for your phone) and an activity map. It’s informative and lots of fun and more will be added over the next two years.

Plymouth has work by six 20th century Royal Gold Medallists — Giles Gilbert Scott, Percy Thomas, William Curtis Green, Howard Robertson, J Murray Easton and Abercrombie — and work by Louis de Soissons, four Tait buildings, glass by John Piper and John Hutton and murals by Mary Adshead, Hans Feibusch and Hans Tisdall.

Two things need pointing out: first, the importance of the place and its architecture are largely unknown and uncelebrated. At the time, the architectural press disapproved and it was hardly published; this brief moment of British architecture was soon overtaken by a younger generation who grabbed the headlines.

Now visitors are steered towards the “historic” Barbican, the Mayflower steps, Drake and the Armada. The idea that the fifties could be a good reason to visit just hasn’t occurred. A click on to Le Havre’s website (www.le-havre-tourism.com — 1950s city, Auguste Perret, Oscar Niemeyer) might demonstrate otherwise.

Under threat

Second, and much more serious, is that fifties Plymouth is under threat. Actually Percy Thomas’s beautiful Methodist church (1955) has been demolished, as has the Drake Cinema (Leonard Allen 1956-58), Burtons and most of Old Town Street and almost all of the 1950s interiors. The Naafi (Messrs Joseph, 1949-52), the Athenaeum (Walls & Pearn, 1958-61), the Reel Cinema (William R. Glen, 1936-38) and Woolworths are all designated as redevelopment sites. The Civic Centre (Jellicoe Ballantyne & Coleridge with Ove Arup, 1957-62) was listed grade II in 2007 to huge opposition from the city council. Now it appears deliberately neglected.

The idea, mooted by English Heritage, that the city centre should be a fifties conservation area is stoutly resisted by a city that sees conservation as a threat to development and to (its) land values.

The future, according to the latest Area Action Plan, is in big-scale retail development. But the quality of what’s on offer is pathetically low (remember Drake Circus shopping centre which won BD’s Carbuncle Cup in 2006?). Without the cultural and contextual fix and the exemplary quality of the fifties buildings and plan, Plymouth’s city centre hasn’t got much going for it. It can ill afford to lose more and the 20th Century City project reveals and celebrates just why.

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