FOMA 26: UK Post War Experiments


Ross Nesbitt has chosen post war Forgotten Masterpieces in the UK according to their influence, innovation, but above all how they have interacted with the people using them. 


Scottish Secretary Willie Ross and his wife at the opening of the Red Road flats in Glasgow (1964). | Photo via Read Road Pinterest

Each building illustrates how the response of the Modern Movement to the challenges of reconstruction and planning in post-WW2 era Britain touched on many aspects of daily life: religion, education, retail, work and transport. And they all divide public opinion. 

Starting with the original medieval Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by the Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940 in an air raid code-named Moonlight Sonata


Rebuilding of the cathedral started in 1955, and by the time of the consecration it had become a symbol of hope and reconciliation. | Photo by Ross Nisbet

The attack targeted Coventry’s industry, but it was clear that collateral damage and casualties would be considerable. The city was hit by 200 bombs and among many buildings also the cathedral fell. Only the tower, spire and outer wall survived.


Sir Basil Spence was the only architect to insist that the ruins of the old cathedral should remain intact. | Photo via The Twentieth Century Society 

The morning after Provost Richard Howard wrote in chalk on the sanctuary walls “Father, Forgive.” On Christmas 1940 the BBC Home Service broadcast Howard’s message from the cathedral ruins. Howard’s gesture of forgiveness inspired Spence, which was chosen from over 200 architects in a competition in 1951 to design a new cathedral. 


From Priory Street we find Sir Jacob Epstein’s large sculpture of Archangel Michael triumphing over the Devil. | Photo by Ross Nesbitt

The main body of the new cathedral is built from red Hollington sandstone, in unity with the ruins of the old. A high porch links them. Zigzag walls with angled windows direct light down the nave onto the altar. The floor is of polished fossil stone. Large artworks commissioned by Spence include stunning abstract stained glass windows by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens and a tapestry behind the main altar by Graham Sutherland, thought to be the largest in the world.


The Charred Cross emphasize the reconciliation theme. | Photo by Ross Nesbitt

After the bombing, cathedral stonemason Jock Forbes noticed two burned wooden roof beams had fallen in the shape of a cross. He tied them together, forming an altar which Spence preserved on the stairs between the new and old part of the cathedral. Provost Howard took three nails from the smouldering beams to make the Cross of Nails, which became the centerpiece of the altar cross in Spence’s new cathedral. 

Spence’s design draws effectively from the cathedral’s history and post-war mission. It’s an uncompromisingly modern construction but also perfectly integrated with its past. Coventry Cathedral shows the visitor the waste and loss of war without flinching, but is not a forbidding structure. Wood is used to great decorative and functional effect, giving warmth and human scale to the nave and choir. The Gethsemane chapel highlights Spence’s talent for juxtaposition and interaction: the visitor passes Spence’s harrowing crown of thorns icon to enter a warm sanctuary beneath war artist Steven Sykes’ dazzling angel mosaic in gold leaf and blue tile.


The Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre is the centerpiece of the complex of buildings for the Leeds University campus. | Photo by Ross Nesbitt

Britain saw a great expansion in education as the post-war generation grew up. The number of students and universities nearly doubled from 1960s to 1970s. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who had just completed the acclaimed Golden Lane Estate, were engaged as Master Planners at the University of Leeds to oversee in-house architect Geoffrey Wilson and provide expertise to the expansion of the campus. They produced a plan in two phases. An initial report recorded their enquiries and research into the existing campus and set out their vision for the new campus. It summarized the anticipated problems and posed solutions, specifying the required materials, time, space and costs. A second Development Plan focused on the maths and science precinct and features the Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre.

The design was a forward-looking city within a city, and in many ways an important trial run for the Barbican estate. The Development Plans saw Chamberlin, Powell and Bon experimenting with ideas about the principles of urban design, the integration of community and environment into a cohesive whole, and the most economic and adaptable use of space. The plans generated interest at an international level and were influential to the modern movement as a body of research and a definitive model for the modern university campus.


The building’s unconventional configuration of space does require a bit of thought to learn its signage and color coding. | Photo by Ross Nesbitt

The building contains 25 tiered lecture theaters with different capacities, a refectory and reprographics facilities. The exterior is futuristic and striking, compared to a church organ, robot or car engine by students. The refectory overlooks a lake, which is more than ornamental as it was designed to provide air conditioning for the building, same idea architects developed on a bigger scale with the Barbican Lake. The layout is deceptively simple, two gently sloping staircases link the lecture theaters and each row of seats has its own individual door, ensuring lectures are not interrupted by latecomers. Its listed status ensures the Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre’s future is safe. It’s another divisive building but maybe it’s just waiting for the rest of us to catch up with it.


An early example of pedestrian planning, Castle Market was a multi-level complex that made maximum use of a compact site. | Photo by Ross Nesbitt

Castle Market built in stages between 1959 and 1965 was named after Sheffield Castle. It was almost entirely demolished in 1648 but the remains of the foundations are visible beneath the market. Like Park Hill and Gleadless Valley, Castle Market was a thoughtful and rewarding design, which made great use of Sheffield’s famous hills and valleys. Womersley and Darbyshire recognised what made Sheffield an interesting place to build was its slopes and dips, and created a complex with soaring heights (the walkways and Rooftop Cafes) and three labyrinthine floors of markets below, all with access to the street on different levels of the Castle Hill. 

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