Last-ditch bid to save Derby’s postwar modernist gem from bulldozers

When Derby launched a competition for the redevelopment of its marketplace in 1970, the winning design was said to be “architecturally effective whatever the function” and praised for its “excellence of conception”.

Created by the famous architectural duo Hugh Casson and Neville Conder, the Derby Assembly Rooms was at the centre of city life for decades, hosting acts such as Van Morrison, Elton John, the Clash and Take That from the 70s into the 90s, as well as countless graduation ceremonies, beer festivals and pantomimes over the years.

Now the building is facing the prospect of demolition, after lying vacant for six years since a fire in 2014. Last month Derby city council’s planning committee voted in favour of knocking it down once a redevelopment plan for the site is approved, and its fate now lies with the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, who will determine whether the decision should be called in for scrutiny.

The move has provoked fierce opposition from residents and conservation groups, including Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, who feel its loss will be a major blow for Derby and its history – a loss that won’t be fully realised until further down the line.

A similar threat is facing scores of architecturally significant buildings across the country. The Twentieth Century Society is taking action against the destruction or redesign of seven historic department store buildings, and has concerns about another 23 at risk due to the collapse or restructuring of retail chains.

Proposals to demolish eight buildings in the Fleet Street and Whitefriars conservation areas in London to create courts, a police headquarters and offices are also opposed by heritage campaigners, who claim this would desecrate a celebrated view to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Speaking about the Derby Assembly Rooms, Otto Saumarez Smith, an architectural historian and assistant professor at the University of Warwick, said: “It really should have been listed – it’s the most important postwar building in the county. It’s a relative rarity to have something of that calibre in a provincial city.

“It is of its period and I am very aware not everybody loves it, but it’s just a terrible failure of imagination to demolish something which is there and solid and well built, and does a lot of work tying together the slightly disparate city centre.”

Chris Stone, a member of Derby Civic Society, has been campaigning to save the building for years. “It’s underappreciated,” he said. “I think people look at it and they don’t really know what they’re looking at, it’s a problem with modern architecture. We need to have a good look at refurbishment and not just write it off.”

The Assembly Rooms’ fate has hung in the balance ever since the 2014 fire in the plant room of an adjacent car park, which left the main building untouched but damaged its ventilation system.

In January 2018 the council, then led by Labour, announced plans for a new £44m music and performance venue on the site, following public consultation, but when the Conservatives took control of the council later that year they committed to refurbishment instead. Planning permission was granted in 2019 and work began to remove asbestos, but when costs crept up to over £30m, the council pulled the plug on the project.

Rachel North, deputy chief executive of Derby city council, said the question of whether to keep the building was complex. “The building is important, but it isn’t the only issue,” she said. “The issue is the city and how we make it a more coherent, effective, dynamic and creative place for people. The cost of refurbishing it is so high that actually to demolish it and put something different on that site would perhaps give us extra advantages.”

The long, flat building with its blocky appearance and geometric design is a forlorn presence on the edge of Market Place today, and residents were split over whether it should stay or go, with some describing it as an eyesore and others sad to see its demise.

“I just don’t know why they don’t maintain the things they’ve got and reinstate them,” said Mary Oxspring, who owns the nearby Quality Florists with her sister, Penny, who added: “It just seems like a waste of money when there’s a building already there. It just wants renovating. It’s not like it’s falling down.”

Like many people in Derby, they have fond memories of going to the Assembly Rooms over the years to see everything from major pop concerts to community theatre.

Summer Fielding, 17, performed in dance shows there as she was growing up and said if it were replaced, she would like to see some of the building’s original character preserved. “I’d like them to keep similar features but make it look a bit nicer,” she said.

“I’d be quite happy to keep the building, but if they are going to get rid of it, we want them to build something back the same as we’ve got,” said her grandfather, Norman Fielding, adding that he wasn’t impressed with council plans to build an arena in another part of the city.

The council is in discussion with developers about the future of the site in a post-Covid city landscape. North said one idea was to reconnect it to its marketplace roots.

But others are adamant the building should be part of the solution. “It’s tough but it seems like the wrong time to bulldoze through with these plans, when you’ve got something which could be part of the recovery,” said Saumarez Smith. “We shouldn’t be living in a world where we demolish everything every 50 years.”

Comments are closed.