HC Deb 27 October 1955 vol 545 cc526-32

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

11.8 p.m.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

The House in the last two days has been debating the general economy of the country and how we and the people can spend less. In raising the question of the present unsightly facade of the Admiralty Citadel, some people may think that I am indirectly asking for the expenditure of more public money, but to maintain property and to improve its general amenity is surely good husbandry, and I submit that neither maintenance nor improvement is at present being undertaken or has been undertaken during the last few years.

Considerable sums have been spent on the nearby Carlton House Terrace yet immediately opposite, standing between the Mall and Horse Guards Parade, the Citadel seems to be resigned to being the ugliest building in London. Up to now, the Ministry of Works has not seemed to care for this most valuable site, built out of keeping with the splendid façade of John Nash or even of the more modern building of the Admiralty which, despite a splash of common brick due to the blitz of the last war, is not an unsightly building. The granite of the Citadel is hideous and an offence to the architecture of London.

Underneath it, air conditioning and other plant vital to the Admiralty is in operation. The building played an important part in the last war. It would be folly to suggest that more money should be spent on any structural alteration; but that is no excuse for neglecting the exterior. The building is not sheer. About half-way up there is a terrace on which a member of the staff has endeavoured to grow flowers, with great enterprise and success. Around the roof there is a narrow footway which, I am told, was used for firewatching during the war, but is not used now. Then, over the vast extent of concrete which covers the roof, there is three feet of earth, except where the tower flue comes up. On that earth there is grass which was allowed to grow rank and uncut for many weeks in the summer, even after a letter which I sent to my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary. It was ultimately cut. There is space for at least two full-sized tennis courts, with all their surroundings. I do not believe that under private enterprise, or even under the inspecting eye of any Service Ministry, such a derelict state would be allowed.

The sides to the Mall and the Horse Guards Parade are bare, and on the terrace are obsolete gun emplacements. Yet the Citadel stands on a Royal route. It is seen by thousands of visitors, not only Londoners but people from the provinces and from abroad and it is worse than a derelict common, which anyhow has some natural beauty.

If a small staircase were erected on the side facing the Admiralty it would be possible for the staff of the Admiralty to use the roof as a pleasant garden. The only expense would be the purchase of a few shrubs, and the work of a gardener for, say, three days a week. It would, of course, be necessary to rail round the top. It would mean nothing like the expenditure which Messrs. Derry and Toms, or other private organisations in London have incurred, and I am not suggesting that such expenditure should be incurred. For far less cost, certain restaurants in Soho have made their rooms a delight, though perhaps in their case too it would be as well if the gun emplacements were removed. They are obsolete, and serve no useful purpose now. They make an ugly building uglier than it is otherwise.

But if we forget the provision on the roof, and merely tackle the sides of the building, what an improvement could be made. I am no gardener, but I am told that up the south-west side grows a creeper called ampelopsis, but even there great areas are uncovered, and this creeper has none of the beauty of Virginia creeper. Why not grow shrubs, flowering and evergreen creepers, not only at ground level, but at terrace level, and up the tower; and let creepers, roses, vines and other creepers of great beauty and colour hang down from the terrace, and from the earth which is on the roof, so that the hideousness of this building can be hidden by splashes of colour?

There is no need for boxes on the top, as the Parliamentary Secretary suggested in a letter of 27th June. The earth is there already. Let the Minister, by skilful planting, give the public a building to admire rather than to deride. I am told that it was copied from the architecture of Babylon. Let there be a hanging garden of London, which would turn the Citadel from an eyesore into a vision.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. R. Fleetwood-Hesketh (Southport)

I wish to detain the House for a few moments only, but I should like to glance just a little further ahead than my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree (Mr. Tilney). I entirely agree with and support what he has just said.

I appreciate that there are two views about the Citadel. There is the view of the functionalists who think that it very adequately expresses the purpose for which it was built, and there is the other view, which I confess I support, which considers that a building in such a very important situation should pay some regard to the style of its neighbours. The main block of the Admiralty, although it may not be a very notable piece of architecture, does at least make an attempt to conform to the classical standards of its neighbours, the Horse Guards and Carlton House Terrace.

It is clear that there is no possibility of removing the Citadel altogether. For one thing, it is extremely solidly built; for another the Admiralty still want it. But, if it is to remain indefinitely, while creepers may serve as a good temporary disguise, they cannot provide a permanent solution.

As I see the position, there is nothing contrary to Renaissance practice in hiding a purely functional structure behind a facade with which it has no direct connection. As one of several suggestions on these lines, I should like to quote from the "Architect and Building News" a letter written some time ago by the Secretary of the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors. He says: As the building is very far from being a temporary one, it is worth while taking trouble and incurring expense to give it a civilised appearance. The Admiralty extension faced with Portland stone would, with its large unwindowed surfaces, lend itself to sculptural treatment, and thus bring it into harmony with the other end of the Mall…The plain surfaces would give an admirable opportunity for a splendid architectural treatment, which might include niches for the setting of memorial statuary and make the whole aspect worthy of this most important site. Then he suggests that the statues might be of well-known sailors and points out that: Compared with the Army memorials and statues, the Royal Navy comes off badly. Here is a golden opportunity to adjust the balance. I would only add that if anything like this were ever done it would have to be well done, otherwise the last state might be worse than the first.

Finally, I appreciate that the day following an autumn Budget is not perhaps the best moment to make a proposal of this kind. I make it merely in the hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works will bear it in mind when the time is propitious.

11.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. J. R. Resins)

My hon. Friend the Member for Waver-tree (Mr. Tilney), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fleetwood-Hesketh), has raised what we all agree is an interesting topic. My hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree has spoken with his characteristic courtesy, uninfluenced I am sure by the fact that I happen to be a constituent of his. I shall try to reply with similar courtesy, uninfluenced by the fact that he happens to be a constituent of mine. I shall also try to be brief.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Works did not build the Admiralty Citadel. We have been accused of many things in our time, but not of that. We are, however, responsible for the maintenance and appearance of the structure. Various parts of speech have been used in various places about this building, and all have been equally unflattering. My hon. Friend referred to it as ugly, and also, I think, as hideous. In another place it was recently referred to as a monstrosity. I agree that no one who has looked at this building closely, or for that matter even remotely, would think that it was a work of great architectural beauty. It was never meant to be, as my hon. Friend well knows. As its name suggests, it was meant to give the Navy strong, protected accommodation, and that it has certainly done. I scarcely think that needs saying in this House tonight.

I am glad that neither of my hon. Friends has come forward with the suggestion that now, or in the future, this building might be demolished. I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Southport said about the possibility of facing the building with Portland stone, and perhaps arranging for statues to be imposed on the new facade, but I am afraid that in the present financial circumstances that proposal is rather out of court.

As I understand it, what my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree is suggesting is that somehow or other we should try to make this building a little less unattractive than it is at present. As it is, we have the Virginia creeper—and I do assure my hon. Friend that it is Virginia creeper—growing up the west and south-west walls of the Citadel. It has been suggested that the building would give rather less offence to our aesthetic susceptibilities if we had falling creepers or weeping roses growing from the roof. It has also been suggested that we might even plant trees, either on the roof or rather lower down the building.

I must confess that I am far from being an expert in these matters, and I know I shall be forgiven if I speak with a certain amount of diffidence about them, but, having scaled the Citadel, at great personal risk, the other day, and also taken the mind of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works and that of my hon. Friend the Civil Lord to the Admiralty, I am a little doubtful about the wisdom of growing either falling creepers or weeping roses from the roof. My advisers tell me that there are practical difficulties. My own personal view is that, in the early stages at any rate, the creepers would look a bit like an inverted crew-cut along the top of the building. Nevertheless, I agree that we ought to do something.

The west side, which is really the important side, the side that faces the Mall and the most conspicuous to the public, is very largely, although not wholly, covered with creeper which grows from ground level. I am proposing to extend this effect by growing creeper from concealed boxes up the superstructure on this side of the building. At present both the north and south sides of the Citadel are bare, and I agree that they look un- sightly. Here I propose to have Virginia creeper planted from ground level.

I agree entirely that the old gun emplacements are an eyesore and ought to be removed. We shall remove them as expeditiously as possible.

The other points raised by my hon. Friend, which I have not dealt with, we shall certainly bear in mind, but I hope that in the ways I have indicated briefly tonight we may presently succeed in detracting just a little, at least, from the unsightliness of this structure and, incidentally, rewarding the zeal and tenacity of my hon. Friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.