Friday 9 April 2021

A nostalgia for an age yet to come - RIP the Civic Centre, London Borough of Hounslow (1976 - 2021)

Taking a break from the films for a moment for a bit of personal history.

How nostalgic is it possible to get about a building, albeit a (relatively) modern one? The Civic Centre of the London Borough of Hounslow, designed by the Council's Borough Architect George Trevett, was built in 1975, opened in March 1976, and existed for just over 44 years. That's not a great innings for a project which, at the time, officially cost £4.9 million (although I heard rumours of a much higher figure, something approaching double that). Contrast this with the former Town Hall, which was built in the 1880s and demolished around a hundred years later, ironically to make way for a hideous and largely unwanted shopping centre.

Its construction aimed to be the final piece in a jigsaw that united three distinct Council areas into one London borough via a 1965 Act of Parliament. The Act recognised the need to centralise decision making and eliminate waste created by 'local' local government. Unfortunately 10 years is a long time in politics, and the opening of the Civic Centre coincided with central Government beginning its policy of reducing the public funding of local authorities; the building became a potential white elephant almost as soon as the staff had moved in.

I started work there on 6 November 1978, aged 17, and despite the often mundane nature of the business going on inside, the building never failed to amaze me (the pictures accompanying this post don't really do it justice). Its orange and brown mid century modern stylings (much of the original interior design had been imported; the rumour ran that the company who provided the materials went bust, so the borough was forced from the outset to make building repairs from other sources, leading to the cohesion of the original look being quickly lost) captured my teenage imagination in a unique way: I felt that I was working on the set of a Gerry Anderson TV series. 

If you're around my age (very late fifties) you'll recall the familiar lament of my generation that we thought we'd be living in an episode of The Jetsons by now, all aerial living and labour saving devices. Well the Civic Centre didn't exactly fulfil the dream, but it did recall the already-out-of-date-but-still-strangely-futuristic look created by Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer for the interiors of Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that had left a lasting impression on me when I saw it in the ABC Hounslow aged 8.

The Civic Centre was my first permanent place of work; the open plan nature meant that I was suddenly thrust into occupying an office with over a hundred people. The building was designed as four interconnected pavillions on two floors, each serviced by a rest area - complete with resident tea lady - and with a restaurant, games room, bank and (this was to be my downfall) bar on the premises. I cannot describe what it was like to, effectively, move straight from the classroom - no University for me - to this adult environment. 

It was my first time watching adults argue in front of me (something my parents never did), occasionally throw punches, and of course get drunk; sometimes at their desk. I fell in love there, did a lot of stupid things (walking into the Borough Valuer's office after a lunchtime drinking session and commenting to him that the building plan on his desk looked "a bit crap if you ask me" being one of them), and, eventually, became ground down with the relentless tediousness of office life.

But if the future of the Civic Centre had started looking bleak in the mid 1970s, by the early 2000s (long after I left in 1992) the writing was on the wall. Trevett's dream was a part empty shell; successive years (decades) of Government cutbacks had created a revolution in the way that local government, formerly a rather wasteful institution, now provided complex services pretty efficiently with around half its original staff. The building in which they worked was now much less important than forty years previously; a positive thing, but also one which left the Civic Centre woefully underoccupied, expensive to run, and arguably an embarassment rather than a flagship. 

The postscript to this is that the remaining Council staff moved out to smaller, more eco-friendly premises nearby and as of January this year, the demolition teams had moved in to pull down the Civic Centre and, in its place, build luxury flats.  I'm not going to pass judgment on whether those places will be given to those in housing need or sold to make profits for developers, although a look around at the rest of London indicates the latter.

Whatever happens, the physical erasure of a place where I spent 14 years working will always be a sad thing, but luckily my memory can help me out here. All I have to do is close my eyes and, like the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's 'The Shining,' the building comes alive all over again. 

Rest in peace you weird and wonderful monolith.


  1. I'm always saddened by the 'erasure' of places from my youth, and, ironically, the civic centre in my town is being 'proposed' for demolition on the grounds that it's a bit grubby. I'd say it's still structurally sound, and no doubt some high-up council employee wants to make his mark on the town by getting a new building erected, and the simplest way of doing that is by demolishing an old one. Also, decisions are often arrived at by the fear of losing money in the budget if they don't use it by a certain time. How many pointless decisions have been arrived at I wonder, just so that the council could spend money. I resent the landscape changing, and sometimes think I woke up in an alternate universe where some things are the same, but far too many things are different. Your civic centre looks like a great building - shame it's no longer there.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It's interesting that some London boroughs - my own, Lambeth being one of them - have gone down the 'flagship building' route which, in view of post COVID new ways of working, may now cause them problems. Agree about the money - the Quarter 4 spending spree as older local govt types used to call it - where Directors were worried about retaining any form of surplus at the end of the year. Those days are long over of course.