In the 1960s proposals to demolish and redevelop much of the West End were put foward. Here we look at those for Piccadilly Circus and Whitehall.
Visualisation of Holford's proposals Gaia Pelizzari for PHD. Photograph James Royal
In the 1830s Piccadilly Circus was an elegant circular Regency residential terrace, designed by John Nash to connect upper and lower Regent Street. By 1886 the area was already being redeveloped, with Shaftsbury Avenue created to allievate growing traffic congestion. This funnelled traffic into the circus which soon lost its distinctive shape. The area then developed as an entertainment centre, with today's London Pavilion and Criterion theatre, and restaurant with its gold mosaics, replacing Nash’s east side.
From 1910 the rest of Nash’s Circus was demolished, replaced by larger shops and offices by the architect Reginald Blomfield - at The Fire Station, the former Tower records and Lilywhites. This formed part of a much larger demolition scheme for the whole of Regent Street which was carried out between 1895 and 1927, and through which the Crown Estate significantly increased its commercial floorspace by drammatically increasing the street's height.
Forty years later comprehensive development, (as seen in the 1954 Soho scheme) was fashionable and many historic city centres began to be demolished and rebuilt. This was largely a result of the rapid rise in car ownership with the free flow of vehicular traffic becoming a major planning concern. Instead of restricting car growth and access to city centres, cities and their residents were expected to accommodate greater numbers of car parking facilities and multi-lane roads.
In the 1960s it was proposed that most of the remaining Victorian buildings in Piccadilly Circus should also be demolished to make way for redevelopment. In 1962 the LCC and the architect William Holford put forward a proposal to reconcile traffic needs with pedestrian requirements. This included a series of 200 foot towers between Piccadilly and Leicester Square, raised walkways and a seven-lane carriageway. This required demolition of three quarters of the Circus with Holford anticipating that the remaining quarter would also be discarded in the future.
Image of Holford's 1962 model courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives
The proposed towers were to contain a hotel as well as offices and flats with lower level shops, restaurants and a conference centre within the circus. The buildings were connected by enclosed high-level walkways accessed from the street via escalators. This freed up traffic to flow around a slightly raised piazza, which doubled as a skating rink at Christmas. Nearby was a monumental viewing platform, with a floodlit pinnacle and illuminated advertising boards.
The proposal was heralded as a way to improve the social, commercial and tourist values of the area. However after a decade of revisions, and even more radical plans, it was ultimately shelved as traffic targets could not be reconciled with developers’ profit margins.
The digital reconstruction (top) by Gaia Pellizzari and PHD shows the Holford scheme at it might have looked today from ground level. In the distance is the prominent viewing tower, and other high-rise buildings between Piccadilly and Leicester Square. Beneath the Circus sat underground car parks, as well as subways connecting to the existing transport network.
An error was made by PHD during the commissioning process in asking for crowds to be included in the reconstruction at ground level. In fact Holford's aim was remove pedestrians to the raised walkways, thus emptying all movement and energy from street. Indeed he anticipated that in subsequent years both high level or subterranean walkways would also extend along Regent Street.
Piccadilly Circus listed buildings 2014, visualised on LB Westmister's Listed Building site. Courtesy London borough of Westminster and Ordnance Survey
Between the 1970s and 80s the Picadilly Circus gained conservation area status and the London Pavilion, the Criterion and the Trocadero, were all listed. Although still relatively incoherent as a public space, owing to ongoing dominance of roads and traffic, the Circus is however an energetic area with huge potential which has managed to sustain its longstanding role as London's principal entertainment centre. It is also one of the capital's most visited sites.
Screenshot from the Bloomsbury Augmented Reality film
Bloomsbury today possesses an unparalled sequence of Georgian terraces, squares and crescents in London developed during the late 17th and 18th century when aristocratic landowners demolished their large mansions and leased off the surrounding land for housing.
In the late 1950s these Georgian buildings came under threat as the University of London expanded, and London County Council, under the architect Leslie Martin's guidance, proposed to drive a spinal traffic route through Bloomsbury north along Bedford Way. This would have connecting this area with the comprehensive development and multilane traffic schemes proposed for other West End areas -including Covent Garden and Parliament Square.
There had however been a steady growth in awareness of the value of Georgian architecture
since the foundation of the Georgian Group in 1937, and subsequent influential publications by John Summerson, including ‘Georgian London’ published in1945. However despite protests by residents, academics, students and conservation groups, a large part of Bloomsbury was demolished and redeveloped from 1969 onwards. Most of the houses in Woburn and Torrington Squares along with Bedford Way and streets to the east were demolished. However, the idea of the spinal route collapsed as public opinion turned against comprehensive development.
The buildings that replaced demolished Bloomsbury terraces including the University of London's Institute of Education and the Philips Building at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In recent years both have been listed Grade II*.
Click the image above to see a short film of the use Augmented Reality to explore demolition and redevlopment in Bloomsbury using Augmented Reality. The exhibit involved a collaboration between English Heritage, Central St Martins, The London 1840s Model Project, The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL and PHD. It was designed explores the potential value of physical models and Augmented Reality to communicate the complex history of areas, and stimulate debate around a range of conservation issues.
Leslie Martin's 1964 proposals for Parliament Square. james Woodward using Google Earth Pro
In 1964 a report was commissioned by the Government to look at the modernisation of buildings in Whitehall. It was produced by Leslie Martin, architect of the Royal Festival Hall, and formed part of a much bigger plan to connect all major comprehensive development schemes in central London.
The Whitehall scheme involved the demolition of the Treasury, The Foreign Office and the War Office, with redevelopment on three sides of Parliament Square proposed. Pedestrianisation of the square formed part of the plan, requiring the rerouting of all major roads.
In place of the existing buildings Martin recommended a monolithic set of new government offices, built between the river and St James’ Park, accompanied by smaller office blocks to the west. Opposite, would be a long housing block, slicing through the gardens next to the Houses of Parliament.
The Victorian Society led a campaign to save the Foreign Office and many other of the area’s buildings. Its focus on saving only a small proportion of the area’s buildings, shows the level of threat to the historic environment at that time. By the late 1960s it was joined in the fight by other conservation bodies and the development was eventually halted. In 1969 Parliament Square was designated a conservation area and in 1970 many of Whitehall’s buildings were listed.
The 1964 scheme included a new riverside square next to Big Ben with raised public restaurants facing the Thames. Elevated roads ran between these and the river, then sinking down in front of Parliament beneath a raised river terrace. The aim was to entirely separate traffic from pedestrians. The vast public concourse, which ran at high level across the connecting courtyards, from which the Government ministries could be accessed, can also be seen.
Reconstructions above and below by James Woodward using Google Earth Pro
The government’s offices were designed around open courtyards, planted with trees and shrubs. The new buildings would triple the amount of office space and offer more open plan and flexible working environments. To the bottom of the image is the proposed housing scheme, cutting through Victoria Tower Gardens. If you look closely
across Parliament Square and down Whitehall, you can just see the high stepped balconies, which acted as viewing platforms and jut out onto the street.
Here we see the impact of Martin’s scheme from a viewpoint above Trafalgar Square. The concrete bridge which spans the government buildings on either side of Whitehall was considered to emulate the lost Tudor Holbein Gate. In the foreground The War Office (now Grade II*) and the Admiralty Buildings (now Grade 1) were singled out for demolition. An underpass was proposed running across the Square and emerging in the Mall. The report’s traffic advisor encouraged wholesale redevelopment to meet increasing traffic flows, noting that ‘in so many other parts of London development is coming into full flood and opportunities which are wasted now will be lost for a generation or more
Many buildings were designated in 1970 including the Treasury buildings by John Brydon (Grade II*), and the Foreign office by Sir George Gilbert Scott and Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (Grade I). The 17th Century Banqueting House was listed in 1987.
Above is a screenshot taken from a colour-coded OS map displayed in the exhibition, showing listed buildings protected in Whitehall today compared to those protected in 1964. Yellow indicates Grade 1, orange Grade II* and red Grade II, with cream coloured backgrounds showing conservation area designation. Colour-coded footprints were created by Louis Jobst based on Westminster Council’s listed building maps, with research on 1964 listings provided by English Heritage’s data Management Team (Designation). Further research by Amy Smith, using the online National Heritage List for England.
For further information on current campaigns to save Victorian Buildings visit The Victorian Society’s website or contact your local amenity society. For further online information on the history of Whitehall visit The Survey of London. To link to current planning schemes proposed for Westminster visit Westminster Council’s online planning portal, and for information on protected buildings in the area visit Westminster Council’s listed building information and English Heritage’s National Heritage List for England.