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‘Money Spinners’: R. Seifert & Partners, Sir Frank Price and Public-Sector Speculative Development in the 1970s

  • Ewan Harrison
Abstract

This article examines an unexecuted example of the work of the prolific architectural practice R. Seifert & Partners designed for a site in central Birmingham in the 1970s. R. Seifert & Partners worked largely for developer clients, and this type of speculative architecture has been little studied by historians of the period. The particular example of the practice's work examined here reveals a complex network of architects, planning facilitators and client organisations that, crucially, spanned the public and private sectors.

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NOTES

1 ‘Seifert Skyrise’, Building, 21 April 1972, p. 59.

2 An undated article in the Estates Times gives the number of architects employed by the practice as 300. Copy in London, RIBA Library. Biographical File: Richard Seifert.

3 The lack of a practice archive means that it is impossible to be definitive about the number of commissions completed by the practice. Seifert's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that the practice was responsible for over 600 office developments in London alone — possibly a somewhat inflated figure.

4 Calder, Barnabas, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (London, 2016), p. 207.

5 George Rosie, ‘Seifert on Our Skyline’, Sunday Times Magazine, 13 February 1971.

6 Calder, Raw Concrete, p. 213.

7 ‘Seifert Skyrise’, p. 59.

8 See Ortolano, Guy, ‘Planning the Urban Future in 1960s Britain’, Historical Journal, 54 (2011), pp. 477507 (p. 482), with reference to Fred Pooley's North Buckinghamshire New Town plan.

9 See Gunn, Simon, ‘The Rise and Fall of British Urban Modernism: Planning Bradford, circa 1945–1970’, Journal of British Studies, 49.4 (2010), pp. 849–60; Shapely, Peter, ‘The Entrepreneurial City: The Role of Local Government and City-Centre Redevelopment in Post-War Industrial English Cities’, Twentieth Century British History, 22.4 (2011), pp. 498520; Smith, Otto Saumarez, ‘Central Government and Town Centre Redevelopment 1959–1966’, Historical Journal, 58.1 (2015), pp. 217–44; and Gold, John, The Practice of Modernism: Modern Architects and Urban Transformation, 1954–1972 (London, 2007).

10 Otto Saumarez Smith, ‘Central Government’, p. 235.

11 Richard Seifert interviewed by Louise Brodie, National Life Stories Collections: Architects’ Lives Series, at https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Architects-Lives/021M-C0467X0005XX-0600V0 (accessed on 30 January 2018).

12 London, RIBA Library. Biographical File: Richard Seifert.

13 Calder, Raw Concrete, p. 208.

14 Marriott, Oliver, The Property Boom (London, 1969), p. 15.

15 Ibid.

16 Lionel Brett, ‘The Developers’, Architectural Review, September 1965, pp. 165–67.

17 The developers Charles Clore, Joe Cotton, Felix Fenston and Harry Hyams all rose to prominence in this period, largely with the institutional backing of the Prudential Assurance. Others, like Max Rayne, forged alliances with historically long-established owners, such as the Church Commissioners. See Sampson, Anthony, An Anatomy of Britain Today (London, 1965), p. 466.

18 Marriott, The Property Boom, p. 137.

19 Gavin Stamp, ‘Seifert, Richard’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/76406 (accessed on 13 March 2018).

20 It appears that Richard Seifert generally led in negotiations between clients and local planning departments. Once the available envelope for a building was fixed, he allowed the lead partner a free hand in designing the completed building. This was certainly the case at Centre Point.

21 Davenport-Hines, Richard, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo (London, 2013), p. 186.

22 London, The National Archives [hereafter TNA], AN 169/925, St Pancras: Somers Town Goods and Coal Yard.

23 Michael Barrymore Dunn (personal communication).

24 TNA, AN 111/529, Railway Sites Limited Correspondence and Papers 1961–68.

25 Esher, Lionel, A Broken Wave: The Rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (London, 1981), p. 140. The Euston Station site was eventually redeveloped in the mid-1970s in a different political climate, with a speculative office development designed by R. Seifert & Partners.

26 Papers in the Post Office archives reveal that the GPO was aware of the BTC's speculative land developments.

27 John Hall, ‘This Clore Touch at the Post Office’, Daily Mail, 26 April 1961, p. 8.

28 Ibid.

29 London, Post Office Archives [hereafter POA], POST 122/8969 (Part 1).

30 Ibid. No depictions or plans of this scheme survive.

31 POA, POST 122/8969 (Part 1). This position was debated over a period of several months, with different GPO officers advancing contradictory positions. Although the solicitor's office eventually concluded that the Act did not explicitly forbid GPO property speculation, this climate of confusion appears to be the major reason the scheme was shelved at this date.

32 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

33 Harold Bolter, ‘New Look GPO Ready in About a Year’, Financial Times, 1 November 1968.

34 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

35 Bolter, ‘New Look GPO Ready in About a Year’.

36 POA, POST 69/81, POB (68) 27 Property Development.

37 Ibid.

38 This was not generally the case. See, for example, Seifert's failed attempts to negotiate for the redevelopment of British Rail and the nationalised Freight Corporation's St Pancras Goods Yard as an office and printing works for Rupert Murdoch's News International in the early 1970s. TNA, AN 169/925, St Pancras: Somers Town Goods and Coal Yard.

39 ‘Post Office: Leaping on the Property Merry-Go-Round’, Architects’ Journal, 12 April 1972, p. 771.

40 William Wolfe, ‘Cashing in on the Old Stamping Grounds’, Daily Mirror, 20 February 1974.

41 Sir Price, Frank, Being There (Leicester, 2002), p. 117.

42 An unexecuted scheme for the site is illustrated in the January 1962 issue of the Architect and Building News. The scheme was eventually completed by Seifert associate Ivor Sarkin to different designs in the mid-1970s.

43 Marriott, The Property Boom, p. 151.

44 Birmingham City Archives [hereafter BCA], MS 1611/B/10, Banner Theatre Papers: Post Office Preservation Campaign.

45 Dunleavy, Patrick, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945–1975: A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (Oxford, 1981), p. 277.

46 Ibid.

47 Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing, p. 292.

48 Sir Griffin, Francis, The Birth of the National Exhibition Centre (Birmingham, 1984), p. 155.

49 I have found no evidence to date that R. Seifert & Partners worked for Labour Party Properties or Telford New Town, although, given the lack of a practice archive, it is difficult to be definitive about the practice's full list of clients.

50 TNA, MT88/283, Formation of Canal-side Marinas Ltd.

51 Captioned image in the Architect and Building News, 21 June 1967, p. 1064. This notice predates the announcement of the marina developments by the British Waterways Board, which suggests that Price and Seifert had an eye on commercially viable sites since before Seifert joined the board.

52 ‘Notes: Three Cons in the Fountain’, Private Eye, 2 December 1972, p. 24

53 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

54 Price, Being There, p. 364.

55 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

56 Sharr, Adam and Thornton, Steven, Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat (London, 2013), p. 251.

57 Smith, Otto Saumarez, ‘The Inner-City Crisis and the End of Urban Modernism in 1970s Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 27.4 (2016), pp. 578–98 (p. 581).

58 Scott, The Property Masters: A History of the British Commercial Property Sector (London, 1996), p. 195.

59 Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Other England (London, 1964), p. 93.

60 Nairn, Ian, Nairn's Towns (London, 2013), pp. 2, 11.

61 Arthur Osman, ‘Birmingham’, The Times, 8 June 1972. Quoted in Sandbrook, Dominic, State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (London, 2011), p. 186.

62 Denis MacShane, ‘Birmingham Smells Corruption’, New Statesman, 20 February 1976.

63 Ibid.

64 Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing, p. 293.

65 ‘Notes: Birmingham Sharp's Ville’, Private Eye, 20 April 1973, p. 23.

66 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

67 Gunn, Simon, ‘Ring Road: Birmingham and the Collapse of the Motor City Ideal in 1970s Britain’, Historical Journal, 61.1 (2018), pp. 227–48.

68 BCA, MS 1611/B/10, Banner Theatre Papers: Post Office Preservation Campaign.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

74 Ibid.

75 ‘Building: All-Rigged’, Private Eye, 26 May 1978, p. 18.

76 ‘Record: The Post Office…’, Architects’ Journal, 13 August 1975, p. 308.

77 John Fryer, ‘What Will Queen Victoria Face Next?’, Sunday Times, 9 April 1972.

78 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

79 BCA, MS 1611/B/10, Banner Theatre Papers: Post Office Preservation Campaign.

80 Ibid.

81 From an undated clipping in the Birmingham Mail, ibid.

83 ‘Birmingham: Post Mortem’, Private Eye, 6 February 1976, p. 17.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid.

86 Ibid.

87 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid.

92 Ibid.

93 Ibid.

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid.

96 ‘Building: All-Rigged’, Private Eye, 26 May 1978, p. 18.

97 TNA, BT 363/39, Post Office Powers — Property Development (1976–79).

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid. The memo separately mentions that the Victorian Society's alternative scheme for the site had received a positive reaction locally.

100 BCA, MS 1611/B/10, Banner Theatre Papers: Post Office Preservation Campaign.

101 Ibid.

102 Introduction’, in Architecture and the Welfare State, ed. Swenarton, Mark, Avermaete, Tom and Van Den Heuvel, Dirk (London and New York, 2015), pp. 124 (p. 4).

103 Mattson, Helena, ‘Where the Motorways Meet: Architecture and Corporatism in Sweden 1968’, in Architecture and the Welfare State, ed. Swenarton, , Avermaete, and Heuvel, Van Den, pp. 155–76.

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