The confrontation between the Classical Revival (based on Greco-Roman principles of symmetry and proportion) and the Gothic Revival (based on the pointed arches and pinnacles of English medieval cathedral-building) dominated this country’s architecture in the nineteenth century. There is very little Victorian Gothic in Norwich but the Classical influence endured well into the twentieth century as the preferred style for temples of commerce. It took World War II and the post-war clearances before the modern took hold.
At the beginning of the century, George Skipper designed his masterwork for Norwich Union: “Without any doubt … one of the most convinced Edwardian office buildings .
In 1926, FCR Palmer and WFC Holden designed a ‘splendid’ building for the National Westminster Bank in London Street. Pevsner and Wilson wrote that it was modelled on a Wren city church: “One would assign a much earlier date to it .”
And as late as 1929 “a kind of Renaissance ” style was employed for the large Barclays Bank on Bank Plain that replaced the C18 bank of Gurney & Co, formed as an amalgamation of Quaker banking interests.
Below, the Stuart Court apartments in Recorder Road show that the Arts and Crafts Movement also survived into the C20. These were built in the manner of almshouses by ET Boardman; he had married into the Colman family and designed the Dutch-gabled houses in memory of his brother-in-law James Stuart who had been concerned about the poor quality of housing for the elderly. The Dutch gables are a perfect example of vernacular revival in a city whose population at one time contained one third or more religious refugees from the Spanish Netherlands.
Behind the traditional facade the Stuart apartments were built around reinforced concrete but this material, and metal framework, had been used in the Boardman practice for decades. In fact a more forward-looking kind of architecture – neither Gothic nor Classical but proto-modern in the suppression of detail – had been introduced to the city by Boardman Senior with his factory buildings nearly half a century earlier.
In 1912, Bunting’s Drapers and General Warehousemen of St Stephen’s Street was constructed by Norwich-based architect AF Scott using non-traditional techniques. Here, an internal steel support was clad with stone curtain-walling but there was still a diffidence in giving it a more modern external appearance. Instead, the building was decorated in a genteel Classical Revival style, the stone panels beneath the windows carved with ‘Adam’ swags.
The structure was topped by a cupola of the kind that George Skipper had used as a signature on his buildings around 1900 .
After WWI the city’s priority was to build, in Lloyd George’s words, “homes fit for heroes”. This involved massive slum clearance followed by a programme of local authority house-building that led to 40% of the population living in council houses by the end of the 1950s . The most notable of the municipal estates was at Mile Cross, north of the city centre (1918-20). This was the council’s first foray into large estate building, for which they engaged Stanley Adshead, the first Professor of Town Planning at University College London, who laid out the estate on Garden City principles .
Variety was achieved by modifying standard house plans. Local architects such as George Skipper (a long way from his ‘fireworks’ of the turn of the century) and AF Scott (better known for his work on Methodist chapels) adapted these to reflect early C19 Norwich neo-Georgian housing; others incorporated Arts and Crafts details, such as pin tiles on the first floor elevation that seem more reminiscent of Kent and Sussex than Norfolk .
While social housing was adhering to the traditional, a revolutionary new international movement was evolving. In 1927 the Bauhaus, founded in Germany by Walter Gropius, began teaching a new kind of architecture in which reinforced concrete was used to produce sweeping layers, its minimalist horizontal lines emphasised by long runs of ribbon window.
It would be some years before the International style took hold in Norwich. Diffident nods towards Modernism were provided by the rounded steel windows of the Streamline Moderne version of Art Deco: first at the former Abbey National Building Society offices in London Street …
… and in the Pottergate Tavern.
Pevsner and Wilson  presumed the pub to have been designed by J Owen Bond, a protégé of George Skipper, possibly because of the much larger building he is known to have designed with similar Streamline Moderne influences. J Owen, third son of Robert Bond, designed this replacement for his father, whose department store was damaged by bombing in WWII. A follower on Twitter said that her neighbour could see the flames from Arminghall, to the south of the city.
By sticking with its medieval Guildhall throughout the C19, Norwich missed out on the grandiose Victorian town halls erected by its competitors in the industrial north. In the late 1930s Norwich did build a new city hall and Pevsner and Wilson  wrote that it “must go down in history as the foremost English public building of between the wars.”
The essentially plain style was borrowed from the Swedish Classical of Stockholm’s City Hall with the colonnaded portico of that city’s Concert Hall. But, because of these backward-looking references, architectural historian Stefan Muthesius felt that the term ‘modern’ didn’t quite apply to Norwich City Hall .
Instead, Muthesius awarded the accolade for the city’s first real International Modern-style to David Percival’s City Library, opposite the City Hall. Percival had come from Coventry in 1954, “then the hot-bed of civic-minded modernism”; as Norwich’s new City Architect he designed the new library, which was completed in 1962 and burned down in 1994.
Percival was responsible for introducing mainstream Modernism into Norwich’s postwar public buildings though he strove to soften its hard edges with regional references, especially on domestic-scale projects. By tempering Modernism with the local spirit, Percival is credited with pioneering the Vernacular Revival style . The impact of massed concrete panels on the library, for example, was moderated by pre-cast panels of split-flint cladding (although a glance at the nearby Guildhall shows just how far this was from vernacular techniques).
Perhaps the most famous example of Vernacular Revival in Norwich’s public housing is the Camp Grove scheme off Kett’s Hill. Here, Tayler and Green’s signature decorative brickwork and patterned bargeboards – combined with changes in roof pitch, four different pantiles and 16 types of brick and flint – provide an unexpected degree of variation .
In contrast to the City Hall, Norfolk County Hall – built in 1966 in the International Modern style – never attracted much praise. Pevsner and Wilson dismissed it as “an ordinary steel-framed office tower.”
Other forays into the International Style, such as the eight-storey block to the right of Skipper’s building for Norwich Union in Surrey Street, were also poorly received. Never one for mincing his words, Ian Nairn thought it “a completely anonymous slab” . Evidently not a style for an ancient county town.
The 1945 City Plan envisaged a post-war Norwich in which the car played a major part . In 1971 the inner ring road split Norwich-over-the-Water: the two halves were to receive different treatments. The northern half was to be the site of the Anglia Square development with a large cinema, offices, multi-storey parking plus that symbol of the new age – a pedestrian shopping precinct. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office at Sovereign House was a key part of the scheme and it was this New Brutalist building that marked the rise and fall of the site as a whole – the HMSO pulling out well short of its 40-year lease, leaving the building derelict by the new millennium.
Currently, we await the outcome of a planning application to redevelop the entire Anglia Square site with 12-storey blocks and a 20-storey tower. The scale of the proposal shows that no lessons have been learned from the brief history of Anglia Square in which an ‘out of scale’  development was imposed upon a historic site. For an appreciation of the Gildencroft area see .
There was no such grand project on the city side of the inner ring road and this part of Norwich-over-the Water fared better.
In this snapshot from the evolution of office building, the 1960s curtain-walling of St Mary’s House on the far side of the St Crispin’s roundabout was succeeded by the 1970s layers of concrete and glass in St Crispin’s House, built for HMSO when permission was denied for an extension to Sovereign House at Anglia Square. A starker contrast was between the Brutalist concrete of St Crispin’s House juxtaposed against the red brickwork of 1990s Cavell House. This was part of what has been recognised as a “welcome softening of approach since the late 1980s”  for, as part of the Postmodern credo, Cavell House reacted against Modernism by providing local context missing from Anglia Square. Here, the windows on the upper floor referenced the long through-light weavers’ windows once common in this, the heart of the city’s textile trade. The flat arches heading the lower windows were borrowed from Sherwyn House, an old brush factory (now renovated apartments by Feilden & Mawson) further down St George’s Street. (See  for more about this district).
There was no such confrontation between new and old at the University of East Anglia where Denys Lasdun in the 1960s (replaced by Bernard Feilden in 1969), and Rick Mather in the 1980s, were able to build on a green-field site without planning constraints . A Teaching Wall snaked through the original scheme, separated from the residential blocks by a first-floor walkway. Lasdun’s residences consisted of a cascade of study/bedrooms forming the ziggurats that have become emblematic of the UEA.
As part of the second-phase of the masterplan, Rick Mather’s Constable Terrace echoed the serpentine form of Lasdun’s original layout but its smooth white rendering was a deliberate break from the hardline grayness of the earlier student housing.
Facing Constable terrace is the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (1974-8). Designed by Norman Foster and Wendy Cheeseman, the tubular steel exoskeleton represents what is probably this country’s first use of High-Tech industrial architecture applied to a museum or gallery. The superstructure encloses a magnificent open space, some 130 metres long, that accommodates Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury’s art collection, along with university teaching areas.
Just squeaking in at the close of the twentieth century The Forum, funded by the Millennium Commission, was begun in 1999. Designed by Hopkins and Associates the Forum replaced David Percival’s flint-clad Central Library of the 1960s, destroyed by fire. This ‘Son of High Tech’ building  houses BBC studios, a restaurant, a café and what has become the most popular library in the country. The jaws of the horseshoe-shaped plan are closed by a glazed wall that – in a display of good manners – withdraws from, rather than confronts, the glorious St Peter Mancroft opposite.
©Reggie Unthank 2020
- Nikolaus Wilson and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Vic Nierop-Reading (2013). Twentieth-century Norwich in a nutshell. Norfolk Historic Buildings Group Newsletter No.25 pp 14-15.
- Mary Ash and Paul Burall (2019). Norwich leading the Way: Social Housing. Pub: The Norwich Society.
- Stefan Muthesius (2004). Architecture since 1800. In, ‘Norwich since 1550’ by Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson pp 323-342. Pub: Hambledon and London.
- John Boughton (2018). Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. Pub: Verso.
- Elain Harwood and Alan Powers (1998). Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing. Pub: The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture.
- Ian Nairn (1967). Norwich: Regional Capital. Reprinted, with an introduction by Owen Hatherley, in Nairn’s Towns (2013). Pub: Notting Hill Editions.
- CH James and SR Pierce (1945). City Plan of Norwich 1945. Pub: Norwich Corporation.
- Charles McKean (1982). Architectural Guide to Cambridge and East Anglia since 1920. Pub: ERA Publication Board.
Thanks: to David Rimmer, Martin Shaw, and Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk.
Sue Roe said:
Fascinating, Colonel Unthank. Norwich truly is a palimpsest.
reggie unthank said:
Yes, it’s a wonderful place to see the layering of history. Thank you Sue
Don Watson said:
A splendid look at ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of twentieth century architecture in Norwich. The buildings in each of those three categories will vary from person to person – probably the only one almost universally thought ”ugly’ would be the Central Library burnt down in 1994. Of the other buildings scattered across our city I have always liked the Co-ops ‘house’ style in various places plus of course both the Bakery on Queens Road and the department store (now Wilkinsons) at the top of St Stephens. Keep up the good work and we’ll make you an honorary Norvicensian.
reggie unthank said:
I agree with your thoughts about the old Library. Not a joyous building. And thanks for the fast-tracking with the Norvicensian honour, I had been told it takes three generations.
That HMSO building is simply the best-it defies description or belief. I remember as a kid driving from the coast to Norwich, and each time we passed it thinking it must be a spaceship landed on earth that no one had noticed but me.
reggie unthank said:
The HMSO building divides opinion more than any other in Norwich. An alien spaceship describes it.
James Utting said:
Another excellent and well-researched instalment, Reggie!
Having been fortunate in receiving tutelage in architectural history from Dr. Muthesius, there is nothing I would disagree with…
Even with a degree of knowledge, it is all too easy to navigate the city ignoring the familiar and your input helps to awaken, or re-kindle, enthusiasm for all (or some) of that which surrounds us.
reggie unthank said:
It was Stefan Muthesius’s book on the English Terraced House that made me look more closely at the houses around me. How fortunate to have been taught by him.
Clare Pooley said:
Excellent, Reggie! Thank you.
reggie unthank said:
Thank you Clare
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Dave Howes said:
Great article. Thanks.
I am sure it has been said before but the picture of Mile Cross, Appleyard Crescent, must have been the inspiration for the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.
reggie unthank said:
Thanks Dave. I had never heard of the comparison between the aerial photo of Mile Cross and the Star Wars ship. So obvious now you mention it.
Mike Revell said:
Your article takes a nice balanced view of this and last century’s architectural additions to Norwich. Safe to say that opinion is going to be sharply divided as to whose work belongs on the bench and whose in the dock.I have to nail my colours to the mast here and say that the former Central Library, in my opinion, is one of the finest public buildings to come out of the ’60s. The County Archive photo doesn’t do it justice- like any of our Cathedrals the building was meant to be seen from ground level. Only then did you get the effect of unfolding space and contrasts in mass which is what architecture is all about. From high up the whole place looked as though it was made out of Lego. Down on the ground the use of flint panelling outside worked brilliantly and the large amount of wood in the interior gave warmth. the view from Lady Lane was terrific! Maybe not a joyous building but a calm, characterful and inviting one I used to go there a lot and am still much saddened at the loss here. In Birmingham for decades we had a Brutalist eyesore for a main library “….built to incinerate books , rather than to keep them.” This was replaced by something like a shoebox with paper-clips stuck to it and a toilet roll put on one end. I think that we are still far worse off …….. MGR.
reggie unthank said:
I remember the previous City Library well, Mike, but never learned to love it. Reggie