Context 138 - March 2015

14 C O N T E X T 1 3 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 5 TOM COPP Thomas Sharp’s Exeter legacy The decision to demolish the 1950s Princesshay development in Exeter reflects a public ambivalence towards Britain’s post-war architectural and planning legacy. The destruction wrought across Britain by the regular Blitzkrieg raids of the German Luftwaffe led to the loss of thousands of lives, homes and buildings. The raids also offered town planners the opportunity to radically replan along more logical and legible lines, sweeping away the muddled, crowded and squalid streets that had arisen from the great urban boom of the 19th century. This provided an unprecedented opportunity to adapt existing cities, creating urban utopias which would follow the paternalistic ideologies of Attlee’s post-war Labour government, epitomised by the creation of the welfare state and expressed through the pioneering architecture of the post-war period. These post-war plans would define the rebuilding of numerous British cities, ranging from naval ports such as Southampton, to industrial cities like Coventry, and to cherished historic cities, including Bath. A number of these plans shared similar ideals and principles, with the creation of central retail precincts, often pedestrianised, segregating pedestrians from the rising danger of the motor car, becoming a central element of many of them. Thomas Sharp, who had recently found fame through his unlikely bestseller Town Planning , became one of the most influential post-war planners. He specialised in sympathetically updating some of the country’s most sensitive cities, such as Durham and Oxford. He aimed to complement these historic cathedral cities with low-scale modernist developments showcasing the increasingly influential ideals of townscape, loosely adapted from 18th century picturesque design. It was this approach that Sharp brought to Exeter, with the publication of Exeter Phoenix in 1946, establishing the principles on which the city was to be replanned and rebuilt following the devastating Baedeker raids. Although Sharp was not retained to oversee the imple- mentation of his plan, largely due to the cost, the city architect Harold Rowe ensured that the pedestrianised retail precinct of Princesshay was largely constructed as Sharp had envisaged.This retail centre was planned and executed as a sympathetic addition to Exeter’s historic core. It reflected the mood of the time, with concrete used to construct a number of sweeping low-rise buildings which lined a new network of streets, linking the Cathedral Close with the High Street and creating a new retail centre. By the end of the 20th century many retail centres had become outdated and outmoded, and the growing antipathy towards post-war architecture meant that they were often unloved and little used.This led to a number of local planning authorities looking to overhaul these modernist relics. Coventry and Bristol sought to conserve much of the post-war fabric, gradually updating it. Bristol complemented its post-war precinct of Broadmead with a striking 21st century development. By contrast, Exeter sought to demolish most of its post-war retail stock, replacing it with larger-scale structures. The importance of Exeter’s heritage assets was recog- nised by Princesshay’s 21st century planners as well as by Sharp, who ensured that the cathedral was a central part of his plans. Sharp created five new vistas of the building, of which the linear vista along Princesshay is arguably the most important. Sharp’s emphasis on ensuring that new development did not harm the setting of such important heritage assets was maintained by the city council through new policy initiatives throughout the latter half of the 20th century.They formed a central component of Land Securities’ second adopted scheme for the redevelopment of Princesshay. Sharp’s pioneering post-war precinct was overhauled, with the vast majority of the built fabric entirely demolished to make way for the new scheme. Changes in the retail sector in the years which succeeded Sharps’ plan ensured that Princesshay as it stood at the turn of the 21st century was no longer seen as economically viable or attractive. In order to support the retail-led regeneration of the area it was considered essential to attract large national chain stores to underpin the development. They demanded more The north tower of Exeter Cathedral viewed along the Princesshay vista envisaged by Thomas Sharp and lined by the buildings of the 21st century development