Book Review: ‘Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat’ by Adam Scharr and Stephen Thornton

In the 1960’s, plans were advanced to demolish Whitehall and start from scratch. James Dunnett finds ‘Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat’ By Adam Scharr and Stephen Thornton which covers the saga a fascinating read, and admires the spirit of the report which set the whole chain of events into motion. 

What an amazing saga! Officially commissioned early in 1964 to produce what would now be described as a ‘Masterplan’ for the Government quarter, the Whitehall area of London, Professor Sir Leslie Martin’s report was published in July 1965, and the final communication from him to his clients in July 1970 ends with the words ‘Please do not trouble to reply’. The sense of his disappointment, the disappointment of a dream dating to back to the youthful vigour of the Modern Movement in the 1930s, hangs heavy, and one wants to be sympathetic to him and his ambitions because he was a fine man with fine sensibilities. But the story, as the authors of this book frequently remark, is more complex. On the face of it the battle was between the ‘Modernist’ dream of Martin’s ‘total plan’ for radical reconstruction of the major Government offices pitted against an increasingly powerful preservationist lobby that eventually won the day – and there is some truth in this picture presented by the authors.

But it was the scope rather than the detail of Martin’s plan that typified the early ideals of the Modern Movement. Based as it was on his desire not to exceed the height of the existing (and still extant) office buildings on the site, so as to leave the Abbey and the towers of the Palace of Westminster locally dominant, and to rebuild using the time-honoured courtyard format with very high ground cover, it already represented a very substantial concession to historicist sympathies – an embrace of ‘cours interieurs’, internal courtyards or lightwells, that would have horrified Le Corbusier, with his quest for ‘light, space, greenery’.

Whilst Martin makes frequent reference to the adequacy of daylight and outlook from his proposed offices – an issue about which as a ‘Modernist’ with pedigree he was well aware – he always regarded a low building as self-evidently better than a high one, and sought to remedy the deficiencies especially of the north-facing sides of his courtyards by use of his ubiquitous stepped section, hoping to catch light from above. These stepped section offices were to be accessed from a grand atrium-like top-lit gallery inspired by the nineteenth-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, running from the Thames to St James’s Park across Whitehall – perhaps the most impressive architectural aspect of Martin’s proposal, providing dramatic contrast of scale and a spacious approach to cellular offices.

More clearly Modern in inspiration was the proposed Government precinct that, largely traffic-free thanks to a proposed tunnel alongside the Thames, would have stretched westwards from the Houses of Parliament all the way to Central Hall and north to south between the ‘gateways’ spanning the ends of Whitehall and Millbank. The Middlesex Guildhall (present Supreme Court) and the whole of its block were to be removed. Within this extensive green space would stand Westminster Abbey and School, Dean’s Yard and St Margaret’s church, and ‘a Major Building of National or International Significance’ – which eventually saw the light of a reduced day in Powell and Moya’s Government Conference Centre. It could have been fine, like the Campo Santo at Pisa.

The grandeur of the conception was certainly breathtaking (and its hinted-at extension northwards to the British Museum even more so), and one cannot help feeling that Martin, the former practical-minded Architect to the LCC, must well have known he was giving a hostage to fortune: it would have required the determined backing of a politician of major calibre to see it through, and in the event, commissioned by one Government (Conservative) and delivered to another (Labour), it got not much more than lip-service. Martin was seen by many to have exceeded his brief, and indeed the forms he proposed for the major office component are so prescriptive that it is hard to see how they could ever have constituted (as claimed and required) no more than guidance to whichever architect was actually commissioned to carry them out. They were an architectural solution in themselves, and the Grand Gallery concept could not have worked unless the whole of the Foreign Office, the Great George Street and Bridge Street buildings and Richmond Terrace were indeed demolished.

But within the terms he was given – and it was a commission he at first turned down -, it is hard to see what else Martin could have done if he was to propose anything concrete. It should be remembered that straddling the entire period of Martin’s involvement Eric Bedford’s major Government offices complex at Marsham Street nearby (not mentioned in this book) was under protracted construction (1963-71). With its three much-reviled 22-storey slabs (subsequently demolished), it represented precisely what Martin wished to avoid – a form he specifically rejected. He hoped with his continuous ‘mat’ building – a form recently popularised by Le Corbusier with his Venice Hospital project intended likewise to avoid impact on an historic skyline – to allow for each ministry to expand and contract flexibly within his ‘horizontal megastructure’. Unfortunately his demonstration that he could double the existing accommodation without increasing the height was not entirely welcome at a time when the Government was trying to clamp down on office accommodation in London; and with his preference for theoretical diagrams over buildings, he had a patchy record as far as architectural outcomes was concerned, as a glance at his Oxford Zoology and Psychology Laboratories (designed 1963) confirms. So one cannot be confident that, had he been able himself to build this stupendous project, it would have been visually a success or even tolerable.

The story deserves to be known and is well told by Adam Scharr and Stephen Thornton, despite occasional confusion about the orientation of the project (the Thames runs north-south at this point) and an over-profusion of footnotes. Harold Wilson, though included in the title, in fact had very little to do with the project (as they acknowledge), which was the brainchild of the previous Conservative administration under Sir Alec Douglas-Home, determined to demolish the Foreign Office – even though Wilson’s advocacy of the ‘White Heat of Technology’ chimed neatly with Martin’s aspirations to scientific method and his very early use of computer modelling to study the project. They accept without question Martin’s authorship of the basic parti of the Royal Festival Hall, though this has recently been attributed by Miles Glendinning to Sir Robert Matthew, Martin’s predecessor as Architect to the LCC. Martin was something of an enigma, with his exceptional 1930s historical PhD thesis devoted to the fantastical Spanish Baroque architect Churriguera (mis-spelt in this book), whose work could not seem further from the diagrammatic design with which Martin was later associated.

It is not so much the outcome of Martin’s report as the spirit and aspiration behind it that one admires. To be able to conceive a plan on such a scale attuned to the calculable benefit of public and occupants, and to present it unflinchingly and confidently, called for courage and self-belief. It belonged to the era of planning (George Brown’s Department of Economic Affairs 1964-1969). One would be glad to see an aspiration to similar thinking today.

This article is a review of ‘Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat’ By Adam Scharr and Stephen Thornton, published by Ashgate 2013. It originally appeared in the Architectural Review. 

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James Dunnett is a London based architect. More information about him and his firm can be found here.

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