Plymouth’s Civic Centre is an important building because it is a reflection of
the Post War enthusiasm experienced in Plymouth at the time of rebuilding. The
building has served as a focal point to the city for over forty years, and
stands as a landmark to the people of Plymouth. It has recently been listed by
English Heritage to grade 2 status.
The Civic Centre was originally designed by Hector Stirling - but in 1957, the London firm of Jellicoe Ballantyne & Coleridge were commissioned to design the building. Following the land use groupings of the 1943 Plan, Hector Stirling’s idea had included a concert hall in roughly the same position as the Theatre Royal Car Park, and a theatre in the same place as where the Theatre Royal is today. A public restaurant and viewing gallery was also planned for Derry’s Cross – but never built. However, Stirling’s original designs largely remained and the form of the Civic Centre today is very similar to what Hector Stirling had designed. His Civic Square was turned in to the ‘Great Square’ and his idea of a theatre at the end of Royal Parade (behind the Civic Centre) became the Theatre Royal in 1982. The Civic Centre was to balance the towers of the Guildhall and Dingles and Pearl Assurance buildings. Its profile was carefully considered so that it was of the right form, scale, and position.
Groundwork started on the Civic Centre in 1959 and amidst much pride and
celebration, the building was officially opened by H.M. the Queen on July 26th
1962. The Civic Centre itself is an interesting structure of three
perpendicular, cantilevered blocks, and the main fourteen storey tower of
Council offices. Each block originally served a public purpose, hence the art
gallery adjacent to Royal Parade, the council chamber next to Notte Street, and
the walkway connecting the two.
The addition of the Wing profiled canopy on the top of the fourteenth storey gave the building that ‘new world’ feel, and ensured that it had a unique profile in comparison to other civic architecture of the period. The building was designed so that the public could freely walk in and out, and even the paving outside of the entrance was considered so that it was of the same colour and pattern of the flooring in the public foyer. Although the Civic Centre is essentially a glass and concrete structure (which is no bad feat), other materials were extensively used for the exterior. These included Portland Stone mullions for the Council House and Council offices, slate and marble on the public frontages, and a range of coloured mosaic tiles - red for the exterior columns and ‘Naples yellow glass’ for the underside of the Council offices. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude today is the Civic Centre is an eyesore – branded the same as other poor imitations of modernism – because it is made of concrete.
The interior of the Civic Centre has recently been used as a reason for demolition by the City Council. However, the interior was originally one of the most considered and celebrated aspects of the building. Both local and international materials were used liberally, complemented by a range of artworks by local and more famous artists. Inside, the four main columns of the public foyer were made of Ashburton Marble, with the ceiling being made of the Naples Yellow glass mosaic, and the floor being made of red and black marble (where the colours were chosen to be the same as the concrete paving outside) - the floor also contained a “bed of bright red and dark marbles, set in a bed of terrazzo”. The interior panelling – possibly that adjacent to the interior windows – was Opepe wood, and the ceiling lighting pendants were originally Chelsea Glassware. Public kiosks were originally veneered in Avodue and Agva woods. The glass engravings in the building (by John Hutton and Hans Tisdall) were for public view in the foyer, and depicted the Goddess Neptune, undersea creatures, Amphitrite, and the ships and moons. For the Council Members, there were more glass engravings, and a ceiling made of waxed Columbian Pine in the entrance hall. The handrails of the members’ entrance staircase were made of Aformosia, and the lift interiors covered in Courbaril veneer. The debating chamber was - and still is covered in more exotic wood veneers, and contains a plaster City coat of arms by the sculptor David Weeks (known in Plymouth for his works in the Pannier Market and Guildhall). Unfortunately, changing fashions and requirements mean that little of the original interior features seem to have survived, and the City Council is saying that the working conditions are so poor that the building should be demolished. This is sad, considering that so much was made of the interior.
If the interior of the Civic Centre was intended to be enjoyed by all, then the outside was intended to be cherished by all. The area immediately outside of the Civic Centre was another of Hector Stirling’s ideas, and though Geoffrey Jellicoe (a very respected and acclaimed landscape architect) executed Stirling’s idea, the ‘Great Square’ – as this area was known - is perhaps the best Post war piece of landscaping in Plymouth City Centre. It has even been recognised by English Heritage as being an important area of landscaping. Swirling paving, planes of grass and water, seating, and the original trees from Westwell Gardens were included, along with a brass band that was supposed to have played every Thursday lunchtime. The public were to enjoy both the Civic Centre and the Great Square, and were to be able to flow seamlessly between the two. This type of thinking was in line with the 1943 Plan, and an example of the post war optimism and enthusiasm being experienced at the time. Today, much of the Great Square survives, but much has been altered. The circular seats are copies, and do not follow the profile of the Council House, like their predecessors did. The swirling paving has been replaced with recycled 1990s square placing (which looks badly out of place), and the 1960s street furniture replaced with a mix of 1980s and 2000s street furniture. A welcome addition however, is that of a rotunda street café installed in around 1996.
Other alterations have also been made to the Civic Centre itself. The public entrance has been re-paved in white concrete and re-glazed with a protruding hull and space frame – both unnecessary additions. The rear public entrance was covered over with an extension 1991 – 1992 so that access could only be gained from the front of the building. PVC glazing was installed, replacing the colours and patterns of the windows facing Royal Parade. Public kiosks were removed and various additions placed on top of the civic offices. These alterations, though insignificant in isolation, have devalued and degraded the original architecture and as a consequence, the Plymouth public do not experience a Civic Centre ‘for the people’ - and they do not value the Civic Centre.
Despite being a listed building, future of the Civic Centre is still uncertain, and the local press and the City Council are enthusiastic about its destruction. Public opinion is very unfavourable and the listed status does not mean that the Civic Centre won’t be demolished. If the Civic Centre is demolished, Plymouth will lose a significant part of its architectural heritage.
Text and pictures by Graham Hobbins click here to e-mail Graham