Come, friendly bombs . . .: With our cities blighted by architectural dullness, Paul Barker nominates a hit list of buildings for demolition

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The Independent Online
'THE ACT of destruction is also a creative act,' ran the old anarchist slogan. Its truth was confirmed last week by news that Westminster council has approved proposals for the demolition of the Environment Department's grim office blocks at Marsham Street in Victoria. Their disappearance should be a public fete, like the demolition of mill chimneys in my Yorkshire childhood.

Since they were completed in 1971, the 200ft Marsham Street slabs have loomed behind any photograph of the Houses of Parliament that wasn't framed with extreme care. Television stands its political reporters on the far shores of the Albert Embankment to keep the slabs out of shot.

All bad ideas seemed like good ideas at the time. Eric Bedford, the government architect responsible, must have thought he coped well with finding room for 3,609 civil servants. In 1973, Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England noted Bedford's 'honest and ruthlessly utilitarian statement', but said it didn't succeed.

It failed because of where it was - and because it was unbelievably dull. If campaigners to preserve Erno Goldfinger's equally ruthless public architecture get anywhere, it will be because such monsters as his Trellick Tower - dominating the North Kensington skyline like a concrete abacus - are certainly not dull. Mad, perhaps. Dull, no.

Dullness is the great sin. In the Dunciad, Alexander Pope saw Dullness as the tutelary Goddess to whom dim Augustan poets paid tribute every time they penned a heroic couplet. He chronicled her command: 'My sons] be proud, be selfish, and be dull . . .'

Poets then, architects now. Many other great dullnesses, weighing on cities like soggy blotting paper, should go where Marsham Street has led. But we should be selective. Quiet dullness is no crime. The evil, as Pope understood, comes from assertive dullness. The worst perpetrators are academics. Cities which let universities into their most attractive enclaves did so at their peril.

London University landed like a virus in Georgian Bloomsbury. Walk around now, and weep. Against strong competition (for example, Sir Denys Lasdun's Institute of Education off Russell Square), the worst building is the home of the Bartlett School of Architecture off Gordon Square. It is both dull and inefficient. But London University has wreaked such damage that to blow up the odd offender wouldn't help. Where would a bomb do most good?

James Stirling's Cambridge history faculty building is much attacked by anti-modernists. Yet it has an appealing craziness; it would be an excellent tropical plant house. At Cambridge, my thoughts turn to Sir Leslie Martin's ludicrous experiment in creating a quadrangle for Caius college where all undergraduates can rely on having their rooms directly stared into. Or, at Oxford, to his psychology building: a huge white maze for humanoid rats, or rattoid humans.

But the most damaging single example of academic architectural dullness is the Appleton Tower, Edinburgh, named after an otherwise forgotten vice-chancellor. Some well-placed Semtex would remove a scar on the face of one of Britain's most beautiful cities.

Alleged vulgarity is never a good reason to dynamite a building. If they aren't to die of inanition and ghastly good taste, cities need some comic turns. One generation's vulgarity is the next generation's charm. Tesco out-of- town supermarkets, made up to look like brick barns, are no odder than 1930s cinemas made up to look like Egyptian temples or Greek palaces.

In London, Richard Seifert is the great post-war architect of assured vulgarity. His Centre Point is the only tall block in London thin enough to be elegant, even if the elegance is that of a Rank starlet at a film premiere. Even the NatWest tower escapes blandness; it is as much a trademark as the Oxo tower on the South Bank.

Commerce builds with a clear purpose, and is less often guilty of dullness than exponents of vaguer, grander ideas. The neo-classical architect, Quinlan Terry, once said that the trouble with much modern architecture lay in the materials. The South Bank confirms this. Lasdun's National Theatre creates impressive silhouettes, but the raw concrete is wrong. Much better the white mosaic of the LWT tower, built by a first-rate commercial architect, C H Elsom. As the years have passed, it's become clear that the much-abused architect of the Shell Centre, Howard Robertson, knew what he was talking about when he said he used Portland stone cladding because it weathered better.

Birmingham has built a Symphony Hall which looks, externally, like any local authority leisure centre. Fortunately, the interior of the concert hall is designed so ostentatiously that every penny spent shows. Birmingham is not a city for grandeur. It neglects its baroque cathedral, and cherishes a refurbished Bird's Custard factory. It ought to keep its 1960s Rotunda, whatever else it knocks down from that derided era. It is as strange as Dusty Springfield's hair-do, but it isn't dull.

John Poulson was as commercial as they come. But he was a fixer rather than an architect. His only London building, Queen Elizabeth House, former home of the Education Department, is about to come down. His trashy City House, Leeds, alongside the station, should be pulled down at the same time.

Local authorities rival universities for aggressive dullness. Curiously, T Dan Smith, Poulson's Newcastle pal, sponsored the big exception. Newcastle civic centre has the frivolous-yet-serious feeling which Smith wanted to import to England from Sweden. At the opposite end of the north-east municipal spectrum is Darlington Town Hall. In gross, grey concrete, this is a standing offence to the adjacent church of St Cuthbert's. Without it, Darlington would be an even pleasanter country town.

By the same argument, blow up the decaying Piccadilly Hotel, Manchester. This heavily handsome city was too slow off the mark in the 1960s to pull its old centre down, except here. Liverpool, however, was swift to take all the best (that is, we now see, worst) advice. It demolished as if bulldozers might go out of fashion. The showcase building put up amid the dereliction - Frederick Gibberd's Cathedral of Christ the King - is as thin and shoddy as an airport chapel. (Gibberd's firm designed the chapel at Heathrow.) The 20th-century gothic Anglican cathedral, across the way, is Giles Gilbert Scott's masterpiece, far finer than his London power stations at Battersea and Bankside.

Dullness is not the prerogative of one era or one architectural style. Among post-modernists, Terry Farrell seems to land more contracts than his rivals. I dislike his over-sized Embankment Place offices on top of Charing Cross station. But, lit up at night, they have the forceful vulgarity of a Wurlitzer. So let them be.

Alban Gate is another matter. This is the pink blancmange of a building you see towering over the 16th-century church of St Giles Cripplegate if you go out for a lakeside drink at the Barbican. City of London planners came to dislike the broad highway of London Wall, lined with boxy offices: a relic of post-war reconstruction. It was certainly dull. The answer, they thought, was to cheer it up by slinging office blocks across it, starting with Farrell's Alban Gate.

But two wrongs don't make a right. I hereby nominate it as the first 1990s building worth demolishing without more ado. The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge your mistakes. If at first

you don't succeed, blast, blast and blast again.

(Photograph omitted)

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