Biba House (formerly Hilary House), St. Saviour’s Place
John Poulson, 1965.

Hilary and Biba

When does architecture become a failure? Does the failure lie with the architect or its commissioner? Is it influenced by design or environmental factors? Hilary House can, perhaps, be better understood and contextualised as a failure rather than a success.1

Steps and front door of 1960s building
Fig. 1: exterior view of Biba House with sign. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Hilary’s architect is disgraced, its placement is questionable, its various planning applications were consistently challenged and calls for it to be torn down are ever-present. Further to this, Lord Esher described it as a “commonplace office block […] which might be in any large city, an impersonal termination to the otherwise memorable northward view along St. Saviourgate.”2

Hilary House was a former office block used by HM Revenue and Customs. Its commission fell to the – soon to be disgraced – architect and surveyor, John Poulson (1910-1993) from Pontefract, Yorkshire. Allegations of corruption began to appear after Poulson filed for bankruptcy in 1972 and his meticulous records of influential payments to councillors, officials, civil servants and MPs became known. He was arrested and charged with corruption in connection with the awarding of building contracts on 22 June 1973, however this corruption stretched back to the early 1960s.3

To secure contacts he would set up public relations companies and appoint local councillors as paid consultants. Through these companies, councillors were able to vote for Poulson’s contracts without declaring their interests. Poulson exploited the fact that councillors wielded substantial financial power with public money while they themselves were living on small incomes. This made Poulson’s bribery even more potent which included financial payments, lavish hospitality, holidays and donations to charity. The Poulson Affair exposed a web of corruption that encompassed 23 local authorities and 300 individuals. The details of this corruption were brought to the attention of the public by the satirical magazine Private Eye.4 Hilary House was built at the height of Poulson’s corrupt activities.

Front view of building with many windows
Fig. 2: exterior view of Biba House. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.
Architectural drawing of building layout
Fig. 3: site layout for Omnia Properties, by J.G.L. Poulson (project architect: M.J. Davies), 1964, West Yorkshire Archive Service, reproduced with permission.
Architectural drawing of floor plan
Fig. 4: ground floor plan of Hilary House for Omnia Properties, by J. G. L. Poulson (project architect, M. J. Davies), 1964, West Yorkshire Archive Service, reproduced with permission.

Hilary/Biba House is a rectangular building that stands five storeys high with an additional penthouse (2015) and lower subterranean car park. The building is dominated by an expanse of glass intersected with proud concrete ribs running vertically and panels running horizontally. It is made up of four main horizontal bands above a lower storey. There are ten upright bays; the furthest right houses the front staircase and lift. This is separated from the main block by brickwork over the main doorway. A cantilevered canopy protrudes over the doorway creating a safe sheltered space. The floating concrete staircases have cast sculptural bases with thin wrought metal balustrades and teak banister rails. The lattice work that gives the car park ventilation and two staircases provides a visual lightness to the lower section in comparison to the blockish building above.

It was built at an exciting period of time in York’s architectural history and its ambitions as an innovative city. The University of York opened in 1963, Stonebow House was built in 1965, and the Telephone Exchange preceded it a decade earlier, enclosing the Stonebow area as a mid-20th century design hotspot. Esher, in reference to Stonebow House and Hilary House, described St. Saviourgate as a “sad example of a very attractive York street which has suffered serious architectural assaults in the last few years.”5

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Hilary House was a product of Poulson’s corruption, there is nothing to suggest that it was not. It does sometimes appear to be a cut-and-shut job – an untraditional office block in a traditional part of town – and there is a feeling of ill-considered placing. The ‘memorable northward view along St. Saviourgate’ was once dominated by James Pigott Pritchett’s Salem Chapel (1839) that Lord Esher described as having a “fine portico [that] closed the view most admirably down St. Saviour’s.” 6 However, it was demolished between 1963 and 1964 to make way for Hilary House. This area of York is home to a cluster of diverse architectural styles: the Palladian Central Methodist Church (circa. 1840s, James Simpson of Leeds), the 16th-century St Saviour’s Church, the late 17th-century Unitarian Chapel, as well as a number of Georgian townhouses. The warm red Georgian brickwork against the cold exposed aggregate panelling of this 1960s office block would have been somewhat of a shock in this architectural eco-system and is a vast contrast to the Salem Chapel that stood here before.

View of street with cars and large building at the end
Fig. 5: Biba House at the end of St. Saviourgate. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

This impersonal placement has, over time, become softened. Since its completion, the surrounding area of Aldwark and the building itself have changed. The use has changed from an office block to luxury apartment block and in 2015 it had a major facelift. The original mid-20th-century aluminium windows were replaced with a VELFAC aluminium glazing system, powder coated in beige grey with bronze tinted glazing. The pebble-dashed panels underneath the windows have been removed and replaced with EQUITONE fibre cement spandrel panels. The building’s concrete skeleton has been re-painted. The elevations highlight that the “existing handrail/ balustrade [is] to be retained and refurbished”.7

There has been a conscious effort in these subtle changes of materials to incorporate the building sympathetically into the surrounding area. The new colour tone palette works well against the red Georgian brickwork and pale painted buildings to bring St. Saviourgate together in a visually cohesive way. Greenery is used to tame the transitions of old and new.

As well as these subtle changes, Hilary/Biba gained a new architectural edge in the form of a sculptural penthouse. The angular stepped and staggered structure finishes off the building in a more interesting way. Historic England approved the plan by saying that although “the proposal would increase the height of this mediocre building […] the proposal has the potential to considerably improve the appearance of Hilary House within the streetscape and from the City Walls.”8 The addition gives the otherwise plainer building a new visual edge which adds to the architectural diversity of St. Saviourgate.

As well as Hilary House’s re-incarnation, the surrounding area of Aldwark was redeveloped by the Shepherd Building Group which, in many ways, integrates the building more successfully as the architecture has become more diverse. It was a largely industrial area of the city centre in the early 1970s. The remodel was fuelled on Brett & Pollen’s redevelopment report published in 1971 which showed, in detail, how this area might be designed. The architecture attempts to replicate the randomness of the city’s townscape and is interlinked with older structures to further enhance the illusion. Aldwark is a smorgasbord of architectural styles that blend seamlessly into one another. It is a calm area of the city centre and pleasant to walk around. Biba House became a part of this diversity.

Architectural drawing of floor plan
Fig. 6: first floor plan of Biba House for Omnia Properties, by J. G. L. Poulson (project architect, M. J. Davies), 1964, West Yorkshire Archive Service, reproduced with permission.

Poulson’s involvement in Hilary House is a failure that is easily ignored, although it will always linger. The insensitive placement of the original Hilary House could be seen as an initial failure which has been gently suppressed over its lifetime through changes to the surrounding townscape and subtle material changes to itself.

The commonplace office block has had its challenges; however, time and design decisions have healed the ‘impersonal termination’ to St. Saviourgate once described by Esher. This stubborn building in looks and mentality has, slowly, begun to thrive in the twenty-first century.