The man who changed the face of York

Viscount Esher: Conservationist and Modernist

Architect-planner and author, Lionel Brett, fourth Viscount Esher (1913–2004) was a leading figure in architectural establishment and government circles in the post-war years, as well as a prolific writer on urban issues.

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Fig. 1: Lord Esher, seated on the foot of the Roman Column, adjacent to York Minster, 2019, celebrating the fifty-year anniversaryof the publication of York: A Study in Conservation. Report to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and York City Council (1968). Photo: courtesy of The Press, York.

As a practising architect he was involved in the design of houses in Hatfield New Town, as well as advising upon the redevelopment of 38 acres of central Portsmouth. In addition, he was actively involved in organisations such as the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAMS) and its English off-shoot The Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group, responsible for promoting the modern movement, and the Society for the Promotion of Urban Renewal (SPUR) (1958-1963), which he founded and chaired. However, he was also interested in traditional architecture and conservation. As architectural historian, Otto Saumarez Smith observes, Esher ‘espoused both modernism and preservation, being a committed modernist while also wanting to preserve many of both the social and aesthetic benefits of the traditional city.’1 Well respected in the architectural world, Esher became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1965-1967).Thus he was an ideal candidate to take a lead role in a 1960s government initiative, the ‘Four Studies in Conservation’, intended to tackle development in historic cities.

Towards the late 1950s, the extensive post-war redevelopment of many historic town centres met with public outcry. Indeed, it was often remarked that post-war planning completed the destruction of the historic cities that began with their targeted bombing in the so-called Baedeker Raids, during World War II.2 Fearful of irreparable damage, in May 1966 the government launched the Four Towns study, an initiative seeking a solution for combined urban regeneration and conservation. Along with Chester, Bath and Chichester, York was one of the four historic cities selected to participate in the study. When Richard Crossman (1907-1974), Minister of Housing and Local Government, responsible for the initiative, approached Esher to lead one of the studies, he duly selected York, intrigued by the complexity of the city.3

Cities were put forward by the local authorities, but in York’s case the York Civic Trust (YCT) was also instrumental in the city’s involvement, funding 50% of the cost.4 YCT Chair, John Shannon (1918-2010) was highly supportive throughout the programme. Based in the city at Micklegate House, Micklegate, Esher engaged a small team, including planner and conservationist June Hargreaves (b. 1937) and architect Harry Teggin (b. 1932), a fellow partner in Esher’s firm Brett and Pollen, which he had founded with Francis Pollen in 1960.5 The team undertook a detailed analysis of the townscape, social patterns, activities, traffic and conservation within the City Walls.

As Esher himself described the study, it focussed upon the ‘heart of the city’ and he later commented to architectural historian and writer Alan Powers that ‘Its central purpose was not “conservation” […] but the return of people to live in the heart of a once densely populated mediaeval environment’.6 The desire was a significant increase in the population, which at marginally over 3500 in the mid-1960s was only a third that of medieval York. Making the centre a more attractive place to live was to be achieved by the gradual removal of any incompatible industries or activities from within the walled city i.e., those with noxious characteristics such as noise, smell or smoke, heavy traffic and obsolete locations. These key themes incorporated many of the principles of 1960s planning. Nonetheless, Esher argued that the wholesale removal of workshops from the centre would be ‘just as dreary as a central area with no homes.’7 His underlying principle was ‘if in doubt, let it stay’.

Esher also promoted pedestrianisation in the centre and the development of a network of pathways improving access to the City Walls where possible. However, the report eschewed total pedestrianisation, as Esher stressed ‘trade is strangled without accessibility.’8 Another important issue raised by Esher was the introduction of a height limit for buildings within a mile of the Minster. He suggested that the height of all buildings should be no higher than the top of the Minster’s aisle roofs or the bottom of the clerestory. This was accepted in the city and has been become something of a legend, with many residents assuming it dates back to medieval days. Conversely, Esher also advocated that buildings within the historic streets should be a minimum of three storeys.

York: A Study in Conservation was published by HMSO in 1968, alongside those for the other three cities.9 In York, the ‘Esher Report’ or even ‘Esher’ have become well-known colloquialisms in the city for the study. Although not all recommendations in the ‘Esher Report’ were adopted, it has had a large influence on York’s subsequent development.

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Fig. 2: front cover of York: A Study in Conservation. Report to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and York City Council by Viscount Esher, published by HMSO, 1968; Crown copyright.

Later in his career, Esher was rector of the Royal College of Art (1971–1978), and, inter alia, a member of the Arts Council, a trustee of the Soane Museum (1976–1994) and chairman of the National Trust, Thames and Chilterns Region (1979–1983).10 He also continued his engagement with developments in York well into the mid-1980s. Brett and Pollen were commissioned to design the Aldwark development, described as a ‘derelict hinterland’ in the report. He also maintained an ongoing interest in the pedestrianisation of Deansgate; the Minster precinct; and proposals for the Inner Ring Road, to which he was vehemently opposed. Individuals were also known to approach him about their individual concerns. The fifty-year anniversary of the Study was celebrated in the city with Lord Esher invited to mark the occasion.11