Thursday, 13 August 2009

A County Divided: County Hall Nottinghamshire

N. B. Following article is an ongoing research project on CLASP design. Comments and references welcome. Sorry for the footnote links not working correctly.

Fig 1. Two County Halls bonding ‘awkwardly’. While the modernist half relates to the riverbank, the neo Georgian predecessor seems more in-tune with the South.

Politically Nottinghamshire is a divided county and this is in someway reflected in the architecture of County Hall. The Trent generally marks the severing point between those more inclined to vote Labour or Tory; in general terms, north and west are the more collectivist coal fields and in the south and east are a conservative cluster of agricultural villages. Elections are historically decided in the West Midlands, although the East Midlands and particularly Nottinghamshire is also a region where polling day has been closely fought. More interestingly it is also a home to moderates - those on either side of the political divide who have sympathies with their counterparts. Historically, the economics of consumer manufacturing in Nottingham was of course very different from the heavy industries of the North, or the small industrial specialties of London.[i]

For free market fundamentalists or militant socialists, Nottingham has an unfavorable reputation. The Tory Ken Clarke's pro Europe views have landed him unfavorable headlines in the right wing press. While the local miners' history of strike-breaking has often overshadowed their will to support non militant action and negotiation.
[ii] Although the reputation of moderates doesn't always illicit such antagonistic responses; A J Mundella and the lace and hosiery workers were pioneers of arbitration and class conciliation.[iii]

Fig 2. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: Civic conservatism and difficult to photograph.

County Hall also comes in two parts and it is worth remembering at this point how Labour became a stronger party in the new Nottinghamshire coalfields after the nationalisation of mines reduced the influence of the neighboring aristocracy in the post war period.[iv] The first part of the Hall is the grand, incomplete and piecemeal 1930s NeoGeorgian grandeur by Emanuel Vincent Harris, who was famous for his inter-war civic gestures; Sheffield City Hall, Leeds Civic Hall, Bristol County Hall and Manchester Central Library. The second part of Nottingham County Hall is the modest and functional prefabricated steel and concrete post-war modernism. Elaine Harwood rightly states that these two buildings ‘bond awkwardly',[v] while the architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner is in no doubt about his own preference, describing the Georgian half as "dead as mutton", while he praises the 1960s extension.[vi].

Fig 3. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: Statue of
homoerotic miners.

Fig 4. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: The entrance, built with Portland Stone and Winchester brick, which gives it an appearance more often associated with the south of England

Fig 5. County Hall part II by CLASP: Overhead walkways – built for the camera.

The modernist half was designed by The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) and County Architects, this particular CLASP design predates the widely acclaimed York University Building. To some, post war British state school building was among the best in Europe - the most famous example being Hunstanton Comprehensive in Norfolk. Nottinghamshire CLASP buildings won RIBA awards, and were noted for schools such as New Ollerton and Sutton in Ashfield, which were spring loaded in order to withstand mining subsidence and to function as community centers. These designs were later adopted in other mining areas and countries prone to earthquakes.[vii] Considered by critics as a non-idealistic consumer modernism (how very Nottingham),[viii] these CLASP designs won the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale in 1960.[ix] Similar to the prefabs of Charles and Ray Eames, although less individually stylish, they were more easily reproducible - almost straight off the conveyor belt. Is this what Caruso St John are referring to with Nottingham Contemporary’s concrete panels? Maybe not but the fact that production line modernism is built in Nottingham is significant. It must be said that aesthetics of these schools are somewhat modest and over the years they have been poorly subsidised in comparison to their private rivals (Nottingham High or Loughborough Endowed) but they have always been socially and educationally more vital to local communities.[x]

Fig 6. County Hall part II by CLASP: Prefabricated concrete and steel frame, which was replicated throughout Nottinghamshire’s public sector buildings; such as fire stations, schools and offices.

Fig 7. County Hall part II by CLASP: Similar to Alva Alto’s Scandinavian modernism.

[i] P. Hall, ‘England circa 1900’, in H. C. Darby, (ed.), A New Historical Geography of England After 1600 (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 374 – 446.

[ii] Andrew Taylor, The NUM and British Politics 1969 – 1995 (London, 2005) p.191.

[iii] W. H. G. Armytage, 'A. J. Mundella as Vice-President of the Council, and the Schools Question, 1880-1885', in The English Historical Review, Vol. 63, No. 246 (London, 1948), pp. 52-82.

[iv] Robert J. Waller., The Dukeries Transformed : The Social and Political Development of a Twentieth Century Coalfield (Oxford, 1983).

[v] E. Harwood, Nottingham, (London, 2008), p. 161

[vi] N. Pevsner & E. Williamson, Nottinghamshire, (London, 1979), p. 248.

[vii] A. Blanc, M. McEvoy and R. Plank, Architecture and Construction in Steel (London, 1993), p.170

[viii] N. Whitely, Rayner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, (London, 2003) p. 152.

[ix] The Independent, 11th January 2002, Henry Swain,

[x] Pevsner, Nottinghamshire, p. 75.


  1. I'm intrigued as what similarities you see between the CLASP County Hall extension and Alvar Aalto's modernism.

    Oddly enough, there are later CLASP buildings in the county, particularly those which made use of interesting combinations of glazing, tile panels etc. in the 70s that I would have said have a much more "Scandinavian" feel.

  2. The riverside CLASP block at County Hall always struck me as more successful than the "computer block" which [AFAIK] was a more utilitarian later addition.

    However, reading this some twenty plus years after working briefly at County Hall and Trent Bridge House, it was the curiosities of the E Vincent Harris building that set me Googling.

    In my days working with the planning department, I heard tell of a folk myth that there had originally been a plan for a massive tower that would have dwarfed County Hall.

    I've spent years thinking that this was just a wind-up of new staff. But what do I find on the newly digitised Royal Academy Collection website but this:
    Not just a tower, but a bloody campanile!

    I'm also intrigued by those statues outside the front entrance colonnade. When I worked there I was less concerned by any hint of homo-eroticism than by what at the time I thought was their distinctly Socialist Realist character. With the benefit of hindsight, they look closer to the buildings of later Italian fascism. (And I can also see some contemporary Italian touches in Harris's Manchester Central Library

    But who sculpted them? Oddly the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association database doesn't appear to include them, even though it does have the 1992 Spanish Civil War Memorial.

  3. Yes I think your right - that's a half baked thought. Maybe I noticed some similarities with Arne Jacobsen:

    But either way that reference is not good enough. Lazy.

    Will investigate other builds in the County and East Midlands in the near future - if you have any recomendations please let me know.

  4. Aha! Just read your second comment. Hells Bells! Yes I had read about the tower, but never seen until now that it is.

    That's absolutely huge, certainly put it on par with Manchester and Leeds in that respect I guess.

    I can tell you who sculptered them... Robert Kiddey (1939) and there is also a foundation stone by Eric Gill of the same year somewheree

    Thank you for the links - most useful. Certainly altred the course of this article. Many thanks

  5. Having just had a good bath, I realise now that the premise that the clash of architecture was due to the divided political nature of the county is a little wobbly - I would have to prove such things with Council minute meetings etc.

    As with Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, the change at Notts is more likely to be a part of the general shift towards left leaning ideas and modernism in England after the Second World War....