In 1901, The Builder showed Charles Barry’s scheme for government offices next to the recently built Houses of Parliament. The magazine returned to the topic of MPs’ offices in 1999 with Michael Hopkins and Partners’ controversial Portcullis House, due for completion early in the next millennium. A dome was built to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951, and another is the centrepiece of the year 2000 celebrations. And prefabrication appeared as a quick, easy and cheap way of building homes after the Second World War, only to be hailed as the way ahead for construction firms chanting the Egan mantra at the end of the century.
The Builder did not celebrate the turn of the century in 1900, leaving that to “misguided persons … destitute of the first elements of both arithmetic and logic”. The magazine was at pains to explain that “the 20th century commences with the first year after 1900”, telling readers to wait until 5 January 1901 to experience a “feeling of a certain solemnity and importance in the entrance upon a new cycle of a hundred years”. But tragedy struck in the first year of the new century: Queen Victoria died after 64 years on the throne, marking the end of the era of empire. The mood of change was reflected in the growth of suburbia, the introduction of town planners to the construction profession and the opening, in 1909, of the first rapid transit link between north and south London, the first section of the London Underground Northern Line.
Then, in 1914, the country’s early optimism was abruptly snuffed out. The horror of the First World War changed attitudes to politics, religion and morality; society altered irrevocably. The Great War also had a dramatic effect on building costs. By 1920, prices had rocketed to three times their 1914 equivalent.
The high wages that followed the war – a result of the shortage of workers – were whittled away rapidly during the early 1920s. In 1924, the threat of lower pay and the use of unskilled men to build homes brought about the first nationwide building strike, followed two years later by the General Strike.
The depression set in. Building prices fell accordingly during the late 1920s and 1930s. At the height of the depression in 1932, almost one in three construction employees were out of work. Prices took a turn upwards after 1933, just before the first two chimneys of London’s Battersea Power Station started smoking in 1937.
In 1939, the world was thrown into turmoil once again. The Second World War had a profound effect on construction; indeed, respondents to Building’s recent readers survey overwhelmingly nominated Adolf Hitler as the individual who has had the greatest influence on the industry. Massive bombing campaigns caused the wholesale destruction of great European cities. At the end of the war, building costs again increased sharply to almost double the cost in 1939.
The post-war period was marked by the Festival of Britain in 1951. London’s Royal Festival Hall was completed for £3m. A celebratory dome was also constructed as part of the festivities, but this was just a fraction of the size of the Millennium Dome, with a diameter of only 365 ft.
Extensive public building programmes helped to keep the industry in good health during the 1960s, but the 1970s were a rollercoaster ride for construction. Prices rocketed 35% in 1972, and the following year, the oil crisis, the three-day week and the miners’ strike all added impetus to spiralling prices. By the end of 1973, building price inflation had soared out of control at 107%.
What followed in the 1980s was a boom-bust cycle. In 1988, construction orders peaked at £26.3bn. London Docklands was redeveloped as a monument to Margaret Thatcher’s deregulated economy.
But the new order did not last. Thatcher’s reign came to an end in 1990 and, by 1992, 3830 construction firms had become insolvent. On the upside, the early 1990s saw the completion of a great civil engineering feat as the £10bn Channel Tunnel finally connected the UK to the Continent.
And the century is ending on an upbeat note. Construction output is at its highest since 1990. The country is marking the start of the new millennium with a monument to compare with anything built for the Festival of Britain: the £800m Millennium Dome. Queen Victoria’s empire may have disintegrated, but the Jubilee Line Extension is up and running. Just.