… and, many would say, good riddance. As the demolition of the DoE's former headquarters on Marsham Street begins, Matthew Richards looks back at the lifetime of the ugliest building in the country.
Last month, as thousands queued to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother in Westminster Abbey, they were unaware that, around the corner, another British landmark was waiting to be laid to rest. However, there was not a single mourner to lament the passing of the former Department of the Environment headquarters on Marsham Street. The set of office blocks created by the late Eric Bedford, the government's chief architect from 1950-70, were collectively regarded as Britain's ugliest building and at the beginning of April, demolition contractor Brown and Jackson moved in to dismantle them.

"It's a cause for great celebration that it's going to be pulled down," said Genie Turton, director-general of the DTLR's urban policy and planning group, speaking at the Civic Trust awards last month. Former environment secretary John Gummer recently called it "staggeringly and revoltingly offensive, ugly, unhygienic and unsafe". The concrete slab, whose towers were known as the three ugly sisters, took a decade to build. It was finished in 1971, housed the DoE for 25 years, and has stood empty since 1997.

"My abiding memory of the place is menacingly long corridors with endless drab green doors," says Paul Howard, who joined the civil service fast stream in the early 1990s and quit after a year. He says: "It was a classic example of the new brutalism of the time. It was aesthetically hideous, and on a completely inhuman scale."

Peter Harrop, second permanent secretary at the DoE in the 1980s, was one of the lucky few in the north tower to have a spectacular panoramic view of central London with Westminster Abbey in the foreground. He recalls that if you worked high up in one of the 60 m towers, "you could see people in other towers only by going down 17 floors, going across, then up again". To make matters worse, the lifts only worked intermittently. Another M&E inconvenience was that the building was never fitted with air-conditioning, and Harrop says it could get very hot in the summer – but he defends his former workplace by pointing out that you could at least open the windows. He displays a touching loyalty to his department's former home, saying: "It was no gem architecturally, but I thought it was a reasonable building."

June Cook, who lives nearby, used to work in the civil service club in the office complex's basement. She says it is "a horrible building". The place also has bad memories for her first husband, who worked on the site when the building was going up and witnessed harrowing scenes when a wall collapsed on his colleagues.

The building is particularly unpopular with politicians, which might explain why the government signed its death warrant.

Mo Mowlam, former arts minister Alan Howarth, former environment secretary John Gummer and former construction minister Nick Raynsford all named it as their blunder in Building's "Wonders & blunders". In fact Marsham Street has appeared as a blunder 11 times – more times than any other building.

Brown and Jackson is scheduled to complete demolition by September next year, making way for a £311m Terry Farrell-designed Home Office building, due to open in spring 2005. Farrell's design rises a mere six stories, but still provides more office space than Bedford's podium and towers, and leaves room for an apartment block and "pocket parks" between buildings. For this government site at least, things can only get better.

Monstrous comments

What they said about Marsham Street in Building’s Wonders & blunders column:

I am struck by the fact that it has absolutely no relation with the surrounding architecture. It is both unsympathetic and depressing, and it depresses me every morning. It is inappropriate for any public building to look so awful.
July 1994
Mo Mowlem (shadow heritage secretary)

Three great slabs putting up three fingers to their surroundings. So badly built that netting is essential to protect passers-by from bits falling off. No feeling of uniqueness or of a single mind in charge.
September 1994
John Gummer (secretary of state for the environment)

It was a building of its time, and became outmoded before anyone moved in. Nowadays, criticising it is almost a reflex action for anyone interested in architecture.
September 1995
Francis Golding (secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission)

The Marsham Street building exhibits no imagination or creativity. It is simply three Swan Vesta matchboxes on end and leaves the people in it feeling quite bereft of soul.
May 1998
Alastair Balls (chief executive of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle)

Rarely has a building so depressed me. Its scale, form and aspect make the external appreciation a painful experience. Once inside, I feel an even greater sense of gloom. October 1998
Alan Yates (chairman of regeneration consultant Dearle & Henderson)

There couldn’t possibly be a worse representation of what the DoE was supposed to be promoting in design, environment and sustainability.
May 2002
Jim Coulter, chief executive of the National Housing Federation