The future of York's Stonebow House will be debated on Saturday. MATT CLARK looks at the options
FEW architectural styles divide opinion like Brutalism, the term coined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe post war buildings where function often wins over form.
Perhaps the most lauded example is Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, but critics argue it only works thanks to the Riviera sunshine.
In our damp climate, concrete is often paired with monstrosity. The Prince of Wales once said: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."
There are those who champion the form, however. In 1997 English Heritage listed the Park Hill estate in Sheffield and last year culture minister Ed Vaizey afforded the same protection to Preston's monumental bus station.
York's own prime example of Brutalism is Stonebow House, designed in 1964 by Wells, Hickman and Partners. Described by Pevsner as one of the most unsightly post-war developments in York, many have dubbed it the city’s worst eyesore and a couple of years ago a petition was launched calling for the building to be bulldozed.
But, as with any Brutalist building, Stonebow has its admirers. One of them is Jon Wright, a freelance architectural historian who argues that Stonebow has more merit than many might think.
"Once the building has gone, it’s gone forever," he says. "Before that happens, its qualities, without the fog of prejudice, need to be considered along with everything else."
Jon's may be a lone voice. One of the arguments against demolition was that it would leave Fibbers homeless, but now the club has moved out and another brick in the wall of preservation has been dislodged.
That said It would probably need special contractors because of the way it was built and what it is made from.
In which case, York Architect Matthew Laverack thinks the best course of action would be redevelopment.
"I have for some time suggested Stonebow House should not be totally demolished but altered to make the best use of those parts that are worthy of retention and to remove those elements which are detrimental to the traditional urban character," says Mr Laverack. "I also think most of the podium should be replaced with something more appropriate and sympathetic to St Saviourgate."
Recently City of York Council bought the land's freehold and the debate has found new momentum. Indeed, on Saturday a meeting will be held to discuss what could or should be done.
It has been organised by Helen Graham of the University of Leeds, who is involved with the Civic Trust in a project looking at the way decisions about heritage are made in York.
Saturday's meeting, she says, will "focus on whether Stonebow House has architectural merit, a question which certainly provokes strong opinions. The aim of the event is to open up to public debate lots of different ideas about the building. It’s not about a campaign for Stonebow House to be kept but it is about making sure any decision we ultimately make as a city has taken into account all perspectives – including the views of those who quite like it.”
So what could be done? Ultimately that will depend on the property's leaseholder, Loanstar. But should the company decide to sell, the council, as the land's freeholder, will be in a good position to open negotiations about the building’s future.
For now nothing has been ruled out. Any case changes are probably a very long way off, but Helen says the time is right to debate the best course of action.
Jon Wright will be speaking at Saturday's meeting.
"York has the chance to be progressive," he says. "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."
Stonebow: Past, Present and Future will be held at the Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate, York on Saturday from 1pm to 4pm.
Opportunity for conversion into flats
Matthew Laverack makes a case for the redevelopment of Stonebow House
SUCH a building would never be considered appropriate today but attitudes were different in those post-war boom years when there was an appetite for embracing new ideas and designs; and also a perceived need for more city centre retail units and commercial space.
Stonebow House was always controversial as a structure that just did not harmonise with the traditional character of York. On the other hand it was honest, albeit uncompromising architecture, unmistakably of its time. I have always had mixed feelings about it. Exposed concrete does not weather well in our cool wet climate and tends to look dreary under grey skies.
Having said that I like the design of the office block and always thought it a modern day equivalent of a mediaeval stone tower. It is the podium on which it sits that I don’t like - not the facade facing Stonebow but the back fronting on to St Saviourgate. It does no favours to this street and spoils the setting of the Central Methodist Church.
The tower has no future as offices. Tenants cannot be found. The city is awash with empty office space. The obvious future is residential conversion. Having been inside the offices I have seen the terrific views across the city from that block. It would make most attractive city centre apartments. There is currently a window of opportunity for a conversion to flats without the planning system rendering the scheme financially unviable.
In May 2013, new Permitted Development rights were introduced for conversion of empty offices to residential use without the need to comply with the usual obligations imposed by planning authorities. These new concessions allowed a conversion of the old Aviva Offices in Rougier Street. For a period of three years it is possible to convert redundant office space without normal planning permission.
There is a “prior approval” system whereby the council can only consider issues of flooding, highways/transport and contamination.
If none of these can be regarded as a legitimate reason to oppose development, the council is legally obliged to sanction the conversion.
It is unlikely, however, that this opportunity will be taken before 2016 because of ownership difficulties in respect of different leaseholds. However, if the Permitted Development concession is extended there is some hope of housing within Stonebow House at some time in the future.
An island of post-war idealism in York
Jon Wright is a former case worker for the 20th Century Society. Here he argues why Stonebow is an important building for York and should stay
CONCRETE buildings of the 1960s and 1970s 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 that largely seems to condense into a couple of fundamental arguments to do with their materiality and form: ie – it’s large, made of concrete and therefore ugly and in some way is the cause of some form of urban blight.
The logical conclusion to such a view is that the object of this view should be torn down. As with any issue of taste and prejudice, it’s not that simple but it is inexorably linked to a wider disenchantment with post-war architecture and its legacy in the UK.
In 2012, The World Monuments Fund placed “British Brutalism” on its Watchlist – this list sought to highlight the fact that we were wilfully deleting an entire generation of buildings... 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.
Attitudes can only be fairer as a result. It is with these issues in mind then, surely, that we should approach Stonebow House, 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.
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 and it is at best a borderline candidate on a national level but that should not mean it has to go.
York does not have very many buildings of this type and even fewer of this quality from the post-war 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.
THE WORD ON THE WEB
What do our readers think? Here are a few comments recently posted on The Press website
THE history of York is the history of England. Like it or loathe it, this kind of building, the post-war dream, is part of that history. If other generations had knocked down buildings because they’d gone out of fashion, York would look very different now.
IF the Stonebow building was badly built in the first place and will not stand the test of time (bearing in mind that it’s already 50 years old) then it should be demolished and replaced with something better.
I WAS born in 1950s York and this place has been part of the landscape for many years, so love it or loathe it just leave it alone.
STONEBOW House, The Ryedale Building, BT building and Hilary House on St Saviourgate all need to go. They are all examples of the awful architecture from the 60s. If a volunteer is needed to press the plunger to blow these places up, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.