Pevsner and civic hara-kiri

‘Never, surely, in all The Buildings of England, did Pevsner express himself so angrily about the treatment of a historic town as he did in the Worcestershire volume, published in 1968.’  Pevsner was slow to wrath, if quick to scorn or irritation, but Gavin Stamp is quite right to note that the ‘development’ of Worcester incensed him.

‘C20 Worcester was a cathedral town first and foremost,’ wrote Pevsner, ‘and that makes it totally incomprehensible that the Council should have permitted the act of self-mutilation which is the driving of the busiest fast-traffic road through in a place a few yards from the cathedral.’  The road, designed to take more traffic to the Severn Bridge, took a dual carriageway within 200 feet of the cathedral walls, brought an outstandingly unattractive roundabout within yards of the west door and cut the cathedral off from the city’s High Street and what remains of its historic core. 

The old lych gate, c. 1910

Lychgate development from the cathedral tower

 As for the cathedral’s lych gate – the last surviving example in England – that was destroyed in the mid-1960s, along with the Georgian facades of the south-eastern end of the High Street and the timber-framed buildings of Lich Street, in the cause of 215,00 square feet of shopping: originally the Lychgate Centre, now euphemistically entitled Cathedral Plaza.  

Public Hall, 1966

Public Hall site, 2004

 In the Cornmarket, the Plough Inn was replaced by a Jaguar garage. The Public Hall there (originally the Corn Exchange, 1849)  played host to such people as Charles Dickens, Dvorak and Edward Elgar, before being demolished in 1966 to make way for road development and a new car  park. Further south, looming over the remains of medieval Friar Street, is what has been called ‘possibly the ugliest car park in the country’. 

 The wrecking of Worcester is the subject of the final chapter in Gavin Stamp’s riveting and deeply depressing Britain’s Lost Cities: a chronicle of architectural destruction (Aurum, 2010),  an illustrated necropolis of loved and interesting buildings.  ‘Development in this place is hara-kiri by the city, not murder by the architects,’ raged Pevsner. ‘The crime is the planners’, not the architects’, and the planners would of course have been powerless without the consent of the City Council.’
 
Pevsner was no foe to planning, as the recent publication of his unfinished manuscript Visual Planning and the Picturesque makes clear. But sensitivity was a critical component of the kind of planning he favoured – sensitivity to how well streets and buildings function as well as what they look like, respect for historical tradition and religious sensibilities, consideration for the people who inhabit a place as well as those who park in it.

St Peter's Church, Worcester, 1890s

St Peter's Street, Worcester, 2004

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  1. Unfortunately this story is repeated up and down the country. When I see the last photos from your post it makes my heart sink. What a difference 114 years makes.

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