A Spotter's Guide: Post-War Architecture

Historic England

The City of London has some of the best post-war architecture this country has to offer. We explore how modern architects responded to radical recent changes in how we live, work and learn. This period saw an array of architectural movements and by the end of this exhibit you’ll be able to point out the High-tech, nod knowingly about Brutalism, and make it clear at dinner parties that you are referring to the International Style. 

St Paul's Cathedral Choir School, 1962-7
Architects’ Co-partnership: Leo de Syllas, Michael Powers

In the shadow of one of London’s major landmarks and one of the nation’s most loved buildings, this is a rather daunting site for such a brave new build. A traditional scheme had been proposed but it was a modern design by the Architects’ Co-Partnership that won the brief.

This is an elegant early work of modern architecture which does not bow to the style of the Baroque masters but instead uses the surrounding shapes and materials to make its own mark.

The choice of lovely Portland Roach stone with a lead covered roof reflects the materials of its 17th century neighbours, and the long tall windows are a nod to St Paul’s pilasters, essentially taking the core elements of the cathedral’s design and interpreting them in a modern way.

Glossary:


Baroque - a lavish style of European architecture from 17th and 18th centuries, characterised by ornate detail.


Christopher Wren - one of the most highly acclaimed English architects, responsible for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666, including his masterpiece St Paul’s.


Classical - architecture which is clearly derived from Greek and Roman architecture of classical antiquity.


Modern - loose term to describe simplified, unornamented building styles of late 19th century and 20th century.


Pilaster - a rectangular column, especially one that projects from a wall.


Portland Roach stone - highly prized limestone from the Isle of Portland, in Dorset, which has a unique fossil structure – take a close look.

Bracken House, 1959 & 1988-92
Architects: Sir Albery Richardson & later Michael Hopkins and Partners

In front of you is an awesome architectural combo that became the first ever post-war building to be listed. The bit in brick, which exists at the front and back, is Bracken House built for the Financial Times in 1959 – a lovely pink colour to match the paper upon which it is printed.

The amazing high-tech middle part of the building which shouts “I’m feeling good about myself, let’s go out” was built 30 years later and although very different in feel is still complimentary.

The successful fusion of modern classicism with High Tech design is down to the newer build respecting the existing proportions, along with the plinth, cornice and roof lines of the earlier building. The pink sandstone piers underneath also do a great job of pulling in the existing fabric.

Take a closer look at the astronomical clock above the main entrance on Cannon Street and try to guess the face in the centre of the sun. Also take in the wonderful oak leaf enrichment around the entrance which, despite yourself, will make you want to pop into the nearest Laura Ashley’s.

Glossary:

Cornice -any horizontal decorative molding that crowns (or appears near the top of) a building.

High-tech - influenced by engineering and new technology, this is a style that celebrates the display of a building’s construction and services.

Modern Classicism - a contemporary movement that continues the practice of classical and traditional architecture.

Piers - an upright support for a structure or superstructure.

Plinth - base or platform upon which a column, monument or structure rests.

The face in the middle? Winston Churchill – he was the boss of Brendan Bracken, founder of the modern version of the Financial Times, and they later became BFFs.

30 Cannon Street, 1974-7
Architects: Whitney, Son & Austen Hall

Ready to be amazed? You are standing in front of the first ever building to be fully clad in double-skinned glass-fibre reinforced cement (GRC) panels! (Stick with us, this is the only time we’ll get this technical).

At first, the architects wanted to clad the building in concrete but realised it would be too heavy. Then they considered bronze and aluminium which were ruled out for being too expensive, glass-fibre was too much of a fire risk, and so eventually they turned to the non-combustible equivalent GRC.

Developed a few years earlier in 1969, by mixing Portland cement with 5% alkali-resistant glass-fibre reinforcement (we’re almost done), the chemically-stable GRC could be easily moulded to the required shape. The GRC units were also cheaper, lighter, thinner and less porous than the pre-cast concrete equivalents, which helped reduce the cost of the structure, foundations and transport of materials. This made 30 Cannon Street an architectural breakthrough and helped pave the way for future architectural experimentation.

80 Cannon Street, 1972-6
Architects: Arup Associates

Although built in the 1970s, 80 Cannon Street is looking good for its age and has clearly been an influence on its newer, younger neighbours. The structure was built on four giant legs as the original design needed to make room for an underground station for the proposed Jubilee line. But then the underground railway was re-routed somewhere else, which was a bit awkward, so they put in a Boots instead.

Like the Pompidou Centre in Paris which was built around the same time, the lattice exoskeleton of stainless steel rods takes the weight of the floors, leaving the inner space uncluttered by columns. Rather interestingly, in case there should be a fire, the steel rods are filled with water.

150 Leadenhall Street, 1974-81
GMW Architects

GMW Architects were commissioned to redevelop the corner site in the 1970s and they planned for three structures in the International style; a 20 storey tower and two seven storey blocks. But only two of the three structures were ever built.

Although shorter, 150 Leadenhall is not stumpy and appears to have better proportions than its taller sibling, standing behind. The wide windows, full corners, and double height ground and top floors are rather pleasing on the eye.

Lloyds Building, 1981-6
Architects: Richard Rogers Partnership

What splendour! What strength! What style! And what did I do with my sunglasses? If you visit during office hours then half the fun is seeing a building that’s actually alive. The guts of the structure are so proudly arranged on the outside; the glass lifts, air-con, staircases and toilets, all wrapped up in stainless steel and help up by an exposed concrete frame. Nothing is hidden.

And it’s not just a High-tech gimmick either. Having all the services of the building on the outside means the inside is uncluttered and allows for flexibility of work spaces and the changing needs of the organisation. Designed in 1978 and opened in 1986, this building still looks like it’s from the future.

Tower 42, 1970-80
Architects: Richard Seifert & Partners

The form of the building is based loosely on Natwest’s hexagonal logo and when it was completed in 1980 it was the UK’s tallest building. Innovative features of the build, never seen before in the UK, included double-decked lifts and sky lobbies (a double-decked lift increases capacity by sticking one lift on top of the other, and a sky lobby is a floor where you can get off an express lift and hop onto a local lift – one that stops at every floor.) Other new fancy features were an automated window washing system and computer controlled air conditioning.

The tower also had its own telephone exchange in one of the basement levels, which created the illusion of being above ground by decorating the walls with panoramic photographs of the London skyline. Which sounds both awful and amazing – if anyone finds any archive photos, let us know.

Chartered Accountants' Hall, 1966-70
Extentsion by Architect: William Whitfield

So much to look at! Take in the banded Tuscan columns topped by caryatids (it’s what we call a female figure when she takes the place of a column or pillar, if it’s a fella then we call it a telamon), and the whole army of different figures just below the roof. An absolute visual feast to enjoy before you move round to Copthall Avenue, and then, BOOM.

Architect William Whitfield takes no prisoners by dramatically changing the architectural style to a Brutalist idiom, which quickly climbs to seven storeys.

The high quality of finish stops this from being just an ugly addition: the bush-hammered concrete creates a pleasing contrast with the Portland stone of the older build and the polished grey granite and glass of the new. And that stair projection on the corner – wow!

The design of the successive phases of the building marks a turning point in contextual architecture, as the original Baroque elements were kept during a time when, in other parts of the City, there was rampant development and many great buildings of this type were lost.

Glossary:

Brutalism - the term originates from the French term “béton brut”, which means raw concrete.

Bush-hammer -a masonry tool used to give texture to stone and concrete.

Contextual Architecture - an architecture whose design inspiration comes from acknowledging not only the immediate, but the larger context of the building.

Brown Shipley & Co. Ltd, 1973-5
Architects: Fitzroy Robinson & Partners

Behold a mighty fine example of post-war architecture that draws on 19th century designs but produces something fresh and brilliant. The façade’s dramatically dark granite frame and the reflective surfaces of its bronze-anodised windows makes a powerful contribution to this City streetscape (yes, streetscape is a proper word).

The building's use of exquisite materials, including absolutely massive bronze doors and bronze window screens, provides an air of opulence that says SHOW ME THE MONEY (which is fitting when you consider Brown Shipley's history of currency dealing).

Look at those doors! Equally splendid either open or closed; when open the doors meet with a matching panel in the ceiling to create a sturdy archway of solid bronze.

Guildhall Library & Museum, 1974
Architects: Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partners

As part of the post-war Guildhall reconstruction scheme, this L-shaped western wing was completed in the 1970s to house a new library and offices.

Not much has been written about this addition and, because of the historical setting and its refusal to blend, it’s the kind of building that can make people mad with architecture from this period. But despite this there is still a lot to like and enjoy: the shallow zigzag motif, the long slender concrete verticals, the bold but sometimes delicate use of bronze around the frames of glass.

This build also includes the rather distinctive canopied walk running from the library to the Great Hall – which is a bit like being in that scene from Alice in Wonderland when she walks among the massive mushrooms. And what’s not to like about the post-war portico that looks like a spaceship? (see previous picture)

Wood Street Police Station, 1963-5
Architects: McMorran and Whitby

More “Ciao bella” than “Oi, you’re nicked”, this building could be the home of an Italian aristocrat. The architect Donald McMorran specialised in police stations and this is his best-known, his last, and his largest. It’s an ambitious neo-classical build that is loved by postmodernists because it resembles more a palazzo than it does a police station.

The abstract rustication across the rather squat lower two floors is topped by taller windows that give the impression of a Venetian piano nobile. And those chimneys aren’t even chimneys. Just ventilation with their length exaggerated. The gable on Love Lane looks like a dovecote (it’s more disguised ventilation), and the tower looks like it could house a bell. Inside there’s even a central courtyard. This is a building that is both sophisticated and fun. Bravo!

Glossary:

Neo-Classical - In its purest form, it is a style principally derived from the architecture of classical antiquity. The main movement coincided with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, and continued throughout the 19th, 20th and up to the 21st century.

Postmodern - a movement which started in the late 70s and shows a preference for provocation, irony and distorted references to historical styles.

Rustication - rough-surfaced masonry blocks usually found around a building’s lower parts.

Piano nobile - the first floor of a large Palladian or Georgian house, containing the principal rooms.

Barbican, 1962-82
Architects: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon

This is England’s largest listed building. A heroic, gutsy and sprawling brutalist estate of flats, maisonettes, terrace houses, a hostel, a girls’ school, a school of music and drama, and an arts centre (with concert hall, theatre, studio theatre, cinemas, library, art gallery, conservatory, restaurants and offices), as well as underground car parking, pedestrian walks, and a canal. This is more a community than it is a building.

The Barbican is probably one of the most berated and beloved architectural projects, taking more than 20 years to complete and widely condemned in the 1980s for its relentless concrete and hard to find entrances. Since then however, its darkly dramatic soaring towers and tranquil waterside settings have won admirers from around the world.

Of course, all this concrete is not to everyone’s taste but you have to admire the craftsmanship. Not convinced? Up close you’ll see the concrete’s been bush-hammered – each knick is a separate strike from a handheld pick hammer. Now consider the size of the Barbican and how much concrete there is!

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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