Whitehall, the heart of government is lined mostly with grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it nearly looked like the Southbank – lots of concrete.
In the 1960s, a plan was put forward for the revamping of the offices of government to change them from fusty old Edwardian working practices and their “coffin box offices” and introduce the white heat of technology and wide-open space. Rather than adapting buildings, the government looked at wholesale demolition and rebuilding.
To this end in 1964, the government-appointed the modernist architect, Sir Leslie Martin to oversee the rebuilding of Whitehall, and we can get a hint of his preferences, as he was responsible for the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank.
So his plans were unsurprisingly brutalist in appearance, and on a grand scale.
Pretty much everything between Downing Street and Parliament would be swept away in a fury of modern development, followed shortly afterwards by the last hurrah of gothic revival, today’s Supreme Court and all the grand institutions along Great George Street.
North of Downing Street he wanted to demolish the buildings alongside Banqueting House, only saving that due to its historical importance, but as it was an irritant in his modernist scheme, it would be marooned on a traffic island, reduced to mere decorative folly.
This is a curious irony as Banqueting House was itself a modernist shock when it was built, all white and stone and contrasting sharply with the old Tudor brick palace that surrounded it. Still, not good enough though for Sir Leslie.
He wanted concrete ziggurats to rise over Whitehall, huge buildings with enough space to house tens of thousands of civil servants. This seemed to go against government policy of the time to push civil servants out of London, but it was felt that was essential to remain in London should be centralised into a few buildings.
Despite his zeal for demolition of the old, Sir Leslie respected some of it, and indeed, the aim for low-rise concrete ground-scrapers were intended to restore a skyline where Westminster Abbey and Parliament were once more visible from a distance.
He was no egalitarian either – the public would walk along the streets at, well, street-level – while civil servants would be elevated to higher walkways where they can be untouched by exposure to the ordinary people below.
Wide buildings may be less intrusive on the skyline, but they can suffer the downside of huge office spaces with desks far from daylight. So he planned large light wells within the buildings, in a style more reminiscent of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the days before electric lighting.
The plans were presented to Cabinet in July 1965 by the Minister of Public Building and Works, Charles Pannell who wrote that “if we do not lay down general principles and disciplines now, all this effort will be lost in the quicksands of detailed criticism and aesthetic argument.”
The government was aware that while still fairly modest, there was a growing conservation movement, and it would be wise for any demolition to take place quickly. He put to the Cabinet that they should speedily agree to demolish the old and build the new before anyone was able to muster up a campaign to save them.
The government was particularly keen to get rid of the Foreign Office – a high Victorian building of Imperial grandeur which was completely out of fashion at the time, and was soon to have much of its interior covered in plasterboard. Only in the 1980s was it uncovered and a now much loved building restored.
Remarkably, even the Victorian Society, normally front and centre in fulminating against demolition plans was broadly supportive seeing little of merit worth saving, although they were keen on the Foreign Office, which was Victorian, and less keen on saving the Treasury, which was (just about) Edwardian.
Unusually for the time, the plans were explicitly designed to reduce road traffic, rather than be a slave to the motor car. Parts of Parliament Street would be pedestrianised, while road traffic would be put in a tunnel to be dug along the riverside. The news reports of the time almost all focused on the innovative approach to dealing with road traffic and were far less interested in the plans to demolish the old buildings.
The plans were expected to take at least a decade to bring to completion, with works starting in 1968 on the site above Westminster tube station, and then working its way around the site, block by block until completed around 1980.
In fact, the only thing that annoyed the Cabinet was that the plans left the demolition of the “ugly” Foreign Office building until phase three of the building works, and could they please hurry that up.
The failure to get built though wasn’t due to protests or changing fashion, but quite simply, they ran out of money before they even got started.
Sir Leslie’s final letter to the government asking when demolition would start ended with the words “Please do not trouble to reply”.
The Prime Minister’s Ironing Board and Other State Secrets by Adam Macqueen
Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat by Adam Sharr and Stephen Thornton
Whitehall – A plan for the national and Government Centre by Leslie Martin & Colin Buchanan
National Archives – CAB/128/39
Birmingham Daily Post – Tuesday 20 July 1965
Illustrated London News – Saturday 24 July 1965
Birmingham Daily Post – Saturday 22 October 1966
Illustrated London News – Saturday 11 June 1966