London’s Oxford Street is usually to be found thronged by tourists. It’s inner London’s premier shopping destination along with Regent’s Street, which it intersects at Oxford Circus. I’m not sure what all the tourists are there for, because the best local attraction isn’t on Oxford Street itself but on the next road north. Exit Debenhams department store not by its Oxford Street doors but by those at the back, on Henrietta Place, and you’ll find this:
Welbeck Street multi-storey car park is a fine example of that rare thing, a multi-storey car park which isn’t a blot on its local landscape. It was built between 1968 and 1970 to a design by architecture practice Michael Blampied and Partners. It goes without saying that its most notable feature is its extraordinary exterior, on which repeated geometric modules made of precast concrete form a repeating pattern. It’s extremely dramatic, almost hypnotic. This is no mere facadism either. The modules are load-bearing, supporting the car park’s internal decks from the edge so that there is no need for internal columns in the car park. Thus does this car park earn unending gratitude from anyone who has ever had a close encounter with a squared-off concrete supporting pillar of the sort to be found in most other multi-storey car parks. The modules are also designed to dispel rainwater as efficiently as possible, reducing water staining on the concrete; Irish Millwhite aggregate was used in the concrete to give a pale finish.
I’ve yet to find the exact name for the shape of the concrete modules used on the exterior of the car park. Statutory heritage organisation Historic England describes them as V-shaped, which they clearly aren’t. I’ve also seen them categorised as triangular, but that won’t do either as they definitely have five sides. Diamond-shaped say others, but really they mean cross-section through a stereotypical diamond cut, even though there are other ways of cutting diamonds. Non-equilateral pentagon is the best I can come up with.
With open centres, these pentagons let light into the car park’s interior, which is otherwise of a lot less interest than the exterior (as you can see here). Units of a different shape form a parapet along the top of the car park, while yet another version is used along the edges, allowing the repeating pattern made by the units to turn the corners without breaking up the pattern. In fact the only break in the pattern comes halfway along the south side of the car park, where a vertical brick wall breaks the facade in two, and the pattern drops by half a row height. In doing so, the exterior reflects what is going on inside. Welbeck Street car park uses a split-level design, in which car parking levels branch off from a central set of ramps, offset from each other by half the height of a floor. This allows for very space efficient ramps, in which the turns of the ramps are formed from the floors of the car park decks.
At ground level, an arcade has mosaic tile detailing in some arches, whilst others have large porthole windows serving the retail units behind.
Welbeck Street car park’s location behind Debenhams is no coincidence. The flagship store was planned in the 1960s, at a time when Westminster Council required such projects to provide car parking spaces as part of the development. Although a mere support facility for the Debenhams store, the architecture of the car park is so much better than that of the store that no-one has ever given the Debenhams store building much thought, yet the car park has found its way onto lists of high-quality yet not well-known London architecture.
The car park is not just a well-designed building then, but a reminder of a time when a planning authority could require a huge multi-storey car park to be built before it would approve plans for a large shop in the centre of a city. Today, planning obligations would probably require a developer to demonstrate how they would ensure that local car traffic would not increase as a result of such a development.
At the time Westminster Council was simply following the general mentality of urban transport planning which had been set by the extremely influential 1963 report Traffic in Towns by Colin Buchanan on behalf of the Ministry of Transport (Buchanan is in the picture below, on the right, with Minister of Transport Ernest Marples). In the world of British transport planning this is one of the great contributions to transport policy, and if you study a transport degree you absolutely have to read it. I did, so I did, and I was therefore thoroughly embarrassed to realise that 22-odd years later I’d forgotten pretty much everything that was in it. That’s a bit like a doctor fessing up to forgetting the Hippocratic oath. In my defence, I ended up working more on the public transport side of transport planning, but still, this is rather embarrassing. So I’ve been back to have a quick look.
Strangely, Traffic in Towns is one of those reports that all sides have used to advance their views on urban traffic. Traffic in Towns has been cited to advocate improved roads and car access into towns, to claim that cars are an environmental menace, and to say that pedestrians should have priority over cars, which should be kept well away from them.
Traffic in Towns was written against a background of expected rises in car ownership, and the prediction that people would come to use cars a lot more. That’s come true, though not to quite the extent predicted in the report. It was concerned that congestion would put a brake on economic activity (which has also come true). It recommended that towns that were able and willing, not least financially, to do so should rebuild themselves to allow easier car access, though it also noted that in historic city centres that might not be feasible or desirable.
However, it recognised that pedestrians didn’t mix easily or safely with heavy traffic, and proposed measures to keep traffic off city centre streets. An ideal might be to rebuild a city centre to allow cars to get close and park in multi-storey car parks, while the city centre itself was reimagined as pedestrianised precincts. That’s how Westminster Council ended up requiring a car park to be built behind the new Oxford Street Debenhams. However, London represents a typical British bodge-up of half-baked implementation of expert recommendations. Although the provision of the new Welbeck Street car park reflected part of Traffic in Towns’ recommendations, most of London’s nearby streets remained fully open to car traffic, with little thought given to provision for pedestrians. Only Oxford Street saw a ban on use by private cars, and anyway is now so choked with buses and taxis trying desperately to avoid the large number of people crossing back and forth that its buses generally move more slowly than pedestrians on the pavements. Plans for its complete pedestrianisation have existed for decades and are infamous for being talked about, agreed as a good idea, and never implemented.
The few towns that really went for full rebuilding along the lines suggested in Traffic in Towns generally employed gloomy Brutalist architecture of poor quality, and pedestrian segregation schemes featuring underpasses that bordered on the terrifying. Such schemes for town centres got the Traffic in Towns approach to car and pedestrian segregation a very bad reputation. Perhaps if the design flair to be seen at Welbeck Street had been employed instead, such schemes might have been better received.
Traffic in Towns also has a poor reputation amongst those who think it was part of the now largely discredited ‘predict and provide’ approach to traffic management, in which traffic growth is forecast, and facilities (roads, car parks) built to serve it. The usual result is that those new facilities fill up with newly-generated road traffic, creating further congestion and air pollution problems. Today the approach is more geared towards reducing car traffic itself by promoting alternative means of sustainable transport or reducing the need to travel so much in the first place. But in the early 1960s, the general mindset was that car travel was the way forward, with bus and train travel perceived as yesterday’s modes of transport, and cycling given no formal consideration. It was, after all, minister of transport Ernest Marples (at the same time the majority shareholder in a road construction company), who commissioned Traffic in Towns in the first place.
In the end, simple economics has spelled the end of bringing cars in to city centre car parks. With land values in city centres rising, car parks simply aren’t an economic use of space, especially in London. The land on which Welbeck Street stands was valued at £30m in 2014, but its owners sold it for a reported £100m earlier this year to a hotel chain which reckons the site could be used for a hotel development worth around £600m. There is just no way a car park could ever generate revenues to match this sort of money. The sale went through after Historic England refused to grant the car park protected status through the listing regime. It liked a lot of the car park’s features but reckoned that geometric structural exteriors were done better on buildings like nearby Centre Point, and that the ‘weaker’ ground floor arcade was not as accomplished as the rest of the building.
In an ideal world, the car park’s exterior would be retained for the new hotel, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It would be a tricky conversion, especially given the split level nature of the building. If I were you, I’d go and see Welbeck Street car park for yourself, before it’s too late.
Further Reading and Bibliography
More on the potential demolition of the car park, here
NCP’s official page for the car park, which completely fails to make the most of its iconic architecture as a reason to park there, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.