This paper discusses the emergence of a new phrase in architectural and political culture in the early twentieth century; ‘civic centre’. ‘Civic centre’ connoted deliberately planned grouped buildings for public administration and assembly, but also expressed civic identity and ceremony in a self-consciously democratic age. The paper traces the origins of the idea of the civic centre within the rhetoric of the ‘City Beautiful’, borrowed from US urban reformers by Lancashire New Liberals and progressives in the early 1900s. It will examine how it was given expression in plans and buildings in municipally progressive towns and cities like Bolton, Cardiff, Birmingham and Norwich in the 1920s and 1930s.
‘Civic centre’ quickly became orthodoxy: a synonym for town hall; a metonym for local government. But that should not permit complacency. Many of these complexes are under threat, in particular post-war examples subject to radical overhaul or demolition: Hornsey, Plymouth, Newcastle, Derby and most recently Haringey. Unpicking the intersection of the architectural, political, social, and intellectual history of the British civic centre may help us to understand better what it is we should seek to preserve.
Part of the Architectural History and Theory Seminar Series 2018