Stonebow House reminds us that York lived through the 20th century

Brutal, and ours: Stonebow House. Photographs: Richard McDougall
Brutal, and ours: Stonebow House. Photographs: Richard McDougall

Stonebow House: what now?stonebow-house-square

With the future of Stonebow House in the balance, YorkMix is running a series of articles from different perspectives on this York landmark. What do you think? Comment below, Tweet us @theyorkmix or go to our Facebook page

Architecture expert Jon Wright argues that Stonebow House has many qualities which should be considered before any decision is made about its future

Concrete buildings from the 1960s and 70s are not easy to fall in love with. For many they are not even likeable and represent a complex mix of visual offensiveness, social ill and cultural prejudice.

This largely seems to condense into a couple of fundamental arguments to do with their materiality and form and the perceived detrimental social results of that form – it’s large, made of concrete and therefore ugly and in some way contributes to (or indeed is the cause of) some form of urban blight.

The logical conclusion is that the building should be torn down. I’m paraphrasing and generalising of course, but only to balance things.

As with any issue of taste and prejudice, it’s simply not that simple but it is inexorably linked to a wider disenchantment with post war architecture and its legacy in the UK.

Part of this has to do with the name this kind of architecture was given by it’s early advocates, brutalism – which has nothing to do with being brutal, but everything to do with the French word for raw concrete, beton brut.

It will undoubtedly be regretted that buildings like Portsmouth’s extraordinary Tricorn Centre and the Trinity Car Park in Gateshead, both below, have been lost to us, with many other lesser buildings falling by the wayside too.

Trinity Square Car Park, Gateshead – the setting for a famous scene in Get Carter. Photograph © philld on geograph.org.uk; The Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth. Both designed by the Owen Luder Partnership (1967 and 1966, respectively) Click to see the full image

Even if listed, like the Grade II* Commonwealth institute in Kensington, post war buildings are rarely treated like listed buildings of earlier periods.

These are facts not lost on those who work in historic buildings conservation and indeed, English Heritage continue to thematically assess various types of post war buildings for listing.

The real question is what will we have lost when that cycle has been completed? The populist arguments outlined above persist and remain pervasive so the fight is very much on at the moment for this part of our built heritage

In 2012, the World Monuments Fund placed “British Brutalism” on its watchlist.

Stonebow Inquiry

These articles are inspired by The Stonebow Inquiry: Past, Present, Future

Its next event is on Saturday, July 26, between 1pm-4pm at the Central Methodist Church on St Saviourgate.

More details on the York: Living With History website

Register for your free place here

Read all the Stonebow House articles here

This list, designed as a high profile global alert system for buildings and sites in peril, sought to highlight the fact that we were wilfully deleting an entire generation of buildings, largely through the planning system, that deserved better treatment, that deserved a second look.

It was a decision that underscored a slowly encroaching feeling that we should look again, beyond the easy and the lazy, to see something else in these structures.

Jonathan Meades’ recent series on Brutalism on BBC4 furthered that idea.

Other contributors like Owen Hatherley have done much to further wider understanding and appreciation of these buildings. Attitudes can only be fairer as a result.

It is with these issues in mind then, surely, that we should approach York’s Stonebow House.

Stonebow House is an island of post war idealism and aesthetic, situated in one of England’s most historic city centres and surrounded on all sides by important buildings from other, various periods of the city’s rich history.

Stonebow House was completed in 1965 at the height of the post war commercial boom, for Renown Holdings PLC and was designed by Wells, Hickman and Partners.

Roy Hickman, a partner in the firm, had a house that he designed independently, listed by English Heritage in 2012 and the text in the list description mentions Stonebow House –

Wells, Hickman and Partners were based in Charing Cross, London, and completed a variety of commercial and residential schemes, which were written up in the architectural press. Much of their work seems to have been focused in the southeast, with one notable known exception being Stonebow House (1964), a mixed retail and office development in the centre of York. Designed for Renown Investments (Holdings) Ltd, the scheme was the winning design in an open tender competition initiated by York City Council.

It conforms, in design terms, to much of the architectural thinking of the time with its elevated office accommodation raised up on a base that was part retail precinct and part streetscape, with car parking on the roof, invisible to the street.

stonebow-house-york-shapes
The geometry of Stonebow House
The architects saw the potential in connecting the pedestrian walkways to the topography of the surrounding streets, providing a basement level below and a paved walkway above that are both accessed from street level.

The complex is surrounded at first-floor level by a concrete balustrade that curves to reflect the bend in the road.

Modest in scale for the period, the four-storey office building above sits on the eastern the podium below, preserving views of St Saviour’s Church from the main shopping area of the city.

Stonebow is York’s considered and modest version of the slab and podium architecture espoused by le Corbusier. In its materials too, it is of substantially higher quality than a first glance would reveal.

Just like stone, concrete comes in many forms and qualities and that used at Stonebow is both well considered and expensive with a sandy aggregate stone finish used throughout.

In plan form then and in build quality, Stonebow distinguishes itself and makes it all the more understandable why it was the winning design of the council’s original competition.

Of course, just like those who wish it go, this is an opinion, and there are other considerations to do with potential reuse, the potential quality of any replacement and perhaps more significantly, the ecological arguments that accompany any planning decisions.

These are matters for further consideration and debate but no decision should be made without thinking about what, exactly, York would lose if it were to go.

Coolly considered and perhaps in spite of everything above, Stonebow House is good but not great, the myth about it being listed already is unhelpful and untrue and it is at best a borderline candidate on a national level – but that should not mean it has to go.

Several years ago, Exeter City Council saved and reused a 1960s building to great effect, after overturning a demolition proposal. Fully modernised, it now houses John Lewis and was repaired and converted at a lesser cost than a demolition and new build.

York does not have very many buildings of this type and even fewer of this quality from the postwar period. When you consider the city centre in particular, it really comes down to this example.

Regardless of taste, it has achieved the status of a prominent local landmark.

Too many buildings of this type have been lost and their loss regretted not to think extremely carefully about what it would really mean for York and its wider urban fabric if it were to be taken away. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Before that happens, its qualities, without the fog of prejudice, need to be considered along with everything else.

York has the chance to be progressive, to show how conservation of this kind of building can be a creative and positive exercise and indeed, save a part of the city that makes it quite clear that York is not just a bucolic medieval idyll, but that the late 20th century happened here too.

Jon Wright is a freelance architectural historian and teacher with particular knowledge of the history and conservation of 20th century buildings. He is the former Senior Caseworker for the Twentieth Century Society, an amenities group set up to preserve buildings from 1914 onwards and was the Head of Conservation at the Council for British Archaeology in York until 2013. He now lives in London