Kevin McCloud on why we should protect our historic built environment - Grand Designs Magazine
St Pancras station

Kevin McCloud on why we should protect our historic built environment

Let’s not be short-sighted about the lasting value of historical architecture, says our editor-at-large

By Kevin McCloud |

Growing up, my local railway station, Harlington, was a slightly shabby Victorian station on the Bedpan line from where I could take the train to Bedford or Luton, or as far as London.

The London terminus was a dark and dank place, blackened by train soot and city grime, the hideout of criminals and prostitutes. By the time my parents had taken me to London for my eighth birthday, the building had been scheduled for demolition. At that age, I of course could not have cared less for the place – St Pancras station was run-down, broken and no doubt a little threatening.

Not many people wanted to save it despite civil engineer William Barlow’s great cast-iron arched roof – the largest in the world at its construction in the mid-19th century – and despite the Gothic hotel that fronted it, designed by eminent architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1865. The taste for Victorian buildings in the 1960s was a sour one, not least because the maintenance of all buildings during the mid-20th century was pincered by the economic impact of two World Wars and because highly decorated, complex ones took more looking after than most. Added to that, very little London architecture looked appealing in the 1960s before the wholesale clean-up of buildings as a result of the Clean Air Act.

So, the future of St Pancras looked bleak. Until the poet-laureate Sir John Betjeman spearheaded a campaign to get the station listed as a Grade I building. He succeeded, just days before demolition was about to begin. Today the building is cleaned, restored and home to the Eurostar. It is the gateway to London and the first impression  that many Europeans have upon entering the UK. It would now be unthinkable to demolish such an architectural and engineering jewel, representative of the heights of  mid-19th century design excellence.

The story of St Pancras teaches me a few lessons. First, that it’s hard to understand the value of an old structure when it is down-at-heel, dirty and in need of investment  and repair; harder still sometimes to recognise the quality of design and construction. Second, it is even more difficult when that building dates from a time too close to our own – in the 1960s, St Pancras was not even 100 years old. Third, the agenda of developers to renew a place and deliver jobs and economic benefits through its ‘regeneration’, can easily cloud the judgement of those in power. Fourth, the saving of our history always hangs by a golden thread that separates wholesale demolition  from renewed life. That thread is called imagination.

The Ringway Centre

Birming Ringway Centre. Image credit:

In February this year, Birmingham city council planners finally decided to demolish the Ringway Centre, one of the last remaining great buildings that date from the city’s vibrant expansion of the 1960s. It’s been described as a horizontal skyscraper, a sweeping curve of a building 230-metres long with V-shaped legs, concrete panels and horn-shaped uplighters that could have been produced by renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

Designed by architects James Roberts and Sydney Greenwood, it was described in the Pevsner Architectural Guides as ‘the best piece of mid-20th century urban design’  in Birmingham. Barring an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, it is going to get knocked down. The fate of the Ringway Centre has laid in the balance since 2015 when demolition was first proposed.

Huge opposition was mounted through neighbourhood campaigns, by environmental groups who protested at the huge carbon impacts of demolition and by amenity  groups on the grounds of the building’s value and rarity – because so much architecture of its time has already been demolished – along with its quality of design and construction. The Twentieth Century Society ( fought hard to persuade the planning committee members of the excellence of the building. But to no avail it seems.

If we apply the lessons from St Pancras, the Ringway Centre is of course dirty and dilapidated, with the grime hiding its beauty and craftsmanship. The building is not even 70 years old, so any understanding of its historic and social value will be myopic. The site’s developers flaunt the need for taller buildings and for the need to  ‘regenerate’ the city with the shiny and the new. And inevitably this distracts the imagination of anyone in power with the excitement of novelty. The result will be a replacement development that will almost certainly be mediocre in impact and produce a Birmingham copycat skyline identical to that of every other city in the world. Form follows finance, after all…

So, the Ringway Centre’s fortunes will follow the lessons set down by St Pancras – except that in Birmingham the golden thread of imagination has been shredded. There was no Sir John Betjeman, and it makes me wish I had got behind the campaign to save the building sooner and more forcefully. It makes me want to shout about the value of our historical built environment – of whatever period – in helping us understand our past so that we can chart our future more clearly. It makes me angry that those in control of our made world can, with one sweep, alter the experience of future generations, like censors in a totalitarian regime ripping pages from books and denying us all a fuller and richer understanding of the places we live in.

These skin-of-the-teeth lessons from St Pancras repeat through history. Stonehenge was only saved because an Edwardian barrister from Wiltshire bought it at auction in 1915. Grand Central Station, now a huge tourist draw in New York, USA, was nearly demolished twice in the 1950s and 1960s. And now the fate of Marks & Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street store, designed by architectural practice Trehearne and Norman ( in the 1920s, also hangs in the balance. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has ruled the building should be saved on several grounds, not least the carbon impact of demolition and rebuild at 40,000 tonnes. But M&S has cleared the way for a challenge to the ruling through judicial review. The commercial aggression seems macabre and it’s of passing interest, but perhaps relevant, that the store is almost 100 years old. Future generations will judge us for our own poor judgement and berate us for leaving nothing of powerful value to them. I have a new word for the world we are leaving behind us. Not Utopia, nor Dystopia. Myopia.