The Council House is an icon for the City of Nottingham, often featuring in articles or on covers of Nottingham guide books. The Old Market Square, known as Slab Square locally, is another attraction.
A Striking City Centre Landmark on Old Market or "Slab" Square
It was not always the case. It is a mixture of Classical and Renaissance styles with a Wrennish dome that was already being overtaken by more modern styles when it was built in 1926-9.
Criticism and Plaudits - Everybody has an opinion
As late as 1951 Pevsner wrote in Buildings of England “Not much can be said in defence of this kind of neo-Baroque display at a date when the Stockholm Town Hall was complete and style congenial to the 20th century finally established. Wren has to answer for much.” As a result the Council House was only given a dozen, mostly critical, lines in the Nottinghamshire volume.
Pevsner was more positive about the tee-shaped shopping arcade with its high glazed roof and shops running all around the ground floor sides and rear. Under the dome at the crossing are brightly coloured murals depicting events in Nottingham’s history and the Robin Hood legend. An inscription sets out the buildings purpose as: “Merchandise, Welcome, Council and Crafts”.
There had been suggestions since 1899 that the old Exchange, which sat on the same site, should be replaced but it was not until the early 1920s that the need for better offices became a necessity.
T Cecil Howitt - Architect
To the irritation of many architectural practices there was no open competition for the assignment to design the Council House. Instead it was undertaken entirely in house. The Chairman of the Estates Committee, Herbert Bowles, gave the work to the young City Housing Architect Cecil Howitt (1889-1968) who went to establish a major reputation.
Howitt’s original scheme was reworked to include councillors’ demands for a council chamber and mayoral suite which resulted in the more overtly classic style of the building.
A Working Public Building As Well As a City Centrepiece
At the front of the building are the committee rooms and council chamber which look out on to the Old Market Square. Behind the facade there is a public hall which has a first floor balcony between the three storey Ionic columns above a full width entrance arcade. It has a short flight of steps the width of the building flanked by two stylised lions by Joseph Else who also designed the Grecian figures in the pediment. The lions have long been used as a meeting place and will feature in most Nottingham family albums as children are still photographed sitting on the lions.
Clock and the Little John Bell
The old Exchange had a clock in its pediment and the Council House has one in its dome. Within the dome is the bell Little John which chimes the quarters and can be heard as far away as Dorket Head, 6 miles North of the city, on a quiet day with the wind in the right direction.
The Old Market Square and 21st Century Redevelopment
Part of Howitt’s scheme was a formal square with a processional way, fountains and flower beds. This was used to full effect when the new Council House was opened by the Prince of Wales on 22nd May 1929.
However by the end of the 20th century it was not so appropriate to less formal times and in 2003 an international design competition was started for a design for a new Slab Square as it often known locally. This was partly funded by the European regional Development Fund.
The winning design by Gustafson Porter is a wide open, largely flat, space with seating terrace along Long Row on the North side which is in sun all day and a modern and dramatic water feature of pools, running water and fountains at the Eastern end. It was opened in May 2007 with a series of events and parties.
Slab Square - New Uses: Attraction and Venue in its Own Right
The Old Market Square was at the heart of the shopping centre in Nottingham until the malls at Broadmarsh and the Victoria Centre were built in the 1970s. Slab Square is frequently used for food and other markets and has featured a temporary giant Ferris Wheel (The Nottingham Eye). An open air ice skating rink is built in the square over the Christmas period which has proved popular – that would never have been possible with the former Old Market Square.
For many Nottingham people the changes are still not liked but it seems to be well used; especially by families with young children. Being flat and open makes it a much more versatile a space than the old formal layout. No doubt the change will eventually become accepted as has the Council House itself.
First appeared on Suite101