Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Urban Vandalism in Queen Street

One of my biggest bugbears is the inexplicable redevelopment of the corner of Queen Street and the High Street in the early 1970s. It just defies explanation. Queen Street was completed in 1845 to serve as a major access road into Exeter from the north of the city and the newly-built railway station at St David's.

It was, and still is to some extent, lined with Exeter's finest Victorian architecture. Situated on the corner of Queen Street and the High Street was a particularly attractive block of townhouses and commercial premises above which extended from Little Queen Street all the way up to the High Street itself. They were built by Nathaniel Cole between 1843 and 1849 and were a good example of domestic early-Victorian architecture. The classical pediment decoration over each of the first floor windows and the way the corner wall curved round as it entered the High Street were particularly attractive features. A lovely building and one that was totally at one with both the High Street and the new Victorian development in Queen Street.

In 1971 the entire block was demolished and replaced with the building shown right. Much of the High Street had already been rebuilt from scratch in the 1950s, along with Paris Street, South Street, nearly all of Sidwell Street not to mention Catherine Street, Bampfylde Street and a whole area where Bedford Circus used to stand. The replacement building is truly hideous and could scarely be more inappropriately sited.

Yet again, it is difficult to comprehend the mentality of both the city council and the architects who were involved in the decision-making process. It was just the most indefensible act of vandalism, although it is perhaps emblematic of the mindset of the local authority throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when it came to valuing Exeter's historical buildings. I can understand the need for retail outlets in the city centre but there were surely other ways of accommodating it without resorting to the total demolition and destruction of a visually important element of Exeter's surviving historic cityscape. As the Pevsner and Cherry guide to Devon states, the building is a "classic example of the insensitive arrogance of urban design of the time". In my opinion it ranks as perhaps the single most ugly piece of architecture in the entire city, outstripping such horrors as the whole of Sidwell Street, Concord House, Renslade House, the old Debenhams department store and the new Princesshay development.


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