The battle for Woburn Square
Andy Davies, Director of London Universities Purchasing Consortium, on the protests against the demolition of Georgian buildings in 1969
It was a very clear sign of the times. At just before 8pm on Thursday, 20 February 1969, a university community was quite literally divided on an issue that would determine the future of architecture and planning in this part of London. A Georgian square faced obliteration, while part of the University of London, including SOAS, faced the possibility of having to relocate its operations far away from its Bloomsbury home. In that moment could be heard the bell-toll marking the end of the free hand of authorities to plan cities in what had become the Modernist tradition.
The scars of the ‘battlefield’ remain all too visible to this day. Woburn Square is truncated and its remaining Georgian terraces stand uncomfortably cheek-by-jowl with Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist buildings for the University of London, including his library extension for SOAS later named for its director, Professor C.H. Philips. The result is a lasting stalemate that stands testament to the momentous change that swept the world – not just in architecture and planning, but also in the human condition.
Fortunately for Lasdun (1914-2001), who was reaching the peak of his power by the time construction began in 1970, the attention of many had been drawn to his building of the long-awaited National Theatre (1967-76) on London’s South Bank, realising unquestionably the crowning achievement of his career. And yet only half–an-hour’s walk north along Kingsway, obscured by the glare of publicity surrounding the theatre, was emerging what might, by comparison, be reasonably described as Lasdun’s forgotten project.
Plans to transform Bloomsbury into a university precinct stretched back as far as 1929 when the decision was taken to make this part of Georgian London the University’s permanent home. In 1943, Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw drew up their ambitious County of London Plan, planning the re-development of the capital, including an expanded university precinct for Bloomsbury. This was followed in 1959 by an outline development plan for the Bloomsbury precinct commissioned by the University of London from Sir Leslie Martin, Professor of Architecture at Cambridge University and Modernist architect Trevor Dannatt. It won the support of both the LCC and the Royal Fine Art Commission and the plan led directly to Martin’s recommendation to the University that the 45-year old Denys Lasdun be appointed as architect to prepare the first detailed designs.
In the Martin Plan, several buildings were classified as having special historical or architectural interest. These included the church in Byng Place, the Wilkins buildings of University College and the terrace facing Tavistock Square. “These buildings must clearly be preserved and future development in the vicinity must be related to the scale that they establish”. Martin’s ethos was predicated on the precinct being “thought of architecturally as a single entity”, but while identifying certain buildings as suitable for demolition, he made an important promise:
Several of the other remaining terraces are no longer intact on account of 19th century and more recent construction or war damage. It is clear that these domestic buildings cannot in the long run meet the needs of teaching accommodation nor provide the floor space that is required for University purposes… We envisage that such buildings “will have to be replaced by new buildings [but must] retain something of the scale that has been so well established by these buildings. It ought to be possible to achieve an architecture which has a comparable dignity and subtlety of form.
Woburn Square was laid out by the Duke of Bedford. Bounded by terraces begun in 1829 by James Sim, the square was punctuated by the spire of Lewis Vulliamy’s Christ Church (1831-33), built as a chapel of ease for the parish church of St George’s, Bloomsbury and later restored with the addition of stained glass windows by Burne-Jones. It was to become one of the symbols of the ‘battle’ for Woburn Square in 1969. Architect’s Journal reported that the University had been notable “for the way it has torn to shreds the close-knit pattern of Georgian streets and squares in Bloomsbury” but went on to describe the Martin Plan as “most promising”.
In December 1960, Martin recommended to the Court of the University that Lasdun be commissioned to prepare early designs for a new extension to SOAS to house a new library, and a new ‘spinal’ building along Bedford Way, accommodating the Institute of Education, the Law Institute, a near 1,000-seat auditorium and temporary accommodation for two departments of University College. By April 1965, Lasdun’s team had prepared a series of site plans showing how detailed proposals were developed from the Martin Plan.
But in the years that followed, before demolition of the Georgian terraces could begin, there was a fundamental shift in public attitudes to established authority throughout the developed world, including the authority that oversaw planning and architecture. From protest against the war in Vietnam, popular insurrection in Paris and Prague and the civil rights movement in the United States, through the continued growth in popular culture, to attitudes that challenged established values with regard to ecology, sex, drugs and personal liberty, all galvanised organised resistance, especially among younger people. In 1967, students rioted at the London School of Economics.
Many commentators have singled out 1968 as the pivotal year of global change and it was in November of that year that a group of students and lecturers from colleges of the University of London became aware of the threat to their built environment and were driven to action by the twin causes of conservation and preservation. As John Summerson later recalled:
The amenities of Georgian Bloomsbury as a university precinct had come to be valued by senior members of the University as well as the strong contingent of students. They saw in these squares not only a precious legacy from the Georgians, but a serene and evocative setting for modern academic life.
Right up until then authority had progressed largely unchallenged. The University of London had decided in 1929 that it would remain in Bloomsbury and that the area would be forever dominated by its dynasty. It might be that all the thinking had been done during the war years and the ensuing austerity by visionaries who heralded the Modern age, a new beginning. Visionaries like Abercrombie and Forshaw, and later Martin, whose sweeping brief advocated nothing less than a wholesale change to the very character of the locality, had licensed the bureaucrats to build more or less whatever they wanted. And Lasdun’s appointment came at a time when everything he touched turned to gold for him, just as he went about building his monumental, untouchable, unassailable (some would say arrogant) reputation for being in the vanguard of Modern British architecture.
John Summerson (1904 -1992) became the talismanic figure for the Save Woburn Square campaign. He was a well-known architectural historian, author of Georgian London (first published in 1945 and still in print) and was curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum from the same date until 1984. Summerson had been a committed Modernist, simultaneously a member of the Georgian Group and the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) group, which had been established by Modernist architects and thinkers in 1933. He knew Lasdun well and respected his work, just as he had Martin’s. Indeed Summerson was said to have originally favoured the Martin Plan, but had changed his mind.
Writing of Woburn Square, Summerson had scored an own goal in the pages of Georgian London. In it he damned with faint praise the very terraces the campaign was fighting to preserve:
‘James Sim … built two pleasantly proportioned works which, however, lack that extra finish and character which the Cubitts achieved. Sim was just a competent builder working in elevations approved by the [Bedford] estate.’
By January 1969, the group had collected 58 signatures of London graduates, enough to require an extraordinary meeting of the University Convocation within 42 days, at which Summerson would propose a motion to spare at least the façades of the Georgian terraces. Convocation was the widest representative body in the governance of the University, with some 57,000 members. Dissolved in 2003, membership was open to graduates, students, lecturers and administrators on payment of £1. Convocation could not impose a decision on the Court of the University, but a motion passed there would be difficult to ignore. The EGM was scheduled for Thursday evening, 20 February, in order perhaps to afford the Court the maximum time in which to mount a defence.
The Times reported that:
The protestors feel that the subsequent permissions followed as a matter of course on the broad approval given to Sir Leslie Martin’s ideas in 1959. “Our case is really that the climate of opinion towards preservation has changed, and that if these ideas were put forward now they would not be accepted”, says Mr Peter Rice-Evans, a lecturer in physics who is on the Committee.
The Protest Committee sought signatures in the Senior Common Rooms of all the colleges of the University. They planned to petition the Chancellor, the Queen Mother, who was also patron of the preservationist Georgian Group, which Summerson had helped establish in 1937.
There is some evidence to support allegations of the intimidation of protestors. Sir Douglas Logan, principal of the University, was determined to identify the ring-leaders. On 27 January, he discovered that three were resident at the student accommodation at Connaught Hall. He wrote to the Warden, Professor Lang, demanding to know where they came from and what they were studying, while Lionel Elvin, director of the Institute of Education, concentrated on mustering as much support as possible from his fellow college principals:
This terrace… was put up by speculative builders between 1820 and 1830. It is punctuated by a mock Gothic church and even this side of Woburn Square lacks the splendid homogeneity of style that so fully justifies the scheduling of Bedford Square to be preserved. The general air of the square is not one of Georgian beauty but of mixed styles and mild decay… One may sympathise with those who are vigilant against vandalism. But this is not vandalism: it is creative preservation.
Lasdun and Martin had become used to campaigning either to promote or defend the scheme. In July 1968, the Bedford Trustees denied consent for construction to commence. Lasdun and Martin immediately invited them to Lasdun’s offices at Queen Anne’s Gate and won them over. In January 1969, the Court had been concerned that planning consent might need to be re-sought. Martin met with the Director of Planning at the GLC and the threat was averted. They would have been confident of doing the same with Convocation. But on 12 February, with the meeting just over a week away, the Clerk of Court confirmed that the Chairman of Convocation, Sir Charles Harris, could not allow ‘strangers’ to the meeting. They knew that Summerson, who would be speaking for the motion, had trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture and taught at Birkbeck, and so was eligible for Convocation membership. They would have to find another way to make their case heard.
On 18 February, SOAS and the Institute of Education jointly placed a full page advertisement in The Times headed “Some Facts about Woburn Square” claiming that the protestors’ communications to the Press had been “partial and misleading.” It went on to attack Summerson’s Achilles Heel – his appraisal of the Sim terraces in Georgian London. But their strongest appeal was reserved for the future of the colleges:
If the “Save Woburn Square” movement were to succeed, the imaginative master plan drawn up by Professor Sir Leslie Martin for re-creating the area in Bloomsbury designated as the University Precinct would be completely frustrated. Moreover, both the Institute of Education and SOAS would be compelled to remain in their present totally inadequate accommodation. No alternative sites in the ownership of the University are available for the purpose-designed buildings required for their increased numbers, both staff and students, and for their teaching and research activities which have been so greatly expanded to meet national requirements.
In all, 603 members of Convocation gathered in the Beveridge Hall at Senate House for the extraordinary meeting at 6pm on 20 February. Summerson formally proposed the motion:
‘That Convocation is of the opinion that the University has a special responsibility to preserve our architectural heritage and, since Woburn Square is one of the last examples of Georgian architecture in Bloomsbury, it asks the University to halt the imminent demolition and prepare new plans that will preserve at least the existing façades and the gardens, and it requests that the Court be informed of this Resolution.’
Professor Philips spoke of the “agonising position my school now stands in”. If the plan were to be scrapped, he was quoted in The Times, “Where will we go? We know not”. Sir Douglas Logan, principal of the University, said that SOAS would be “condemned to remain in completely inadequate accommodation for the foreseeable future.”
The minutes record that discussion of the motion continued until shortly before 8pm, when a motion ‘That the question be now put’ was carried. Harris proposed that the House should divide, given the numbers, and duly appointed four tellers for the count. The Chairman then gave the result of the division as 281 votes for the motion and 301 votes against. The motion had been lost. Twenty-one members present, who clearly held the result of the vote in their hands, either abstained or left before the vote was taken.
The Times reported the campaign’s narrow defeat as a “setback for the Woburn Square objectors”, but noted that “The University Court is obliged to do no more than note any opinion that Convocation may express.” Summerson was quoted:
“Very, very few schemes of this kind survive in central London today.” He said he was in no way opposed to the new type of architecture, which was “quite admirable”. The initiative for the protest had come from the younger generation which was much more concerned about its environment than previous ones.
In April, the failure of the campaign led John Chisolm to declare the ‘Death of a London Square’. He praised the University for choosing Lasdun, ensuring that the appointment “would at least ensure a clean break with the university’s tradition of inflicting on the city inept buildings of maximum ugliness.” And he implored his readers to “go and see [Woburn Square] for the last time, serene in the spring sunshine, before the guilty men responsible for condemning it carry out the death sentence”. Demolition finally began in July 1969.
Summerson recalls the Save Woburn Square campaign in later editions of Georgian London:
It was a battle between enlightenment within the University and the ruthless economics of its administrators and it was lost in 1969 by a vote taken at a specially convened meeting of Convocation, efficiently packed by the administrators.
But although the ‘Battle’ for Woburn Square had been narrowly lost by the protestors, the unstoppable tide had turned. The Martin Plan had passed virtually unopposed, but the truth was that too much time had passed by the time Lasdun’s scheme came to be built. Just as the preservationists’ voices reached a crescendo, the Modernist ideal had suffered from one too many sub-standard social housing projects going awry.
Lasdun was one of the true visionaries. He believed in cities and he understood that great cities need to shift and change in order to survive and thrive over centuries. Lasdun was challenged by preservationists to account for his personal role in the demolition of parts of Georgian Bloomsbury right up to his death in 2001. But his view of Bloomsbury in 1969 was that its role in London was changing, from a residential quarter for the city’s wealthy middle-class professionals, living in dwellings arranged in streets and squares built by profiteering speculators, to a precinct built for the university, to accommodate its lecture halls, assembly rooms, residential halls, gymnasia, libraries and laboratories. In the Sunday Times, he wrote:
With a change in use from domestic to educational must come a change in architectural form. The debate as to whether the University should not be in Bloomsbury was over long ago and the decision cannot be reversed by an architect working now.
In 2011, in a final, fitting irony, Lasdun’s Philips Building won its own Grade II* listing, with the result that in latter-day Woburn Square, old and new now stand forever as signifiers of a global change in microcosm.