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The Post Office Tower

June 27, 2011 3 comments

I saw one of Andrew Marr’s excellent Making of Modern Britain programmes again over the weekend, the one covering the turbulent times between the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, when Messrs Wilson and Heath were constantly trying to get one up on each other (sound familiar?)

One aspect that caught my attention was the Post Office Tower, as this iconic building formed a major part of my Architectural Diploma project when I was at the old Polytechnic of Central London back in the early 90’s.

The Post Office Tower was conceived in the mid to late 1950’s as a solution to the increasing number of telephone calls being made across the country. Construction began in the summer of 1961, and 4 years and £9m later, the tower was officially opened by Harold Wilson, who took full credit for this perfect technological example of Labour’s White Heat of Revolution.

The Tower was truly a marvel. The tallest and most expensive building in Britain at the time, it was designed to house a combination of transmitting equipment and receiving aerials as well as public observation decks and the Uk’s first revolving restaurant (initially operated incidentally by Butlins). It also had flexibility designed in so that new technologies could be accommodated…

By the early 90’s with the advent of the unimagined digital exchanges however, much of the main body of the tower was empty and the restaurant had been closed for many years due to security reasons.

The umbrella approach to our final diploma year, under the tutelage of one Kevin Rowbotham, was parasitic buildings: the re-using of all or part of an existing structure and its services to create a new form of “plug-in” architecture.

We all had to choose a London building to infect, and as one of the most prominent buildings in London, it struck me as perverse that the BT Tower (as it was by then) was also the most inaccessible and secretive. I actually phoned up and wrote to BT (on PCL headed paper as advised) trying to organise a trip to the top for me and the rest of the year, but with no success. So I chose the Tower and looked at transforming it into something more appropriate for the times…

Armed only with blind naivety and encouragement from the tutors, and through a combination of fractured coloured glass, external lifts, recycled telephone directories, spray paint, collage and lighter fluid transfer of photocopies, I set out to transform the tower into a brightly lit and highly visible reminder of what it is I thought our nation did best, by creating the worlds first vertical shopping centre…

No don’t laugh, this is what architectural education was like back then (probably still is actually). Who cared whether it worked, or how practical it was, or whether it would benefit your professional career, as long as it was a strong idea, slightly controversial and Kev could get a good image out of it….

You can decide that for yourselves, as I’ve managed to unearth some of my final scheme images… and remember this was all done BC (before computers) when machines were very expensive, and few and far between, so all those lines were drawn with a pen….

There are a number of excellent sites dedicated to the PO Tower here, here and here (I do like Jonathan Glancey…)

I’ve also found a pretty cool Rank film called Eating High from their Look at Life series which is intersting….

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