Forward Planning – Rebuilding London after the Second World War
I must thank a good friend and occasional companion on artistical mystery tours for sharing with me the opportunity to undertake some research into an untitled sheet of architectural drawings by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. In a nutshell, it shows the classic combination of plan, section and elevation, in this case of an unnamed, but clearly large-scale urban development, and it is signed and dated 1942. It presents an imposing and austere rectilinear façade extending over what in common parlance would be described as a couple of blocks, accompanied by a substantial and integral elevated roadway. At least that was my initial appraisal of the priority or hierarchy of the elements I saw.
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott OM RA FRIBA (1880-1960) was the grandson of the famous Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for the Albert Memorial and St Pancras station. Giles has to his credit such notable landmarks as Liverpool Cathedral (1902-10), Battersea Power Station (1929), and Waterloo Bridge (completed in 1945 and known as the Ladies’ Bridge because of its largely female construction force). Perhaps his most ubiquitous design was that much more diminutive national treasure, the red telephone box, dating from 1924. But it’s the other power station, Bankside, that I’m sure is most to the fore in the popular consciousness these days because of its hugely successful 21st century redeployment as Tate Modern. I expect I’m not alone in thinking of that iconic landmark as soon as I saw this sheet now under investigation, and it turns out to be more than just a passing resemblance.
From a brief initial investigation into this drawing, trawling the internet, no published versions or photographs of a completed project came to light. But by far the best online resource is the RIBA collection of the architect’s drawings and notebooks which, even if it hasn’t all be digitised, gave me enough encouraging leads to make a visit to the V&A, where it is housed, look thoroughly worthwhile.
These opened a fascinating window onto Giles Gilbert Scott’s role in the bold planning for London to emerge from the Second World War not only by adapting to, but capitalising on 20th century industrial and technological developments, and the impact this would have on the metropolitan environment of the future. Although I only had one afternoon’s delving into the subject, what becomes clear now the current pandemic lockdown has finally given me the spare time to look back over the notes and photographs I took, is how the various strands intertwine and, most gratifyingly of all, extend to embrace our drawing.
There are at least three primary points of cross reference between this drawing and Scott’s known areas of thought and work during and immediately after the war, namely the South Bank redevelopment facing St Paul’s Cathedral, which includes Bankside power station, his broader vision of urban redevelopment, and the integration within this of the concept of a city motorway.
Although there is nothing in our drawing that immediately says ‘power station’, there can be no mistaking the similarity between its principal elevation and that of Scott’s proposed South Bank redevelopment as it appears at the bottom this drawing from the RIBA collection (1).
There had actually been a power station here since 1891, but by the late 1930s it was deemed too inefficient and in need of replacement. However, war intervened and the plan was not revived until 1944, and Scott’s exterior design only finally approved in 1947. So, again, it is worth remembering our drawing is dated 1942. Here are details of the two elevations, both of which include an elevated road passing in front, in each case with intersections, those of the South Bank drawing being with Southwark and Blackfriars bridges. The primary distinguishing feature is, therefore, simply the central cooling tower of the power station in the lower drawing.
The Bankside site, already home to the original late Victorian power station, had in fact been designated for more social redevelopment incorporating buildings for residential, educational, recreational and commercial use. But the priority of meeting the overwhelming need for electrical power generation is argued by Scott in his wartime notebooks, also held in the RIBA collection (2). Here, in extensive pencil notes beside the emphatically inked rhetorical question, ‘Is controlled opportunism bad?’, he pulls together the various elements of the case for what became the eventual outcome. London had a great demand for power, but power stations need cooling, for which a water supply is essential. If the supply is not nearby, the cooling towers required become ‘of enormous and terrifying size’. Proximity to such an ample supply as provided by the Thames not only dispenses with this imposing physical requirement, but also brings with it a very convenient and inexpensive route for the fuel itself to be delivered. As if these were not arguments enough for such a central site, the electricity itself, once generated, needs to be distributed. The cheaper and less disruptively installed method would be the kind of giant pylons and cables that were allowed to blight so much of England’s green and pleasant land, but which would surely be unacceptable in the heart of the metropolis. Underground cabling is expensive, so the closer to the heart of the demand, the less of it that is required. He rested his case.
I think our drawing also fits in with Scott’s train of thinking about urban planning in general, not necessarily the Bankside site in particular. So, rather than it being at some level preparatory for Bankside, it is more that Bankside became, in the mid to late 1940s, a practical example of the ideas he was laying down by 1942 in our drawing. It also ties in with his notes on the subject which appear around the same time as those on power stations to which I have just referred. In these, despite what one might think of his own modernist, bordering on brutalist, style he is actually quite critical of those who choose to overlook the purpose of a building in terms of its decoration, stating that the ‘modernist movement largely disregards this and prescribes the same austerity and bleak absence of ornament for all buildings’, regardless of whether it is a factory or a cathedral. He is equally critical of the modernist obsession with using new materials, in both cases making the point that the outcome should not be novelty for the sake of bucking tradition. In other words ‘the lesson is use modern materials if they are functional but not otherwise, and if a traditional material does the job better than a modern substitute do not be afraid to use it just because it is traditional. Keep an open mind and use your judgment uninfluenced by slogans and ideologies’. For ‘controlled opportunism’ perhaps also read ‘practical common sense’, and ‘the ends justify the means’.
To expand on our drawing’s potential as a practical illustration of Scott’s principles of modern development, we should turn to the elevated road system that serves his new-built world. It might help to start with the observation in the volume on the Scott family in the Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (3), that ‘he was also prepared to accept the modern age unreservedly concerning transport, and his plans for London accept uncritically the dominance of the motor car’. Below is a detail of the fully reasoned and carefully devised intersection of not only two roads, but on two different levels. Here we have our now very familiar flyover, slip road and roundabout. I will come back to that last bit of terminology shortly.
The most immediately exciting discovery at the V&A was this drawing here, ‘Design for City Motorway, View of Traffic Circus’, signed but undated (4).
There is no escaping the similarity in every detail of the design in each drawing, both in plan and elevation. This is, effectively, the missing component of our drawing’s plan, section and elevation, providing the most relatable element, the perspective view. The RIBA drawing is signed but undated, but the ‘Catalogue’ gives it the speculative date of c.1945, post-war. I think we can fairly pull it back to 1942 with some certainty, such is its intimate association with ours. Where it helps shed further light on ours is in more clearly explaining the different lanes, and levels, of this sophisticated urban roadway. We can now better understand it as an elevated through-route connecting to the lower, slower, level for local traffic.
This brings us neatly to another association with a similar project for the redevelopment of London, an inner ring road to ease the flow of traffic through the city. Below is an artist’s impression of a ‘balloon view’ of the proposed route from Holborn Circus to Aldersgate Street, suggested by the City Engineer, F.J. Forty in 1944.
Although I would point out in passing the similarity of the fortress-like facades facing us along this proposed route, not unlike those hinted at in the view across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral in the background, this was not a project in which Scott was directly involved. The City’s Improvements and Town Planning Committee was advised by the Royal Fine Art Commission that Forty’s plan risked repeating the same mistake that followed the Great Fire of 1666, namely of missing the golden opportunity to remodel London. So, a more visionary plan was sought, and it was eventually entrusted to his fellow prominent architect, famous for many of London Underground’s most cherished art deco stations, Charles Holden, alongside Willian Holford, as consultant architect and planner, respectively.
But I’d like now to present the last item of note from my brief research, a letter from Scott to Holden from July 1946. In this, he offers a suggestion about precisely the ring road illustrated in Forty’s proposal, above. Scott had, himself, been appointed as consultant architect to the new County Hall project, just south of Westminster Bridge, back in 1935 when he was otherwise preoccupied with being president of the RIBA. Then, he advised the Clerk of the LCC that traffic could be eased around the project by ‘making a “traffic circus” at the junction of Westminster Bridge and York Roads’, the same rather unusual term he used in the City Motorway drawing. Bearing this more sophisticated elevated junction in mind when writing to Holden, Scott now says, with some apparent lack of confidence in the terminology, ‘I notice your Committee do not agree with your proposal for a viaduct in the Central Market area (Smithfield in the middle of the illustration). I wonder if you have considered the idea of putting the “roundabout” under Holborn Viaduct, using the viaduct as a “fly over” with ramps down to the “roundabout” – it seems a better strategic position for a “roundabout” than Holborn Circus’. Such new-fangled “roundabouts” had been in use in the UK since the first one was introduced in Letchworth Garden City in 1909, and much earlier in France, but their functionality wasn’t standardised in the UK until the 1960s. So, Scott’s changing nomenclature can be put down to their evolving concept, of which he was clearly a driving and imaginative force.
There is one final aspect to our sheet of drawings not yet mentioned, and not related to illustrating Scott’s pivotal roles in the South Bank redevelopment, and in advancing the wider principles of post-war urban development, including the integration of more sophisticated road systems. On the verso of the sheet there are some very tidy sketches of various chairs and a table, seen below.
As with the drawings on the recto, there is nothing to identify these, but they also serve to remind us of the range of Scott’s work. In 1936, he won a rare and distinguished commission to design two chairs for the New Bodleian Library in Oxford, quite separately from the fact that he was the building’s architect. An indication of the prestigiousness of this seemingly much smaller consideration can be seen from the fanfare generated by the Bodleian Libraries Chair Competition of 2014. But, perhaps more immediately pertinent to our sheet, given the suggestion of active forward thinking in his architecture in relation to plans only just emerging, was the bombing of the Palace of Westminster in May 1941. The fire brigade had been able to save Westminster Hall but only at the expense of losing the House of Commons altogether. The ruin wasn’t cleared until 1945, and its replacement was not opened until 1950. Although the project was largely to recreate Barry and Pugin’s original, Scott was commissioned to undertake every aspect of the updated design, including all the woodwork, fittings and the furniture, frequently using materials, principally varieties of wood, from the Commonwealth. So, even if we haven’t yet unearthed our drawing’s specific identity, we can certainly appreciate its significance in the wider scheme of his work before, during and just after the war.
1. RIBA Drawings Collection reference PA1415/AHP2 ‘Designs for the redevelopment of Bankside, Southwark’.
2. RIBA Drawings Collection reference [SKB 302/1-6, SKB 303/1-5, SKB 304/1-4] 15 note or sketch books.
3. Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: Scott Family, by Geoffrey Fisher, Gavin Stamp & others, ed. Joanna Heseltine. Gregg International, 1981.
4. RIBA Drawings Collection reference [SCOTT RAN 9 ] ‘Design for Urban Motorway Junction, c.1945’.