Newcastle architect Professor Adam Sharr on national awards shortlist

Book accolade for Newcastle University architecture lecturer Professor Adam Sharr

Prof Adam Sharr
Prof Adam Sharr

Wholesale 1960s demolition plans and the dismissing of then unfashionable Victorian architecture have put a North East expert in line for a national award.

Newcastle University’s Professor Adam Sharr has been shortlisted in the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) President’s Awards for Research 2014. Prof Sharr, who is based in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, has been shortlisted along with co-author Stephen Thornton of the University of Cardiff, for their book Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat.

The winners will be announced in October. According to Prof Sharr, London’s Parliament Square could have been a quiet, leafy and traffic-free place if a plans had been given the go-ahead.

Architect Sir Leslie Martin’s idea was to demolish the Foreign Office building and radically change the setting of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

The plans included a tunnel in the Thames alongside the Houses of Parliament and halls of residence for MPs.

“Today, the idea of demolishing grand palaces of state like the Foreign Office seems ludicrous,” said Prof Sharr. “But in 1965, highly ornamented Victorian architecture like this was seen as excessive and distasteful.

“At that time, London was full of bomb gaps, with smoke blackened and propped-up buildings. The idea of creating a modern new city and doing away with this damaged, tired relic of an Empire seemed rather appealing.”

Pulling down the Foreign Office and replacing it with a modern building was only a relatively small part of a wide-ranging proposal.

The plans would have rebuilt the whole area from Downing Street to Parliament Square, and St James’ Park to the Thames. It would have also reframed Parliament Square and cut a grand axis through two miles of Central London to connect up Whitehall with the British Museum.

“This plan, which seems wholly implausible now, has to be put into the context of the time,” said Prof Sharr.

“In many ways it’s quite appealing – a pedestrianised Whitehall and Parliament Square to replace one that was choked with traffic even then - with grand public arcades and riverside cafes.

“I actually like the ambitions of the project but it’s just a shame it had to be at the expense of what was already there.”

During the time between Harold Wilson’s famous White Heat conference speech in 1963 and the devaluing of the pound in 1966, a bright new technological future seemed not just possible, but imminent, ushering in a new social order.

It was the time of NASA’s space images, Concorde, hovercrafts, the Post Office tower and the first computers fed with punch cards, when televisions and washing machines were just becoming commonplace in British homes, and architects and planners saw themselves as contributing to this new modern future.

Newcastle council supremo T Dan Smith also had his Basilia of the North vision for the city.

In Martin’s plan the sides of the new Whitehall blocks were to be tiered back at each storey to form a series of concrete terraces with leafy courtyards in-between.

The riverside tunnel proposed as part of the plans would have linked Embankment with Victoria Street, removing passing traffic from Parliament Square by narrowing the Thames and appropriating one arch under Westminster Bridge.

A grid of underground service roads and car parks beneath the new buildings would have given politicians and civil servants fast and easy access to London’s road network.

One supporter of the plan was Conservative Foreign Secretary and, briefly, Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

It was the Conservatives under Harold Macmillan and Douglas-Home who championed the plan.

Labour’s Harold Wilson was not interested, indirectly helping to bring about its downfall after he came into office.

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