Bernie Foulkes of LDA Design details how the practice is remasterplanning Plymouth’s famous postwar grid
Plymouth is unique among British cities in that its city centre was constructed almost entirely within a period of 20 years. This, of course, reflected the terrible scale of destruction that the city endured during the Second World War, but it also reflected a sense of optimism and belief in a postwar world.
In the midst of the war, Waldorf Astor, Plymouth’s lord mayor, invited Patrick Abercrombie, the leading architect planner of the day, and James Paton Watson, the city engineer, to draw up a plan for its reconstruction. Their Beaux Arts-inspired plan was both audacious and unprecedented. Its rigid cruciform grid paid no heed to the form of what went before, nor did it take into account what surrounded it. It owed more to Lutyens’ plan for New Delhi or Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for Canberra (both 1912) than it did to anything seen in Britain before, the only possible exception being James Craig’s Edinburgh New Town plan (1767). The vision was undoubtedly bold and contentious, no ‘half and half affair’ according to Astor.
The cruciform grid paid no heed to the form of what went before
Inevitably, postwar austerity eventually caught up with the vision and put paid to its implementation. The grand Portland stone buildings that lined Royal Parade and Armada Way eventually gave way to cheaply built two-storey shops and offices. Remarkably though, more than 70 years on, the Abercrombie and Watson plan remains largely intact, as do many of the great buildings. Surprisingly, despite its valuable place in Britain’s 20th-century town-planning history, the city centre is not a conservation area and, apart from the odd listed building, it has no formal protection.
The city centre now faces a very different, 21st-century threat with changes to shopping habits, lifestyle and working patterns. Where shopping is in retreat, there is an opportunity to repopulate and recolonise the city centre in line with the best examples of mixed-use city centres in the UK and Europe.
Plymouth’s centre could potentially support a large residential and business community in the way it did before the war. The city can take its lead from Berlin or Rotterdam, which were similarly flattened during the war. Both cities can point to the creative reuse of 20th-century buildings next to bold new buildings, all held in shape by a rejuvenated public realm, as the right way forward. There are great examples such as the Bikini Berlin development (pictured below) or the Zoho and the Justus van Effen developments in Rotterdam.
We have already discussed ideas about hollowing out some of the larger urban blocks for new development, including family housing centred on new gardens and creating a finer grain of laneways set within Abercrombie’s larger grid. Bringing colour and new activity into the public realm is also high on the list. This is a layered approach to masterplanning, each layer of history new and old, visible and distinct, together telling a compelling story.
In preparing the city-centre masterplan for Plymouth we want two things to happen. Firstly, we want Plymothians to learn to love their remarkable urban legacy; and secondly, we want developers, investors, architects and designers to fall in love with it too. There is already a real sense of momentum behind the Plymouth plan, led by the city council, and an appetite from a wide spectrum of city-centre interests including market traders, property owners, residents, shop owners, the University of Plymouth and business leaders to make it happen.
We will hold a series of workshops over the next few weeks to test ideas and delivery. The city council owns most of the city centre and, of course, it also acts as the planning authority. If it can direct and attract investment in the right way, then Plymouth has a great future.