‘York: A Twentieth-Century City’ was the provocative title of a walking tour led by the Twentieth Century Society in 2015.1 For, curiously, York’s C20 architectural heritage is unsung, hidden in plain sight and unchronicled. It is facing wanton obliteration. Such obliteration is historiographical, resulting from a lack of informed engagement, research and publications. But it has also been quite literal. The most recent victim of the bulldozer is the former Tang Hall branch library (1962), part of an elegant constellation of post-war community libraries by the City Architect’s Department, at whose deathbed students of this project paid their mournful respects in April 2022.
A further case in point is the recent demolition of Hudson House, the headquarters of British Rail’s Eastern Region (Sydney Hardy, 1968). While its massing and concrete hues enjoyed a contextual conversation with the city walls it sat alongside, it was, moreover, a C20 manifestation of York’s global importance as a centre for transport history, a key C20 monument of York’s industrial archaeology. Its loss is reminiscent of London’s Euston Arch, the Doric propylaeum designed by Philip Hardwick in 1837, that served as the gateway both to the station and to the London and Birmingham Railway. It became a martyr for heritage groups following its ‘murder’ in 1961, to use the victimizing, anthropomorphic language of the failed campaign to save it.2 It is hoped that Hudson House’s demolition might also act as a martyr — or, at least, an unhappy reminder of the importance of retaining monuments that can tell significant stories from all periods, offering thus a richer, more holistic and balanced understanding of our city and its people through time. It is too easy to dismiss buildings based on knee-jerk aesthetic reactions alone. Sir John Rodgers, the York-educated Conservative politician, offers an interesting lesson on this account. Concluding his book York (1951), at such a time that High Victorian architecture was derided by the wider public in the way that post-war modernism has been in the last few decades, his final wish was to demolish the ‘hideous… eyesore’ that is the Oratory Church of St Wilfrid (George Goldie, 1862-64, Grade II listed since 1968).3 How many detractors of C20 architecture would agree with Rodgers?
Like the Roman architectural group Stalker (or Laboratory for Urban Interventions) who seek to meaningfully re-engage with neglected parts of cities (the so-called terrains vagues), this website re-maps our city anew, foregrounding its C20 material culture.4 In so doing, it reveals a deeply varied and intriguing set of buildings that speak for those who built and commissioned them about how they saw themselves in the modern world. Furthermore, it uncovers or recovers a significant coterie of architects, engineers and developers, and plural – often surprising – networks of patronage. It does so through accessible vignettes authored by undergraduate and postgraduate students of the History of Art at the University of York. Some are lengthy articles, while others are what we have colloquially termed ‘Nuttgens nuggets’, similar to the economical entries on the city’s buildings in Patrick Nuttgens’ York (1970).5 Nuttgens’ book, along with Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave’s Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (1995), is one of the few publications to give architecturally-enlightened attention to C20 buildings in York.6 A recent important contribution with a similar remit to ours, furthermore, is John Brooke Fieldhouse’s brand new Architecture York: Twentieth Century Plus (2022). Other vignettes in our gazetteer are simply photographic essays: for instance, that on Bettys café and tea rooms (T. P. Bennett & Sons 1930). While the story is still to be told, it is provocatively included here as a reminder that one of York’s most iconic experiences is played out in a C20 building. Interspersed among these building-based vignettes are biographical portraits of key York figures, including: the architect/planner Lionel Brett, Viscount Esher (1913-2004) who authored the seminal study on the city’s strategy for post-war conservation and growth (1969); the previously unchartered post-war City of York Architect’s Department who exercised considerable agency over the modernisation of York’s public architecture; and an account of the town planner and conservationist June Hargreaves (forthcoming). The vignettes are not finite: the flexibility of the website will allow us to update or extend entries at a future date as new research comes to fruition.
Our approach has been broad and inclusive.7 We are chronicling significant buildings of all styles and building types post-1914.This includes three iconic, and now statutorily-listed buildings, that received considerable national attention at the time of their construction: the extension to the York Theatre Royal (1967, Patrick Gwynne), the Assembly Hall of Bootham School (1965-6, Trevor Dannatt) and the campus of the University of York (first phase: 1963-65, Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners). Our coverage extends from the rogue Stonebow House (1965, Hartry, Grover and Hunter), to the extraordinary, deftly-crafted Anglican churches of George Gaze Pace, to elegant and unassuming speculative housing, including Ouse Lea (Michael Butterworth & Partners, 1972) and Chalfonts (Shepherd Design Group, 1969).
We should stress that we are not myopic modernists, but pluralists. Thus, our interest extends still further: for instance, to postmodern, neo-vernacular housing, most notably Aldwark, a former industrial area earmarked by Esher in 1969 for residential use, that – although realised as late as 1980 – concretised his recommendations for conservation-informed urban-renewal.
There are many buildings still to be chronicled, such as the York Telephone Exchange (A. Lloyd-Spencer for the Ministry of Works, 1955) Hungate. a former slum area newly designated for light industrial development. Built for the Postmaster General, to modernise city-wide telecommunications and alleviate the increasing demands on the post-war Telephone Service, it signals the prestige of this building type for the post-war world. Steel-framed, it has an elegant skin of hand-made bricks, with generously lit plant rooms, a cordless switchboard, and a grand terrazzo staircase.
We hope that the individual vignettes will cumulatively enlighten our understanding of how York sought to reconcile two seemingly paradoxical problems: reaping the benefits of modernity and progress while preserving the image (and associated ideals) of York as an ancient city. We hope it will offer a more nuanced understanding of social, architectural and economic change in the city, relating to architectural patronage and politics, the history of technology, recreation, industry, commerce, transport and habitation patterns.
This collaborative project between the Department of History of Art, University of York; the Twentieth Century Society; and York Civic Trust has actively sought to unify seemingly disparate centres of expertise on C20 architecture in the city.
We have benefitted especially from the intellectual generosity of the Tang Hall Local History Group, and the expertise of the York Civic Trust. Furthermore, students have had the benefit of five crits, led by leading experts from diverse built environment spheres. The project has also exploited the richness of the surviving library of the former Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies (dissolved in 1997), particularly periodicals such as the Yorkshire Architect and Perspective East Yorkshire.
This project, we should stress again, is embryonic and represents a starting point, rather than a finished product. Readers can find a list of buildings that we hope to cover in the gazetteer in the future, that itself might inspire independent research projects. We hope you enjoy the website, and that it enriches your engagement with and experience of York, a Twentieth-Century City.
We wish to acknowledge our gratitude to the following, who have kindly gone out of their way to support this project:
Revd. Simon Biddlestone, Diana Brown, Jane Burrows, Dr. Charles Fonge, John Hollington, Sarah Mills, Georgie Myler, Bridget Nuttgens, Brian Paul, Peter Pace, Elaine Phillips, Mhairi Slezak, Fr. Bill Serplus, Simon Walton, Dr. Alan Warren, Hazel Williams, Dame Anna Wintour, Jim Wintour
Dr Joshua Mardell (University of York; now RCA)
Richard Burrows, Pamela Chapman, Alizée Cisternino, Dr Elain Harwood, Ida Houdart, Tom Howard, Yanqi Huang, Ania Kaczynska, Samuel Kennedy, Lucia Martin, Anna Mayo, Giulia Schirripa, Vienna Shelley, Jessica Smith, Lucia Spelsberg-Hornsby, Fruzsina Vida, Finn Walsh
Graduate Teaching Assistants:
Christiane Matt, Callum Reilly
Catherine Croft, Director, the Twentieth Century Society
Dr Alistair Fair, Reader in Architectural History, Edinburgh College of Art
Dr Elain Harwood, Senior Investigator, Historic England
Dr Daryl Martin, Director of the Centre for URBan Studies (CURB), University of York
Dr Sam Wetherell, Lecturer in the History of Britain and the World, University of York
Dr Lu Cooke (Dept. of Archaeology, University of York), Dr Marjorie Coughlan (York Art History Collaborations (YAHCS), University of York), Helena Cox (University of York Art Collection), Duncan Marks (York Civic Trust), Eddy Rhead (The Modernist Society), Thaddeus Zupančič (The Twentieth Century Society)