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An elegy for Welbeck Street car park

By Piers Veness, September 2017

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In central London, if you walk off Oxford Street onto Henrietta Place, hidden behind Debenhams' slinky undulations, there is a building with quite a different character.  Built in 1971 and designed by Michael Blampied, Welbeck Street car park is a sight to behold.  And it has an axe hanging above it in the form of a new hotel, the planning permission for which has already been granted.  

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

This is unquestionably Brutalist architecture: plain, unfinished concrete, strong lines, functionality - it's all there. It perfectly embodies the rejection of the sleek modernist architecture of the previous generation, the gleaming idealism of which was at odds with the harsh realities of late 60s and early 70s Britain. But it is also an oddly beautiful, spellbinding building, more so that it is now living out its final days, a relic of a pre-bling era. And I urge you to go and visit it while you still can. Its concrete raindrops are like chain-mail armour, rhythmic like an Op-art painting. It is utterly other-worldly, a building that doesn't seem to belong on the swanky, consumerist driven environs of Oxford Street. It is a kind of gritty, urban monument to pre-massified London, before London became a product for international consumption. Modern, muscular, punchy, Welbeck Street car park was created in an era less luxurious and less comfortable than our own.

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

The building is based around an interlocking diamond shape of, typically for a Brutalist building, raw concrete (nearby Centre Point is another example of this interlocking system). The rhythmical effect is enhanced by the triangular non-spaces between the diamonds, which are their inverted twins; the building is therefore a construction of criss-crossing diagonal lines and non-space. It's almost monotone black and white. Since it was built as a car park as opposed to an office building, there was no need for glass in the windows - rather, the non-spaces become the windows, letting the outside in and the inside out. It is like a concrete cage to keep the cars locked up in, a kind of concrete security chain-link fence. It is windows and decoration and security all at once, form following function. It's too grand a building to simply have been a car park. It's heroic. The architect Sam Jacob has said of Welbeck Street car park: "It is part of a small gang, a batch of buildings produced in a small window when car parks were treated as civic monuments, significant structures that expressed the modernity of the moment". (1)

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

Being Brutalist, it is uncompromising, unremitting, with no frills. So maybe it is somehow fitting that it is to go out as the consequence of something so utterly conformist, obedient and servile as a high-end hotel, built for luxury as opposed to function. I expect that if it could, it would laugh at the irony, at the banality of its successor.  Brutalism indeed. Better luck has befallen Preston bus station car park, another Brutalist marvel, having recently been declared a Grade II-listed historic building, and therefore safe from demolition (one would hope). But of course, Preston doesn't suffer from London's cannibalising success.  In the words of Jonathan Meades: "Britain is once again being architecturally cleansed in favour of timidity and insipidity." (2)

Photography ©Piers Veness & Katherine Di Turi

London is clearing out an architectural gem to replace it with a money-spinner. Where Welbeck Street car park was a symbol of early 1970s urban realism, a five-star hotel is a sign of our status-driven times. I'm not against progress, and I'm aware that London needs to continually develop in order to survive; however, its architectural practice of killing its parents is often troubling.

© Piers Veness, 2017

1 Jacob, S. (2017). Lesser Known Architecture: London's most unappreciated buildings, The Daily Telegraph.

2 Meades, J. (2014). The Incredible Hulks: Johnathan Meades' A to Z of Brutalism, The Guardian.