Under the guidance of Roger Booth, the Lancashire County Architect’s Department had a golden era between his appointment in 1962 and the structural upheaval following the Local Government Act (1972) and its implementation in April 1974. Before this restructuring the county incorporated the cities of Manchester and Liverpool and, whilst the major cities took care of municipal works within their boundaries, all of the outlying boroughs of Greater Manchester and Merseyside were under the jurisdiction of County Hall. Booth was the longest serving of any County Architect and his tenure ran until 1983. He began his career in private practice in Kensington in 1949 and he entered local government in 1952. The scale and breadth of the department’s workload was phenomenal. Health centres, schools, colleges, libraries, fire stations, residential accommodation and archives all formed part of the portfolio, in places as far apart as Ulverston and Widnes. The department also included research and development and furniture design groups.
The R&D group were involved in experimenting in new construction techniques. In the context of the provision of buildings for the same purpose in many different locations, the logic of systemised building was inescapable. The national history of these systems is well recorded, particularly in school and university construction; the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) was founded in 1957 at the instigation of the then Ministry of Education for the purpose of improving the construction and delivery of schools. Leonard Manasseh in his 1964 address to the Architectural Association referred to the ‘Art Boys’ and the ‘System Boys’ as being the two sectors of thought that characterised the era. In Lancashire as well as buildings in the education sector, the department also examined branch libraries, old person’s accommodation and, most notably, police stations as having the potential to be standardised and formed from component systems. The Lancashire school building system was known as GRID, this and the other systems developed in brick, timber and concrete were touted as the ‘first and only serious industrialised building systems north of Nottingham’.
Before the advent of explicit systems in Lancashire, it had become common practice to re-use already rationalised details and building systems. The last bespoke police station to be designed was Chorley (1968), accompanied by a magistrate’s court, this station building was almost replicated at Bury (though Bury also had a nuclear bunker and shooting range in the sub-basement!) and the court informed a very similar construction in Leyland. Eventually, police stations in Skelmersdale, Morecambe, St. Helens, Preston, Blackpool and Wigan were all constructed from the same system, developed by the R&D group in collaboration with a local manufacturer. In the initial stages the buildings were conceived as a kit of parts, the assembly of which would be specific to the particular site. The ‘Elemental Design Components’ consisted of operations wing, cell wing, basic ground floor, upper floor plates, service cores and chimneys. In the 1966-67 County Architect’s Report various configurations of these elements were presented as models to demonstrate the flexibility of the system.
As the construction system was developed the idea of complete standardisation from the first floor upward was considered. This would permit the ground floor to behave as the site and programme conditions dictated. Before any stations were built four of the textured concrete panels that would come to form the fortified monoliths were assembled in the playing fields of a school in Accrington, which was under construction as the R&D group were at work. This prototype remains in place to this day and had a roof and door applied to act as a shed, it’s referred to in the 1971-73 review of the department’s work as ‘surely the most expensive groundsman’s store ever constructed!’ The intent was to develop a load bearing concrete panel that would transfer its own deadload externally through the façade. The ‘windows’ were conceived as slots to provide vistas, not light, in an attempt to free the internal office planning. The advantages were discussed in terms of this flexibility, the constancy of the internal environmental conditions, reduced maintenance, and the exclusion of noise and dust. Reports indicate that the lack of daylight did not seem to be of concern to the architects at the time. The system was labelled the ‘Heavy Concrete Method’ and was suitable for buildings of three to seven storeys.
The first of the stations to be constructed was Morecambe followed by Preston and St. Helens. Blackpool is perhaps the most dramatic of the group, the high level plazas, now devoid of anything remotely green, have a dystopian atmosphere. In a Buchanan Report meets Logan’s Run landscape of chamfered and diagonal hard surfacing, a series of squares link, and are framed by, the police station and a magistrate’s court. The court building itself is by respected local firm Tom Mellor & Partners and has a low slung horizontality that contrasts against the keep like monolith of the station office tower. This is not the first time terminology usually reserved for the description of castles has been levelled at the stations, apparently the question ‘are the police to be issued with bows and arrows?’ was not uncommon. From today’s perspective it is easy to see how these structures can be perceived as authoritarian and following tumultuous events in recent history this is not an image that the modern police force necessarily wishes to project. The intent of the architects at the time, quite contrarily, was to allow the ground floor to seamlessly integrate with well-designed public space and for the solid upper elements to make positive contributions to the townscape within which they were set. The stations are being slowly replaced with new facilities; the buildings in Preston and Wigan no longer house the police.
In many respects these schemes would have sat comfortably in the minimal canon of the early 1990s and the term ‘monolithic architecture’ readily applied. Arguably before their time in aesthetic, yet not necessarily ‘progressive’ in their use of system building components, there is a clear sense that these schemes could not have existed outside of the very specific conditions in which they were formed. The post-war period, Booth himself, the experimental and well funded department and the associations between local government and the emergency services all had their bearing on ‘police brutality’.
This article is based upon an examination of the reports of the County Architect held at Lancashire County Record Office. The author wishes to acknowledge the help and assistance of the attentive staff of the archive.
© Richard Brook
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'