Brutal and bleak, England’s modern architectural gems join heritage list

A Sheffield substation and a Cold War bunker get Grade II* status

Paul Gallagher@PMGallagher1
Thursday 24 September 2015 08:54

Most people would struggle to find much in common between a concrete electricity substation in Sheffield and the Chapter House of St Paul's Cathedral, London.

But the Brutalist building, described by its creators as “a vast automaton in our midst” when it emerged on the Yorkshire city's Moore Street in the 1960s, today joins the Christopher Wren designed churchyard structure in being able to boast of Grade II* listed status.

After receiving a floodlit makeover three years ago, the Sheffield substation is one of four modern buildings that have been added to the prestigious National Heritage List for England detailing sites with both historical and architectural appeal.

The other three are a cold war bunker in Gravesend, a 'high tech' Sir Norman Foster designed warehouse in Swindon that featured as a backdrop in the film A View to a Kill, Roger Moore's final outing as James Bond, and a steel-framed private house in Tunbridge Wells.

The defence bunker is a rare surviving example of a purpose-built civil defence control centre. It was a command post staffed by around 35 people in the event of a Soviet air attack during the Cold War. Information from air raid wardens of an attack would have been received and orders issued to civil defence and emergency services. It was operational from 1954 until 1968 and has now been restored and is open to the public on occasion.

Despite winning the Financial Times Architect at Work award shortly after its creation, even its own makers describe the Bryan Jefferson-designed substation as “a marmite building” though on balance they say comments have been more good than bad over the years.

Describing the building, purpose and effect of the substation upon completion in 1968, Jefferson Sheard & Partners, who are still based in Sheffield, said: “Although this building with its massive scale and strong character bears little resemblance to the layman's normal idea of a sub-station it has, apart from its basic function, one thing in common. It is unmanned, or virtually so, being remotely controlled from outside the City boundary. A vast automaton in our midst, seen but unheard, providing us with the electrical current so vital to our everyday lives.”

Tom Rhys Jones, managing director of the firm now known as Jefferson Sheard Architects, said Mr Jefferson was absolutely delighted at the recognition.

Mr Rhys Jones told The Independent: “Bryan hasn't been well lately so when I told him the news it really broke him up. He is very proud and it is a very proud moment for the company.”

The substation was built at a time when post-war regeneration of Sheffield was at its peak and is therefore symbolic of that era. Brutalism, typified by blockish, concrete structures such as the Trellick Tower block of flats in London and the J Edgar Hoover building in Washington, began to fall out of fashion in the mid-1970s.

Sheffield Hallam University librarian Julia Shakespeare said she had changed her mind about the substation. “When I first moved to Sheffield in the 1980s, I just couldn't believe how ugly it was, but I think over the years it has grown on me. It's almost so ugly it has a charm of its own. So I'm pleased it has been listed and will be loved and loathed in equal amounts for years to come.”

Heritage minister Ed Vaizey said today: “Everyone knows that England has a fine and wonderful built heritage but it's sometimes forgotten that we have many outstanding modern buildings too. Our architects are among the best in the world and it's absolutely right that their finest work is afforded the same protection as their historic forebears.

”The buildings and structures I am listing today demonstrate this well: innovative, exciting and eye-catching, they each in different ways show that architecture in this country is very much alive and well in the modern world.“

Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage said: ”Some still view the buildings of the era as concrete monstrosities others as fine landmarks in the history of building design.“

The latest additions to the National Heritage List, more than 700 of which are post-war buildings, come on the eve of a new English Heritage exhibition highlighting the country's love/hate relationship with the recent architectural past. English Heritage said Brutal and Beautiful, beginning on 25 September at Wellington Arch, London, will show what makes the post-war era special and why the best of its buildings are worth saving.

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