A while ago, I began to take interest in the unique architectural arrangement of Plymouth’s city centre. I would spend my lunch hours walking up and down the grid formation of streets, photographing the incredible Portland stone facades. I had never been interested in architectural photography before, but something about these buildings urged me to start shooting. I’d never seen such a large collection of similar looking buildings in one city. As I documented each road and building, I developed an urge to find out how this perfectly aligned grid work came to be. Plymouth was basically flattened during the Second World War. Hundreds of years of history were wiped out amongst huge clouds of smoke and deafening explosions. The city was targeted due to its military significance; it was considered a serious threat. When the dust eventually settled and the streets were finally cleared, there wasn’t much left. The Luftwaffe had bulldozed the entire city centre.
Britain emerged from the war tattered but triumphant. It was time for a new beginning. The slate had been wiped clean; the time for change had arrived, now anything was possible. All that was needed was a plan. The new plan for Plymouth was designed by the internationally renowned architect and town planner, Patrick Abercrombie. What he offered was an entirely perfect and beautifully arranged modern city. Shopping areas would not mingle with industry, residential areas would be split into neat estates, with central precincts to help build strong communities. Everything was considered and organised. A number of buildings that had survived the bombing were cleared to accommodate the Abercrombie grid. With this completed, the ‘Plan for Plymouth’ began to take physical shape.
Future owners of new buildings were given creative control of how they wanted them to look, making each building unique. Next time you stroll down Royal Parade take a proper look at the building exteriors, you can find sculptures of seahorses, mermaids, glass bricks and beautiful Art Deco inspired window surrounds. All of this progressive energy and enthusiasm needed to be tied together in an area from which the council could run the city. The previously disparate council offices and public services were conveniently grouped in one proud monument to keep watch over the new city.
The architect, Hector Stirling designed the original plans for the Civic Centre building, based on the groundbreaking Lever building in New York. It was situated at the bottom of the town, exactly opposite the train station, and perfectly aligned to the central vein of the Abercrombie grid. The Civic Centre needed to be a truly grand reminder of everything that had been achieved in the rebuilding of Plymouth. It marked change, progression, and a bright, hopeful future. The evolutionary design included the finest, newest materials. Here was a giant fourteen story tower of concrete and glass; a sharp, sleek beacon of innovation and progress. The design and implementation was later taken over by a group of architects called Jellicoe, Ballantyne and Coleridge. The exterior of the Civic Centre was a fantastic mix of modernist influences with a gull wing roof and elevated walkways. The landscaping included two large reflecting pools and plenty of room for the public to move between and enjoy. The landscape design even incorporated existing trees from the park which previously stood in its place. The interior of the Civic Centre was a decadent display of contrasting coloured marble, polished veneers and specially commissioned art work. There were incredible details including large sections of colourful mosaic titles, modern chandelier style light fittings and large enamelled arrow designs on each lift door. There was even a luxurious rooftop restaurant which boasted the best views in Plymouth. This lavish new building was clearly a thing of beauty and distinction, so much so that it was given a royal opening, by Queen Elizabeth II on the 26th July 1962. Obviously a lot has changed since then. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Civic Centre’s completion. I believe this is a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, the Civic Centre’s future hangs in the balance. It was almost demolished in 2007, until it was awarded grade II listed certification, which has temporarily held the bulldozers at bay. It is currently up for private sale as a redevelopment opportunity. There are numerous redevelopment options including; a hotel, commercial units, flats, offices, and even an arts centre, with a large exhibition space and a built-in cinema. I would be happy with any of the redevelopment options although, I know there is a lot of work to be done. Over time the interior and exterior have been slowly spoiled and neglected by various retrofits and additional installations. Although most of the original interiors remain, they are in dire need of replacement and repair. What’s needed is a heavy dose of sympathetic architecture, and a new design which uses its current strong sense of style and mixes it with a more modern aesthetic. We’ve seen this happen plenty of times in Plymouth. Take for example, Plymouth College of Art – it was hard to find a more dominating grey box of a building but it’s recent face lift brings it up to date. Another example is the additional two stories added to the top of the old Barclay’s bank on Notte Street. A less successful example of city development is the former NAAFI centre, an impressive red brick post war building which was used as the Design College in more recent years. It was unfortunately demolished this year to make way for a new build. The city can’t afford to keep losing such significant pieces of architecture.
Plymouth’s architecture is something to be proud of. We have the largest collection of post war listed buildings of any city outside of London. Plymouth was the first city to start post war reconstruction on such a grand scale. The civic centre is the sum of all these achievements. It’s worth saving, once you begin to find layers of history hidden amongst these concrete slabs. It’s original dream of uniting Plymouth in a spirit of optimism and change can still be regained. In order to grow as a city, Plymouth needs to change. The world is constantly moving and sometimes, Plymouth struggles to keep up. What we need is a symbol of our vision as a modern city and our commitment to an ever changing future. The city has inspired me to start using photography in new ways; it has allowed me to appreciate the aesthetic considerations of another age. So now when I stand and stare up at the fourteenth floor, I try to look past the grey facade, I don’t concentrate on its bad points, I imagine the possibilities. Almost 50 years ago, people in Plymouth stood gazing up at the same building, excited for the possibilities of tomorrow, ready to embrace change, and confident that their proud new city would take them there.