With the controversy surrounding Shrewsbury's Shirehall (should it stay or should it go?) and a new exhibition of RIBA photographs, former Chair and current Trustee of Shrewsbury Civic Society Simon Beedles gives a personal view.
It is a long time since I first heard that the new building at the top of Abbey Foregate would have fountains, but that is what sticks in my mind from that time when Shirehall was being built: the mid 60s. It was subsequently opened by the Queen in 1967, standing proud and impressive next to Lord Hill’s Column. I then largely forgot about the building until I came back to Shrewsbury in the late 70s and began to appreciate the town and County.
My enjoyment of buildings led me to join Shrewsbury Civic Society (SCS) where I have been involved in its work, seeking to stimulate and encourage public interest in the preservation, development and improvement of the buildings and environment of the town. This involves campaigning for heritage buildings. Tudor timber frame buildings like the Bear Steps are obvious examples of such buildings but the 20th Century has its own, often ignored as they are regarded as too modern to care about. If they are not valued they may be demolished and lost forever, despite the important contribution they make to the changing built environment. In years to come if iconic 20th century buildings have been demolished, people will ask ‘Were there no interesting buildings in the 20th century?’ The reply to this will be: ‘Nobody thought they were worth keeping. They thought they were just ugly lumps of concrete’.
I thought of the Shirehall like this until I looked again and realised that the 1960s design was one of wonderful innovation. It reflected a time when Shropshire was leading the way with a bold modernist building. The design of the building combines offices, law courts and a Council Chamber built as an eye catching oval at the front of the building. It was designed to sit well with Lord Hill’s Column and make a statement at the top of Abbey Foregate. It is impossible to describe the intricacy of the design of the building and the concept in a few words. But there is a photographic exhibition by SCS at Bear Steps from 9th -22nd July which aims to reveal some of these remarkable qualities.
The Shirehall has been described in glowing terms by many national bodies and it is regarded as the most important 20th Century building in Shropshire. The 20th Century Society has listed the building as one of the top most threatened 20th and 21st Century buildings across the UK. The reason for this is because Shropshire Council has talked about allowing the demolition of the building. A building that is so iconic is a heritage building which should not be demolished and should be retained for future generations. It is important to recognise that modern heritage buildings need protection.
It is easy to drive past the Shirehall, take a very quick look and dismiss it as an ugly ‘concrete’ building but if you take a second or third look will find a wonderful design. The Portland stone of the Council Chamber may need a clean but it functions as it was designed to as a fabulous meeting hall. The offices may need some refurbishment but to demolish them is a waste. Re-using a building helps climate change by reducing the carbon footprint compared with building new, the biggest contribution to CO 2 emissions globally. Added to this ‘No Demolition’ means the design of the interlocking blocks of the construction are retained as an interesting maze of connections to be enjoyed and appreciated into the future. These formerly also framed attractive courtyards, currently neglected or lost but which could be reinstated.
SCS wants the Shirehall to be recognised for what it is in architectural and heritage terms, to ensure that there is no demolition. If people have just taken a quick look from the road do look again and look at the buildings in detail and the setting next to the column. This should not be lost forever.
- The Shirehall: Civic Pride in Architecture is at Bear Steps Art Gallery until July 22nd. Admission free.
Shrewsbury Civic Society is currently trying to raise awareness of the Shirehall as the county's finest 20th century building. A new exhibition is at Bear Steps, curated by one of the society's architects, uses RIBA archive images from 1967, when the building opened.
- Save the Shirehall from Demolition: Shrewsbury Civic Society is also asking people to sign a petition HERE to save this remarkable building.