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Riding to the rescue of the discredited decade

CONCRETE QUARTERLY - HISTORY

Many concrete buildings from the 1960s have been damned unfairly when their main failings were either poor workmanship or a failure to adapt to later needs.While there is no place for many of them, some are being rescued because of their significant contribution to UK heritage It seemed like a good idea at the time. With extensive bombdamaged areas in the cities, a rising population and the increasing popularity of the car, the country needed rebuilding, and fast. Concrete provided the answer - quick, economical and strong. It also provided an opportunity to break away from the traditional forms of brickwork and tiled roofs, adding fuel to the Modernist movement.

The post-war period was an era of optimism probably unrivalled in scale since the Victorian period.

Facilitating rising traffic levels and provision of parking in city centres was high on planners' agendas. Infrastructure creation played an important role in many urban redevelopment schemes, but it also had a dramatic effect on the streetscape.

Today, of course, cars are being forced out of towns and some of these massive concrete structures are wholly inappropriate. The demands of the modern office have also changed, which the structural frames of many buildings from that era cannot accommodate.

In the 1980s there was a leap from a general floor height of about 3m to 4.5m.

Examples of buildings caught in the transition can still be seen. Goldman Sachs' European headquarters, Peterborough Court on London's Fleet Street, was granted outline permission based on floorspace. However, the detailed design incorporated the new ceiling height and the result was an extraordinarily lumpy appearance.

Meanwhile, on the housing front, a proliferation of towers was providing the much needed volume of low-cost accommodation. Local authorities embraced new 'system building' techniques that yielded even quicker build times. Unfortunately many were also of low quality, and this process came to a crashing conclusion in 1968 with the Ronan Point collapse.

That proved a wake-up call for designers, and became a crucial turning point in public opinion.

Concrete structures became inextricably linked with 'cheap' council housing, a prejudice further exacerbated by the poor living conditions in many blocks.

The stigma of this post-war vision has been difficult to shake off. Urban strategist Richard Coleman is unsympathetic to the plight of the 1960s monoliths: 'The reputation of architects and planners has been, up until the last 10 years, completely damned by that era.

Ten years ago there was no confidence in architecture in Britain and many of the UK's leading architects - Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Will Alsop - were working abroad because of those buildings that we are knocking down now.

'The average British person wasn't educated in design in the same way they were in France or Italy, ' says Coleman. 'Other European countries seem to have a more sophisticated approach, and were more able to embrace the design. Style to them is of the utmost importance.'

The invisible hulk Many of these concrete hulks are already disappearing as their outdated superstructures conflict with commercial pressures for new buildings, often proving to be worth no more than their vacant sites.

Even the more respected examples, such as Seifert's first post-war tower for London (28 floors/100m), are now scheduled for demolition. Drapers Gardens failed to secure life-saving listing status like its big sister, Centre Point despite intensive lobbying by the Twentieth Century Society for 'an iconic building that has become a reference point for this era and one that Seifert is on record as having described as his proudest achievement', concluding, 'it would, therefore, be an enormous loss to the City'.

Other recent losses to the bulldozer in London have included Paternoster Square and Stag Place, while the 1958 Lloyd's Building on Lime Street and the Bullring in Birmingham are destined for the same fate.

However, there are some fine examples that have managed to make a significant contribution to UK heritage, and are now regarded as jewels of the controversial Brutalist era. The challenge is not only to upgrade these buildings sympathetically but also to introduce contemporary elements that will bring them up to date without destroying their integrity.

New Hall college in Cambridge, having gained the elusive Grade II* listing, is one such example where innovative architecture has created a refreshing and compelling fusion of contemporary designs. Originally designed by Chamberlin Powell & Bon of Barbican fame, New Hall had, by the mid-'90s, fallen into a state of severe disrepair and required major refurbishment to meet future needs. RH Partnership was appointed in 1998 to take up the challenge.

Nicholas Wright, New Hall's bursar, explains: 'We were extremely concerned that the original character of New Hall was maintained while being acutely aware of the need to update and modernise the buildings. RH Partnership understood our requirements and successfully translated them into effective contemporary solutions that are sympathetic to the heritage of the building.'

In Fulham, Wilkinson Eyre has successfully transformed the Y-shaped 30-storey Empress State office building with three additional floors in steel and glass, and a 26-storey addition to the south elevation.

Further south, damaged by the salt-laden gales assailing the Brighton seafront, the future of another icon of Modernism, Wells Coates' Embassy Court from the 1930s, also hung perilously between falling masonry and the passion of Bluestorm, the residents' group desperately fighting to save the building.

In the middle of complex legal wranglings over ownership, Conran & Partners came to Bluestorm's rescue with a package to kick-start the renovation process of the Grade II-listed structure.

Paul Zara, Conran & Partners' project director, says:

'It's great to get an opportunity to bring our skills to rescue this important building. When restored, it will once again become a cornerstone of the seafront's architectural heritage, reflecting this almost extinct era.' Embassy Court's sister, the Isokon building in London, was also saved recently.

As with buildings from all periods, these concrete icons are undergoing a process of natural selection. The best and most flexible are finding new life, whereas many others have served their purpose? and their time.

The challenge now is to design quality replacements more suited to today's requirements.

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