Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
The New Barracks, 1967–70
In June 1956 the War Office made its proposal to demolish the Victorian buildings and erect a new barracks on the same site. Writing in the following February, William Hare, the Secretary of State for War, dismissed the old buildings as 'completely out of date'. (fn. 3) A year later Basil Spence was given a brief for the project. No other architects are known to have been approached. In November 1959 he officially accepted the commission to rebuild the barracks, 'to your own design', using the Ministry of Public Building and Works' general specifications for army barracks. (fn. 4)
Once again, the government had turned to an architect in private practice to come up with a prestigious design for what was almost certain to become a controversial project. A few years later, and the question of conservation of the old buildings might have been an important consideration. But as in the 1860s and '70s, it was the apparent inadequacy of the site for the necessary buildings, their likely impact upon Hyde Park, and the opportunity for improving the park offered by demolition, which were the principal points at issue. Victorian campaigners had believed that the site belonged to the public and should be cleared of buildings and restored to Hyde Park. As one writer had expressed it in 1865, 'to build a range of mansions or a lofty barrack here would be sacrilege'. (fn. 5)
Dilapidation, obsolescence, and, perhaps just as importantly, the unsympathetic light in which Victorian architecture was still generally viewed in the 1960s, had revived the old controversy. Despite all the objections to Spence's designs that were to be raised, none seems to have been made to the complete destruction of the Victorian buildings, although in 1958 F. J. Root, Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Works, had checked with the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Paul Baillie Reynolds: 'I assume that we do not regard these buildings as worthy of preservation but it would be useful to have your confirmation'. (fn. 6) In early 1960 the initial plans, centred on a high tower, were submitted to the Royal Fine Arts Commission and (a matter of courtesy only, since Crown immunity exempted the barracks from normal planning controls) to the London County Council (LCC).
The Fine Arts Commission saw architectural merit in the design, but was generally against high buildings being built on the fringes of the royal parks, and felt that the tower would 'seriously damage local amenities'. Besides, 'it would be the more regrettable if the Government itself were to be the first body to put up a building of this height in such a position'. (fn. 7) John Profumo, who had taken over as Secretary of State for War, expressed his disappointment at the Commission's reservations: 'to avoid undue delay Spence is going ahead with another project designed to meet the objections of the commission, but, oh dear, it does seem a pity if we are to lose what promised to be an imaginative and attractive piece of architecture'. (fn. 8) Spence's alternative design placed the married quarters in a much lower 'slab' block instead of the tower. The Fine Arts Commission thought this preferable, but was concerned that it made the development at the west end of the site too dense. (fn. 9) Spence's own view was that a tower would cut out less light to the park than a slab block, and would not prevent people in buildings over the way from seeing across the barracks to the park. He cited the example of Bowater House near by, where the architects' original plans for a high tower had been rejected in favour of a lower but bulkier building. The Commission was, in due course, won round to the original concept. The adoption of a tower block made it possible to meet two crucial requirements of the barracks brief – a bigger riding-school, and a paradeground large enough to mount both squadrons of cavalry, something impossible in the former barrack yard. (fn. 10)
The LCC had been involved with the Fine Arts Commission in drawing up a policy for high buildings in London aimed at limiting such buildings to just 100ft, and now objected to a tower block so near to the boundary of Hyde Park. In particular, it was unhappy about the relationship of the tower, as viewed from the park, with a group of high buildings then proposed to be built at Knightsbridge Green (see page 93). More fundamentally, the LCC felt that the barracks tower would be without visual or civic significance in relation to the district as a whole – a point block without point. (fn. 11) The only aesthetic justifications for erecting towers were held to be, either that a single tower should mark a 'nodal' position in the cityscape, or that a group of towers should form a carefully arranged cluster. In the case of the barracks, Spence had apparently believed that his tower would group itself with the higher Knightsbridge Green blocks (which were never built). (fn. 12)
/?/ Despite LCC and public opposition, Spence's original
scheme was duly adopted, the only major alteration being
the relocation of the officers' mess from the top of the
tower to a separate block at the west end of the site. (fn. 1)
The plans were officially approved at the end of July 1963.
The Builder, readily accepting the tower as the only alternative
to a slab block, which would have been 'intolerable by any
standards', nevertheless drew a depressing conclusion
from the whole controversy:
That an architect of no less eminence than Sir Basil, with the minister and the Royal Fine Art Commission behind him, can believe in the rightness of his tower, whilst a planning authority with the knowledge and experience of the LCC can believe it wrong demonstrates a tragic failure of resolution about fundamental principles of planning. (fn. 14)
The old buildings were demolished in the latter half 1965, the cavalry having been transferred to Wellington Barracks, where temporary accommodation had been provided to Spence's designs (at a cost of some £135,000). (fn. 15) There was delay when a survey of the cleared site led to the revision of certain measurements, and some re-planning became necessary. Construction, by Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons Ltd, began in February 1967, with November 1969 as the target completion date. Spence's job architect was his partner and son-in-law Anthony Blee. The structural engineers were Ove Arup & Partners. (fn. 16)
Continuing modifications to the plans made it impossible to keep to the intended timetable and budget. The crown of the tower, for instance, intended to disperse flue gases, had to be re-designed for technical reasons, while anti-corrosion and waterproofing measures in the stable block proved more involved than originally envisaged. Extra expenses were incurred to maintain a high standard of fittings and finishes. As a consequence, the buildings were not completed until October 1970 and at a cost of well over £4 million, against the original estimate of £3,175,000. (fn. 17) As late as 1974, the Public Services Agency (as the Ministry of Public Building and Works had become) initiated an investigation into the over-spend and delay. Though the Department of the Environment went so far as to issue a writ against Spence and McAlpines, eventually all accusations of negligence levelled at the architects and contractors proved unfounded. (fn. 18)
Accommodation was provided for 23 officers, 60 warrant officers and NCOs, 431 rank and file, and 273 horses. All the buildings are of reinforced-concrete construction (Plates 44, 45, 46, 47). The Corbusier-inspired treatment largely adopted was one of several reprises by Spence of the idiom first used by him at Sussex University, begun in 1960. Based on the rhythmic use of shallow concrete arches and vaults offset by contrasting brickwork (red with raked joints), it was specifically chosen here in deference to the several large buildings of red brick and stone in the vicinity. (fn. 19) Where exposed, concrete was generally left in its board-marked finish. The tower was given a quite different treatment, with its trabeated concrete structure left entirely exposed, the edge-beams with a hammered finish, and the columns and exposed ends of the cross-walls lightly ground to reveal the aggregate. Exposed concrete on the north side of the stables, alongside South Carriage Drive, was also hammered.
There are eight individual blocks, including the tower, disposed along the site, with the main entrance gateway on the north side opening on to South Carriage Drive from the parade-ground (fig. 20). (fn. 20) The intention was to separate as far as possible horse traffic from pedestrians and motorvehicles, with the former entering and leaving by the north gate, and the rest using entrances to other areas of the barracks on the Knightsbridge side. The ceremonial nature of the main gate is made plain by its large pediment incorporating the carved tympanum, by Thomas Earp, from the Victorian riding-school, the original oculus being filled by a clock (Plate 115b).
At the eastern end of the site are the Stables (Plates 46, 47a). These are arranged on two floors over a basement and connected to the yard or parade-ground by ramps which can be heated to prevent icing-over in the winter. Each of the upper floors has five parallel lines of stalls. On the Knightsbridge side there is a balcony at first-floor level, cantilevered out over the boundary wall, with a fire-escape ramp at one end. In the basement is a dung collection chamber, served by chutes, and a forage barn, with lifts to the stables. Dung passes straight from the chutes into containers which are conveyed by railway to a collection point for daily removal by lorry.
Mechanical ventilation had to be particularly powerful to keep down the ammonia content in the atmosphere of the stables (corrosive of reinforced concrete as well as noxious to health). It was also necessary to provide space for gullies to cope with frequent floor-washing, this being accomplished by casting the secondary beams supporting the floors in a trough section.
Next to the stables are two ranges at right-angles to each other and enclosing the south and east sides of the paradeground. The first is a four-storey building comprising the Junior Ranks' Mess Block. The ground floor on the west side is left open to provide a sheltered area for the guard to form up for inspection in bad weather. The mess itself is a large hall for dining and recreation purposes. Other facilities, including a club and games rooms, are on the upper floors. At ground-floor level is the Forge, comprising a shoeing-shed and a smithy with four furnaces and anvils (Plate 47b). In the basement is the saddlers' workshop.
The second range, on the south side of the paradeground, is the Barrack Block, originally flat-roofed but since raised by the addition of a mansard storey (Plate 45b). This block was designed to provide four floors of barrackrooms – single rooms for corporals and four-man rooms for troopers. The lower floors are given over to the Guard Room and offices.
West of the parade-ground is a four-storey block containing the Non-Commissioned Officers' Mess Block. In the basement are stores and workshops, and on the ground floor a gymnasium, which has a viewing gallery shared with the riding-school in the block adjoining. Under the gym is a rifle range and armoury. The mess is on the first floor, a large open-plan space combining a diningarea, bar, and dance-floor. There are mementoes of the Victorian barracks here: a stone coat-of-arms on the staircase wall, and, in the ante-room to the mess, two statues of guardsmen. The ante-room occupies the bottom of a lightwell, around which the upper-floor rooms, mostly bedrooms for individual NCOs, are arranged.
Attached to the west end of the NCOs' mess is the Riding-school. The interior, with its battered timber walls and clerestory lighting, echoes its Victorian predecessor, although, at 150ft by 50ft, it is considerably larger. The entrance is on the south side, the doors being operated electrically from a high-level control panel. The ceiling is composed of shallow concrete arches, over which the flat roof was originally intended to serve as a children's playground. (fn. 21)
Beyond the riding-school are the Married Quarters, housed in the 'Peninsular Tower', 66ft square and rising to just over 310ft with a zinc-clad crown (Plates 44a, 115a). Its principal vertical structural elements make up a core: two east-west walls running the full width of the building, two central north-south walls dividing the flats, and two columns at the edges of the north and south fronts. Floor slabs are carried on the core walls at the centre of the building, and on edge beams cantilevered out from the core.
The tower has 28 floors each containing four two- and three-bedroom flats, above which are four more levels containing box- and plant-rooms, squash courts and a viewing gallery. Boiler plant and a laundry are housed in the basement and lower-ground floor.
Immediately behind the tower are the Married Officers' Quarters, a block of eight maisonettes with car-parking underneath at parade-ground level. Seven of the maisonettes have four bedrooms; the eighth, for the Commanding Officer, has five. (fn. 22)
Separated from the maisonettes by a narrow space is the Officers' Mess, also built over a car-park. The main entrance hall is at upper-ground level, and beyond its glass walls and doors are placed the stone busts of Somerset, Raglan, Londonderry and Hill from the park front of the former officers' quarters, mounted on tall plinths (Plate 45a, 45c). Never having been designed to be seen at such close quarters, they have a rather startlingly crude appearance, with little differentiation in their features beyond the varying length of their sideburns.
From the hall, stairs lead up to the mess rooms on the first floor. Of these, the ante-room is the most impressive, rising through two floors and lit by full-height windows overlooking the park (Plate 117c). The comfortable leather chesterfields and armchairs, and the various paintings and objets retained from the earlier barracks may seem rather at odds with Basil Spence's austere angular space, though it is a contrast which he seems to have felt quite successful. (fn. 2) There is a similar clash of styles in the adjacent diningroom where the long table, silverware, and deep-red walls hung with oil-paintings are overshadowed by an obtrusive concrete bridge reached by a spiral stair, features which might seem more at home in a multi-storey car park (Plate 117d). The dining-table proved a matter of some contention. Spence's original idea that the table should be finished in dull rosewood had to be abandoned when the Commanding Officer insisted that it should be of 'gleaming mahogany … in which the image of the Regimental silver would be reflected'. (fn. 24)
A report by the army made in 1971 suggests that the occupants were favourably impressed by their new buildings. Almost inevitably, there were a number of complaints on the grounds of inadequate space: the riding-school was felt to be too narrow, staircases in the officers' maisonettes too tight for easy furniture-moving, and storage for officers' uniforms and the regimental silver inadequate. (fn. 25) Only in the officers' mess building was it felt that style had been allowed to take precedence over function, resulting in poor security, and difficulties with lighting and maintenance. The wider critical response to the new barracks was mixed, with the tower provoking the most negative responses, on account of its perceived inappropriateness to the pastoral view across Hyde Park. Building, acknowledging the flats as more or less unavoidable given the confines of the site, praised the new complex as 'elegant and immaculately detailed'. (fn. 26) Spence evidently did not feel that the brutalist style of the architecture clashed with the Ruritanian pageantry of the occupants. 'I did not want this to be a mimsy-pimsy building', he is reported as saying. 'It is for soldiers. On horses. In armour'. (fn. 27) The tower has remained a sore point with commentators: 'It is not clear', complains a contemporary guidebook, 'why living accommodation for soldiers should have been allowed to spoil 400 years of Crown and public investment in Hyde Park'. (fn. 28)