In any competition for the most brutalist building in the country, the Admiralty Citadel on the edge of St James’s Park and Horse Guards Parade must have a chance of winning first prize. Ever since Winston Churchill dismissed it as “a vast monstrosity”, ministers and civil servants have been free to castigate it. The only solution so far has been to cover it with Virginia creeper in the hope that nobody will notice it. See photograph.
It was never meant to be pretty, just functional. Built at the beginning of World War II as our bomb-proof last defence against a German invasion, it was the equivalent of Hitler’s bunker. When all else failed, this is where what remained of our defensive forces would repel the German army as they marched up The Mall through the gun turrets that still exist. True grit.
According to rear Admiral R K Dickson DSO, chief of naval information overseas service, speaking in 1945, the Citadel could withstand a siege. He said: “If you went down there at this moment, you’d find 80 girls working teleprinters to all the naval headquarters in Britain and the continent…That citadel is just a maze of machinery and conveyor belts. One week last year in secret messages alone, the Admiralty handles over 1.3 million groups of naval cipher.”
In October 1955, John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree) made a not untypical comment about the Citadel in the House of Commons: “Considerable sums have been spent on the nearby Carlton House Terrace, yet immediately opposite, standing between the Mall and Horse Guards Parade, the Citadel seems to be resigned to being the ugliest building in London. Up to now the Ministry of Works has seemed not to care for this most valuable site, built out of keeping with the splendid facade of John Nash or even of the more modern building of the Admiralty to which, despite a splash of common brick due to the Blitz of the last war, is not an unsightly building. The granite of the Citadel is hideous enough and an offence to the architecture of London.”
This plea fell on deaf ears and the Citadel is now brutalism’s last stand, as no one wants to take a decision to pull down its nine metres-deep foundations and 6.1 metres thick concrete roof. If they did, they would unveil an attractive hidden section of the Admiralty building behind it. The roof of the Citadel, judging by aerial photos, is liberally endowed with soil beds, presumably to camouflage the site from enemy planes.
Among suggestions for improvement are to face the outside of the structure in Portland stone with statues at strategic places. Better still would be to transform it into a living garden with dozens of perfumed plants, such as Jasmine or Philadelphus. With a bit of luck it might even become a tourist attraction as the Hanging Gardens of London with a swimming pool on top. Dream on.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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