HRH's demolition men

Some of our finest buildings have been razed under the eyes of government ministers. Can anyone stand up for our architectural heritage? By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
In the autumn of his days Harold Macmillan accused Mrs Thatcher of "selling off the family silver" as she and her ministers began the process of laundering Britain's public property: gas, electricity, water and railways were all put up for grabs. Those who have found this national car-boot sale at best distasteful might tend to side with Macmillan's patrician sentiment. Yet, when push came to shove (with bulldozer and ball-and-chain to hand), Macmillan was the first not just to flog the family silver, but to destroy it, so that future generations could not enjoy it: infamously, the Euston Arch was demolished on a whim of the old-school PM.

The Euston Arch, as railway passengers will know (but "customers" won't), was the magnificent 72-ft high Doric Propylaeum (a processional gateway based on ancient Greek prototypes), designed by Philip Hardwick and constructed at great expense in Bramley stone, that served for 125 years as the gateway to Euston station, and thus, by iron road, to the Midlands, the North- west, North Wales and Scotland. It was one of London's best-loved landmarks. Its demolition was wholly unnecessary as the new station that opened in 1968 was set well back from the Euston Road and the site of the Arch.

Quite why Macmillan was so keen to see the Arch go remains something of a mystery. Perhaps he had hated Greek and Latin at school and this was his late-flowering revenge on Livy, Caesar and ut-plus-the-subjunctive. Perhaps he thought that by demolishing the Arch, he might prove that the Tory party was young and modern.

Whatever, the wilful destruction of the Euston Arch has meant that Macmillan has his place in architectural history as an unforgivable philistine. Because architecture is that part of culture which endures longest, Macmillan will be remembered as a vandal long after he is forgotten as "Supermac", the Prime Minister who rallied the Conservatives after the Suez fiasco and helped shape a Britain in which, in his words, the majority of the people had never had it so good.

Architecture matters, yet Macmillan did not seem to understand this. Nor did Peter Shore, Secretary of State for the Environment in the Labour government of 1976 to 1979. With apparently little sense of history or the future, Shore gave permission for the demolition of "The Stacks" in London's Docklands.

The Stacks were five noble and listed Georgian warehouses designed by Daniel Alexander (better known as the architect of Dartmoor Gaol) and built between 1801 and 1804. They were highly regarded but demolished to make way for Rupert Murdoch's "Fortress Wapping", site of the infamous Wapping riots of 1986. It seems a touch ironic that Mr Shore, a Labour minister, was, in part, responsible for setting the stage for this violent struggle between intransigent Luddite labour and determined hi-tech capital.

When the Wapping riots are finally forgotten, "Fortress Wapping" will survive to remind us of Shore's lack of vision. The architectural interpretation of history will place Shore among the philistines. If Shore had insisted that The Stacks were replaced by the finest new architecture, spiritual successors to Alexander's innovative work, rather than Murdoch's fortress, he might have been forgiven.

Now, it seems, Macmillan and Shore are to be joined by William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, who, over the past fortnight, has indicated he will wash his hands of the stately Brynmawr Rubber Factory, Ebbw Vale, that appeared on these pages a fortnight ago. An industrial masterpiece (designed by the idealistic young Architects Co-Partnership and built between 1946 and 1951), the Brynmawr factory is the finest Modern structure in Wales. It would still make an excellent factory (especially now that communications in the valleys have been vastly improved), a regional sports centre or a palace of culture. The fact that local politicians see no use for it is no reason for a Secretary of State to allow its destruction. Like The Stacks, Brynmawr is a listed building. Like the Euston Arch, its demolition is unnecessary.

Mr Hague might think he is courting local politicians and business interests but he is, in fact, making a wrong move. He is about to join the ranks of cultural vandals and architectural philistines at the very time when Tony Blair is courting Britain's best architects, designers and planners. Over the next 25 years, Mr Hague may climb further up the greasy pole of national politics, but in 250 years he will be a tiny footnote in the history of art, the man who let the one world-class Modern building in Wales go the way of the developers' bulldozer.

It is significant that in the speech he gave last Wednesday at the Architecture Foundation debate in Westminster on the future of London (attended by more than 2,000 people), Tony Blair insisted that the Labour Party was committed to architectural excellence, whether in the field of new building or conservation. As Sir Richard Rogers suggested to the audience, if Blair becomes prime minister, he will be the first incumbent of 10 Downing Street in living memory who has taken a genuine interest in the built environment. This is good news, although as all those who care for architecture know, early Sunday morning bulldozers - the sort that demolish the Firestone Building or old Kensington Town Hall - are not the preserve of any one political party.

In the case of Brynmawr, it is not just the fact that Wales is to lose a great building, but that the buildings that are meant to replace it are banal. It is as if the Palace of Westminster were to be demolished and replaced by a Post-Modern office block, the design of which had been cobbled together from trashy drawings glimpsed in glossy American journals.

Hague (and whoever replaces him after the next general election at the Welsh Office) would do well to recall the story of Geoffrey Rippon, Secretary of State for the Environment (1972 to 1974) in Edward Heath's Tory administration of 1970 to 1974. Rippon has already gone down in history books as the saviour of Covent Garden.

These old central London streets (nearly every one features on the first edition, 1731 Pocket Map of London & its Suburbs) have since been used and re-used very profitably. Geoffrey Rippon was persuaded to save them for us - when the old fruit-and-vegetable market moved to Vauxhall in 1974, Covent Garden was threatened with a vast and particularly nasty commercial redevelopment including flashy office blocks, hotels and a conference centre.

The new scheme was so horrendous it brought the conservation lobby to a state of indignation and, more importantly, maturity. The saving of Covent Garden was a cause that people from across the architectural divide (between those who would hang on to the past at any price and those who tried hard to pretend that history was bunk) agreed on and fought for. In an inspired moment, Geoffrey Rippon agreed to "spot-list" historic buildings right across the intricate streetscape of Covent Garden. The pattern of his listing was a clever ruse that meant that it would be impossible for any developer, save one willing to incur a loss for the sake of bad new architecture, to build on a big enough scale to justify investment.

Geoffrey Rippon was the unlikely hero of the moment and has been assured a place in the pantheon of architectural good guys.

Like Harold Macmillan, perhaps William Hague is simply indifferent to architecture. One building is, perhaps, much like another to him (floors, walls, roof, that sort of caper) and, in any case, the process of conservation is so awfully time consuming. Far easier, and potentially more popular among voters, to promote the new "bread and circuses" design of, say, the Millennium (giant ferris wheels, that sort of thing). Stuff avant- garde opera houses on Cardiff Bay - promote a big new rugby stadium in its place (instead of supporting both) and win the day (but lose the millennium).

Of course, conservation can be taken too far and there is a danger of wanting to conserve every old pile of brick and stone; yet, in the case of the Euston Arch, The Stacks, Covent Garden and Brynmawr, we are talking about first-class architecture, front-rank city centres, that deserves intelligent treatment. William Hague ought to rethink his position on Brynmawr, and very quickly. If not, as sure as valley follows valley, the great Grade II* factory will come back to haunt him, while, careless, Wales will lose a building that history will rue as it already does Euston Arch and Harold Macmillan's monumental arrogance.