Some of London's post-war buildings were way ahead of their time, and have arguably been demolished ahead of their time, too. In this extract from his book, Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain, Owen Hopkins mourns the loss — and impending demolition — of some of the city's most ambitious building projects.
Mondial House's unusual appearance was at least in part a consequence of its unusual function as an international telephone exchange. It was a 'working building', designed primarily to house switches, cables and terminals — and the means to power and ventilate them — rather than people. The building's concrete structure was clad in reinforced white plastic, which created a strange, futuristic look, described by Prince Charles as resembling a word processor. When the technology it contained went out of date, the building's days were always going to be numbered, and it was demolished in 2005.
Henry Moore's sculpture Draped Seated Woman (1957–58), popularly known as 'Old Flo', is all that remains of the Stifford Estate in Stepney. The sculpture was bought in 1961 by the London County Council, which allocated 0.1% of its building budget for the purchase of artworks, with the idea that public art could help create a sense of community and identity in new schools and housing estates. The Stifford Estate also contained murals by artist Anthony Holloway, but these were lost when the tower blocks were demolished. 'Old Flo' is currently on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Robin Hood Gardens
Husband-and-wife duo Alison and Peter Smithson were leading figures of the 'New Brutalism' movement and pioneers of the 'streets in the sky' idea, which they first put into practice at Robin Hood Gardens. Despite the Smithsons' idealism, their building did little to alleviate the social problems and poverty that plagued the area. Lack of maintenance coupled with design faults has seen Robin Hood Gardens fall into a state of substantial disrepair and, despite passionate campaigns for the building to be listed, demolition plans were approved by Tower Hamlets Council in 2012.
On 2 June 1997, Tony Blair delivered his first speech as Prime Minister here, one of Britain's largest and most architecturally uncompromising housing estates. New Labour's policies were to have implications for estates and their residents all over the country, not least the Aylesbury. Soon after Blair's visit the local council was given funds to regenerate the estate. Proposals were overwhelmingly rejected in a ballot of residents but, despite continued opposition, works began in 2010. In early 2015, protestors opposed to the regeneration occupied a number of flats.
Pimlico Secondary School
The limited space available for Pimlico Secondary School and its 1,725 pupils required some clever thinking. Architect John Bancroft conceived of a building of four storeys, the first of which was sunken into the ground. The building emerged from this hole in a vast mass of interlocking volumes, overhangs and step-backs. The school developed a reputation in music and the arts, thanks in part to the high-quality facilities incorporated in Bancroft's design, but its architecture remained controversial. It was described by the council leader in 1995 as 'entirely without merit', and was later demolished, despite a spirited campaign to save it.
Overlooking the lake, the Serpentine Restaurant's arresting structure comprised a series of concrete 'mushrooms' which sprouted from thin points in the ground to form wide canopies above. Adjoining concrete forms provided a platform from which rose a series of glazed umbrella-like structures. The building was carefully composed to hide service elements, including a car park. It was one of two restaurant designs by architect Patrick Gwynne in Hyde Park. The other, the nearby Dell Restaurant, survives and is now listed.
Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre
Devastated during the Blitz, the area around Elephant and Castle was the site of extensive rebuilding in an attempt to regain its pre-war title of the 'Piccadilly Circus of south London'. In 1959, an open competition was launched for a shopping centre. The winners, architects Boissevain & Osmond, created what was claimed to be Europe's largest shopping centre, but on its opening in 1965, less than half the shops were occupied. Despite several attempts at rebranding — including painting the whole building hot pink in the 1990s — the centre has always been deemed a failure.
Lost Futures, by Owen Hopkins, is available to buy, rrp £12.95.