The Plymouth Blitz, concentrated in seven devastating German air raids over March and April 1941, left Plymouth reportedly the most heavily damaged city in the country and destroyed its medieval centre.
In this bleakest period of the war when much energy was focused on sheer survival, Plymouth City Council looked to the future. Plymouth would be rebuilt but not merely rebuilt – it would be re-imagined: redesigned and reconstructed as a city for a new era in which rational planning served the needs of the common people.
On 1 September 1941 the City Council agreed that a Redevelopment Plan be prepared. That plan – A Plan for Plymouth – was prepared by Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the leading town planner of the day, in conjunction with the City Engineer James Paton Watson. It was ready by September 1943 and approved by the Council in the following year.
J.D.M. Harvey illustrated the completed plan.
So far, so good but history is awash with abandoned blueprints and failed ideas. Plymouth made good on these aspirations. Firstly, it lobbied Parliament – in conjunction with many other local councils – for the comprehensive planning and compulsory purchase powers vital to large-scale projects enshrined in the 1944 Town and Country Planning Act.
And then it acted. It was the first British city to begin reconstruction in April 1947; the first new buildings opened in 1951.
Abercrombie’s plan was visionary, owing most to the designs of New Delhi and Canberra and the 19th century Beaux-Arts ideals which shaped Washington DC and Paris. The city centre itself would be divided into functional precincts reflecting varied urban roles including retail, offices, culture and civic government.
This was planning on a grand scale but the larger vision was also influenced by more modest indigenous strains, not least the garden city movement which sought to separate homes from industry and recreation from commerce. The Plan envisaged suburbs formed into ‘neighbourhood units,’ each with a centre incorporating schools, a church, a library, swimming pool, cinema and other community facilities. These principles gave humanity to the cold term of functionalism sometimes used to characterise such post-war planning.
However, it was the design of the city centre which was most radical. The war had destroyed old street patterns already strained by modern demands. They were replaced by an orderly grid centred on one grand axis running north-south from the railway station to the grand open space of the Hoe surrounded by a ring road connecting the major transit arteries. To Professor Jeremy Gould this was (1):
an egalitarian grid, spacious, airy, uncomplicated, accessible and gapingly open to all – the very model in stone, brick, glass and metal of the post-war welfare edifice.
The execution of the plan used some of the foremost architects of the day – such as Thomas Tait (who designed the new Dingles department store) and William Crabtree (who had previously designed the Peter Jones and John Lewis stores in London). They were employed by private developers but worked within the controlling vision of the City Architect and Engineer who designated width, height, form and materials. And the city retained the freehold.
Time and the judgment of altered aesthetics are not always kind to plans of such ambition and scale. There may appear some merit to the criticism of those who have complained subsequently of a certain cold uniformity; there is more so to those who note neglect and decline. To Gould, what is needed now ‘above all is a little love’ and this blog at least will give a little love to the vision and original execution of the Plan for Plymouth.
The architects certainly were not so naive as to ignore the potential missteps inherent in such planning. In fact, street elevations were ‘composed en masse as a series of highly contrived symmetries and asymmetries, with major to minor rhythms.’ (2) Corners and terminations were equally carefully contrived to please the eye. The images below show the real aesthetic quality of Plymouth’s streetscapes – a far cry from the brutalist label sometimes attached.
The white Portland stone which faces many of the city centre buildings is criticised for its dullness but was originally envisaged as a neutral background to highly coloured shop fronts, displays and signs. Some buildings were built – in deliberate contrast – of red and brown brick. There is beautiful detailing too, not fussy and often overlooked, which challenges those who have accused the design of blandness.
Whilst slower, more organic – messier – growth might have given a more comfortable and ‘human’ feel to the Plan, Plymouth didn’t have this option. Instead the council chose boldly not only to face but to embrace the future and create a new city (3):
Plymouth represented the architecture of the future – clean, bright, democratic and, most of all, optimistic.
Much of the architecture remains stunning and captures still the optimism of the era.
In the affluent fifties and sixties, such optimism may have seen well-placed. 50,000 worked in the dockyards, Plymouth was doing well. Now that number is just 2,500 and the city has fallen on harder times. The future envisaged in the 1940s didn’t quite materialise and the city is having to reinvent itself once more.
That, in a sense, is true of the city centre too. Straitened finances combined with an antipathy towards the modernist architecture of the post-war period led to serious decline. But Plymouth is resilient and that is changing. A new generation is overseeing a ‘scale of regeneration’ claimed as ‘second only to the post-war regeneration period’.(4)
As is the way, the transformation envisaged in what the Council has named ‘A Vision for Plymouth’ will depend far more on tourism and culture than traditional staples but it will, at least, both respect and revive Plymouth’s heritage as ‘the twentieth century city’ – ‘the greatest built example of post-war British planning and architecture’ (5)
There are more listed fifties’ buildings in Plymouth than anywhere other than London. Jeremy Gould and the Architecture Centre Devon and Cornwall are fighting for it despite recent funding cuts. English Heritage is defending it as a city ‘as representative of its time as Bath and York.’ (6)
This is great. But the task for all is to ensure that the label Twentieth Century City is not an epitaph to the past but a call to the future which captures the dynamism and idealism of former generations and gives momentum to the present.
PS I’ve written a second post on the Plan for Plymouth which includes additional detail and illustrations from the Plan itself.
(1) Quoted in ‘Plymouth: a pearl on the seashore,’ The Independent, 21 February, 2010
(2) Jeremy Gould and the Institute for Historic Building Conservation, ‘The architecture of the plan for Plymouth’, September 2006.
(3) and (4) Plymouth: Twentieth Century City, Heritage Trail Buildings Guide
(5) Plymouth City Council, A Vision for Plymouth
(6) Simon Thurley speaking at the launch of Jeremy Gould’s book, Plymouth: Vision of a Modern City, 8 June 2011
The essential online source is Plymouth: Twentieth Century City. My grateful thanks to the Architecture Centre Devon and Cornwall for making available the text and photos of this site and their hard-copy Heritage Trail Buildings Guide. Visit the city and support their efforts.
The online Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History contains information on A Plan for Plymouth and much else beside.
A wonderful documentary film on the Plan, The Way We Live (1946) is available on YouTube. Its director, Jill Craigie, met Michael Foot, MP for Plymouth Devonport, whilst shooting the film and they married three years later.
Commentary and stills from the film and the images of the original artwork included above can be found at cyberheritage.co.uk.
My thanks to Plymouth Man for allowing use of some of the images to be found in his informative and well-illustrated celebration of postwar Plymouth on Flickr.
Other contemporary images above are taken with permission from Simon Cadman’s Twentieth Century Society Flickr page on Plymouth.
Mark Wright said:
Am going to enjoy this piece. Plymouth city centre not always appreciated, especially town hall buiding, council desperate to demolish it. Luckily it’s been preserved, but council poor custodian,
Hope I did it justice. I know it’s been a struggle to get the city centre the recognition it deserves.
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The centre of Plymouth is an abominable disaster. It encompasses all that is dreadful about 1950s architecture. Abercrombie et al did more damage to Plmouth, and in the centre the council demolished more buildings than the blitz. Pull the lotdown, including the new appaling Drake Circus complex and get a proper architect….!!!
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James Evans said:
Great article! Do you know if the Pannier Market was part of the original plan for the city centre, or was it designed much later? It appears to me more genuinely modernist that the stuff off Royal Parade, which exhibits traces of art-deco.
I don’t what the naysayers want from all of this – opulent Gothic and/or neo-classical architecture one would assume, or mock-tudor facades perhaps. The new Drake Circus complex is awful though.
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Dave Does History said:
Fantastic article. I came across your site whilst searching for ‘A Plan for Plymouth’ to find material for a history article I am currently writing on the post-war development of St. Budeaux.
Municipal Dreams said:
Thanks – I’m glad it was useful. I’ll be interested to hear more of your project on St Budeaux as it progresses. John
Mary Devereux said:
I remember when these buildings were brand new & the Portland stone was gleaming white. One of the functions of the city centre then was a shopping centre for a huge catchment area which included all of Cornwall. Unfortunately shopping habits have changed drastically & the exterior of the buildings have become grimy. It will take a great deal of money to restore the centre . Urban Splash is making a start, they bought the civic centre from the council for £1 & will convert it into apartments with leisure facilities shops restaurants &cafes on the ground floors.Hope others will take up the challenge to refurbish other buildings & make them suitable for a proud Ocean City.