Conserving Plymouth: the city that dared to dream

Even as the blitz reduced the historic Devon port city to rubble, plans were afoot for major reconstruction. Now its remarkable hybrid city centre has been designated as a conservation area

It’s a recurrent yearning, after an urban catastrophe, to rebuild better than before, to take the opportunity to clear away the mistakes of the past. Phoenixes tend to get mentioned, and their well-known ability to rise from ashes. Often it doesn’t work out as planned. Vested interests muscle in. The exigencies of recovery take over from high ideals. Christopher Wren’s thwarted attempt to rebuild London along more rational lines, after the great fire of 1666, is only the most celebrated such failure.

Plymouth, though, lived the dream. It rebuilt following a plan that was drawn up while the war that devastated its centre was still raging. “Out of the disasters of war,” it was declared, the plan would “snatch a victory for the city of the future”. “With the return of ‘community’”, it was hoped, “will come the spirit of companionship unknown to the youth of yesterday who vainly sought it in the car or the cinema.”

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