1960s - 1970s
Original balsa wood model of the 1968 Covent Garden scheme. Image courtesy London Metropolitan Archives
In 2014 the tiny area of the West End, of which Covent Garden and Soho make up a significant part, contributed (according to ONS data anlysed by Oxford Economics) around £51 billion to the UK economy through retail, property investment and theatre. This confirmed its position as one of most successful retail centres in the world along with being one of its premier tourist destinations.
However in 1965 The Greater London Council, working with Camden and Westminster, had drawn up plans for the demolition and comprehensive development of virtually the whole of Covent Garden, following a decision to relocate its famous flower market to Battersea. Two-thirds of the area’s 17th and 18th streets were proposed for replacement by new offices, shops, a conference centre, 1.5 million square foot of hotel space, a doubling of housing and new open spaces. A four lane covered highway running parallel to the Strand was just one of the recommended traffic 'improvements'.
As at Whitehall, the 1968 Covent Garden plan took into account much wider redevelopment proposals. It noted that ‘Taking the Covent Garden area together with (these and other) large redevelopment schemes there is now the real prospect of achieving a radical improvement of conditions in and adjoining the West End on a scale that has up to now only been possible in areas of extensive war damage.’ Above is a photograph of the GLC’s balsa wood model of the 1968 scheme. Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s column can be seen to the top right. In the middle sits St Paul’s Church and the Piazza. To its left stands a conference centre, in an area designated for cultural activities.
Below is a reconstruction based on a drawing from the proposal, rare in that it illustrates a recognisable area. It shows an outline proposal for the south west corner of Covent Garden where the Strand meets Trafalgar Square. The National Portrait Gallery can be seen to the top left, opposite St Martin’s in the Fields.
Reconstruction of the NE corner of Trafalgar square and the SW conrer of Covent Garden. James Woodward for Polly Hudson
Design. Aerial image courtesy of Blom.
The sketch on which the reconstruction is based was indicative only. However it implies extensive use of concrete terracing. The area is pedestriansed and buildings surround new open spaces. Heights are mixed and relatively low though much taller development was planned to the north. Flats are marked out for the upper terraces with commercial use below, while the buildings fronting the Strand are labelled for use by Coutts Bank. Further to the right lies a department store and next to it a hotel with views over Trafalgar Square.
Digital reconstruction of 1971 Covent Garden proposal based on W.Conquy’s 1972 drawing. Reconstruction by James Woodward for Polly Hudson Design using Google Earth Pro.
Following the publication of the 1968 draft plans, 3,500 people attended a public consultation meeting. Though a revised proposal appeared in 1971, the scheme remained much the same , albeit with a slightly reduced emphasis on traffic. The visualisation above is based on a drawing produced in 1972 by Wally Conquy for an article in the Architectural Review by Dan Cruickshank, Mark Girouard and Colin Amery. Here the 1971 revisions were collated to enable the extent of proposals to be fully understood. Translucent boxes indicate areas where ideas for development were drawn up but no suggestions published. In the centre you can see Covent Garden’s market building outlined. A ‘ Character Route’ ran along King Street, into the piazza and out towards Kingsway, which had been designated a conservation area in 1971. This freed up areas to the north and south for larger scale redevelopment. To the southeast lay the conference centre, hotels, theatres and offices; to the north commercial and residential use with, housing shown encircling a new large open space.
A highly effective local campaign group now developed out of a powerful collaboration of residents, local businesses and press, and opposition grew. As approval was about to be given Camden Council decided to reverse its decision with a number of prominent MPs also giving support.
While many buildings in Whitehall and Soho had been listed by 1971, only thirty or so in Covent Garden were also protected. These included the Market building, The Church of St Paul, and a number of the area’s theatres. In 1971 The Architects’ Journal, published a list of 150 buildings in Covent Garden considered worthy of listing. This critical list was to form the base for the 245 buildings listed by the Environment Secretary in 1973. Listing did not prevent new development but it meant that the comprehensive destruction of the area was no longer possible.
Despite the shelving of plans for Covent Garden, Piccadilly and Whitehall, widespread comprehensive development continued across Britain. In response the influential campaign group SAVE was formed in 1975 by a group of architects, journalists and planners. Publications including ‘Goodbye London’ and ‘The Rape of Britain’ publicised what was being destroyed, and these and other events including ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A increased public awareness and concern over what was being lost.
By the late 1970s the public began to get behind the movement and legislation began to bite. Local authorities developed specialist teams as listing and conservation areas designation increased.
Today Covent Garden is internationally known and of key economic value to London and its tourist industry. A thriving, vibrant area, both day and night, it successfully accomodates commercial, entertainment and residential use, from The Royal Opera House and Apple’s flagship store, to small publishing houses, theatre suppliers, houses and flats. Its Piazza and narrow network of surrounding streets efficiently and effectively absorb this wide range of uses into the diverse range of historic building saved.
Digital reconstruction James Woodward using Google Pro