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Perth Telephone Exchange excluding interior, 1-5 Canal Crescent, Perth

A Category C Listed Building in Perth City Centre, Perth and Kinross

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Coordinates

Latitude: 56.3947 / 56°23'41"N

Longitude: -3.4334 / 3°26'0"W

OS Eastings: 311614

OS Northings: 723419

OS Grid: NO116234

Mapcode National: GBR 1Z.12M0

Mapcode Global: WH6QC.7J9K

Entry Name: Perth Telephone Exchange excluding interior, 1-5 Canal Crescent, Perth

Listing Date: 14 August 2019

Category: C

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407017

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52481

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Perth

County: Perth and Kinross

Town: Perth

Electoral Ward: Perth City Centre

Traditional County: Perthshire

Description

The Perth telephone exchange building was designed and built 1957-60, by H M Office of Works, with Alfred Charles Shallis as chief architect. It consists of a two and three storey L-plan exchange block with a four-storey curved and glazed administration/office wing adjoining to the west and slightly set back from the street. The third floor was added to the exchange wing by Baxter, Clark and Paul around 1970.

The building is constructed with a reinforced concrete frame, comprising square concrete columns and floors. It has a polished black stone base course. The exchange wing is predominantly rendered with smooth margins including picture windows. The south end wall and part of the west wall of the exchange wing and the west end wall of the office wing has roughly squared, snecked and tooled red sandstone cladding.

The curved administration/office wing has a full height, metal-framed glass curtain wall at its front and rear elevation, except the ground floor of the rear elevation which is rendered. Each bay is four windows wide and separated by full-height concrete fins. There are infill panels above and below the glazing. The entrance is off-centre and to the right and accessed by steps. It has two-leaf timber entrance doors flanked by timber side panels and there is a zig-zag cantilevered timber canopy over the entrance. In the west end wall the fourth floor window is slightly advanced.

In the west wall of the exchange wing and slightly off-centre to the left, are door openings each with a ledge at each floor.

In front of the building are cobbles and setts laid out in a diamond pattern.

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following are excluded from the listing: interior.

Historical development

The Perth telephone exchange was built in 1957-60. It was designed by H M Office of Works with Alfred Charles Shallis as Chief Architect (Dictionary of Scottish Architects).

A 1934 article about the developments of the telephone system in Scotland noted that the Perth telephone exchange was the fourth largest in Scotland (after Edinburgh, Dundee and Leith) at this time. Perth s previous telephone exchange had been in the General Post Office building on the High Street (now demolished), as was typical for early telephone exchanges. A purpose built telephone exchange building in Perth was first discussed around 1937 when the Post Office were looking for a site for a new and urgently needed telephone exchange (Dundee Courier, 1937). Newspaper articles from 1939 note that a large area of land, which includes a brewery, off Canal Crescent had been sold to the General Post Office for a new telephone exchange. It is assumed that the outbreak of the Second World War delayed the building of the Perth Telephone Exchange.

In the 1970s a third floor was added to the exchange wing, to designs by Dundee based architects Baxter, Clark and Paul. They copied the style and architectural detailing of the original building so this floor, at first glance, does not appear as an addition.

Statement of Interest

The Perth Telephone Exchange is an architecturally distinctive example of a mid twentieth century industrial building. Its modern Brutalist design is particularly expressive of the modern telecommunication technology, with a distinctive curved administration wing set back from the street line. Built during the peak period of construction of large telephone exchange buildings with a substantial administration wing and operators' rooms, it is directly illustrative of the telecommunication technology of the period. It still remains in use as a telecommunications building and externally is largely unaltered since the 1970s.

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following are excluded from the listing: interior.

Architectural interest

Design

The size and design of telephone exchanges from every period is varied. Small exchanges can be single storey, utilitarian brick buildings with little or no architectural embellishment. Larger telephone exchanges, in city centres or large towns, may have offices attached and usually have a greater degree of design quality.

The creation of a state-operated telephone network after 1912 led to the oversight of buildings by H M Office of Works and a standardised approach being taken to design for exchange buildings across the United Kingdom. Buildings were typically designed around the amount and size of equipment required and in the expectation that they were to be extended. It was not uncommon for a building to later increase by twice the size of the original capacity of the switch and apparatus rooms, in order to accommodate an increase in telephone subscribers.

The peak of this state-sponsored programme of building was in the early post-war period (1940s – 1960s). The design of telephone exchanges typically combined the institutional architectural style of the period, and after the Second World War these buildings adopted a conservative modern design often featuring flat-roofed horizontal blocks with expansive window arrangements. Exchanges of this period typically had an overtly functional plan and form, created by an open plan concrete frame with stone or brick cladding detailing, particularly to the administration wings and street elevations. The exchange section was usually plain and rendered and picture windows are typical.

Standard designs were used all over the country but in some specific more prominent city locations exchange buildings were given a higher degree of architectural treatment. As telephone usage continued to increase, some of the more prominently located buildings were designed to reflect the ambition and modernity of the technology and to demonstrate civic pride. Some of these buildings exploited a modernist architectural language which typically used horizontal blocks on slender columns, concrete construction and extensive glazing.

Notable listed examples of telephone exchanges of this period include the Fountainbridge Telephone Exchange (1948-52) in Edinburgh (listed at category B, which has sculptural bow ends and vertical strip glazing, and the Waverley Telephone Exchange (1964) in Edinburgh which is geometrically designed with strong compartmentalised facades.

Perth Telephone Exchange's modernist design is particularly expressive of the modern technology contained within the exchange itself. The building is a good example of the Brutalist architectural style which had emerged at the end of the 1950s where the construction materials are exploited and exposed in the buildings' design – usually represented by steel, glass and concrete. The lifting of post-war building restrictions in 1953 ensured that the architects could fully exploit the properties of steel framed construction which allowed for a dramatic curve in the elevation expressed by a glass curtain wall. A very distinctive and unusual component of the design for this building type is the prominent curved administration wing. Slightly set back from the street line it has a curtain wall elevation, with a significant expanse of glazing that is unusual, separated by full height concrete fins. The entrance canopy is also a distinctive feature of the building's design. In this part of the building, there is more internal subdivision by non-bearing partitions to create offices, staffrooms and a former canteen in the upper floor level

The building has been constructed using a reinforced concrete frame, with a grid pattern of square concrete columns. This allowed the whole building to be open plan so rooms could be arranged by function and equipment, as well as easily expanded. This overtly functional plan form is typical of exchanges of this period and adds to the interest in listing terms.

The floor height in the exchange wing was determined by the height of the main distribution frame and automatic exchange equipment and remains unaltered. The reinforced concrete floors could also take the heavy load of the equipment and during this period this was a cheaper alternative building method than steel framed construction.

Telephone exchanges of this period were either designed by HM Office of Works or by private architectural firms commissioned by the Office of Works. The Perth Telephone Exchange was designed by Alfred Charles Shallis who worked for HM Office of Works in the 1950s. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects records that he had an Edinburgh address for some period (although he did not relinquish his London address). The Perth Telephone Exchange is only one of three known buildings he designed in Scotland. The other two, both for the ministry, are Possilpark Post Office exchange and King's Barracks in Dunrod.

The exterior of Perth Telephone Exchange has not been significantly altered. As noted above, telephone exchanges were designed with expansion in mind, as was the case here. The 1970s addition and alterations follow the original design of the building to the extent that at first glance it appears to be part of the original design. This addition was by Baxter, Clark and Paul, who were one of the largest architectural practices in the United Kingdom. Their commissions were wide-ranging and included a lot of work for the public sector. They designed extensions/additions for six telephone exchanges. (See Dictionary of Scottish Architects).

As was typical for telephone exchange buildings, which were built to house large switching equipment over large floorplates, the interior is relatively plain and functional. There are no exceptional architectural fixtures and fittings evident, either seen in person or from photographs.

As the technology has improved, leading to the reduction in size of telephony equipment and human operators are no longer required, a proportion of the building is no longer occupied and equipment has been removed. This includes most of the office/administration wing. There is no special interest in the interior fixtures and fittings and this is excluded from the listing.

Setting

The telephone exchange has an urban setting, in the centre of Perth. This setting is typical for telephone exchanges as they are typically built close to subscribers.

The modern Brutalist design and scale of the telephone exchange make it a distinctive building on Canal Crescent, which is largely characterised by two or three storey 19th century tenement buildings. At the southeast end of Canal Street there are two early to mid-19th century commercial and residential buildings, (97 Canal Street, Mucky Mulligan's, LB51363) and (1 Charterhouse Lane and 2 and 4 Canal Crescent, LB39401). The northwest entrance to Canal Street is bounded by two tenements; a late 18th century tenement at 3 King Street and 32 Canal Crescent (LB39505) and an early 20th century tenement at 220 South Street and 17 Canal Crescent (LB39648). The telephone exchange itself was built on a former industrial site (occupied by a brewery). It is not located on one of the main streets in the city centre, but as it is larger than many of the buildings surrounding it, parts of the exchange are visible from the surrounding streets.

The building is located in Perth Central Conservation Area.

Historic interest

Age and rarity

A telephone exchange is the technical process that connects telephone calls between subscribers. When the Post Office became the sole supplier of telephone services across the United Kingdom, in 1912 (except a few remaining municipal services, there followed a period of rapid expansion, with 450 new exchanges opening across the United Kingdom over the next three years (www.btplc.com). Whilst the First World War temporarily halted progress after 1918 the service continued to grow as the price of phones dropped.

Telephone usage grew dramatically in the 1930s with the United Kingdom rising from being tenth on the list of worldwide telephone usage by telephone density to third (Robertson, p.37). Consequently the number of exchanges required increased.

The Post Office had hoped to eliminate manually operated exchanges (where calls are connected by an operator) by 1941, but this progress was halted by the Second World War. After the war a significant number of new and very large automatic telephone exchanges were built by the Ministry of Works coinciding with the dramatic soar in private telephone usage in the 1950s and '60s. A great number of existing telephone exchanges were also expanded.

Areas with a higher density of telephone of subscribers required larger exchanges Between the end of the Second World War, but notably from around the mid 1950s (after the lifting of building materials restrictions in 1953) and 1970 the Dictionary of Scottish Architects has records for over 50 telephone exchanges (designed, built or contracts awarded) in Scotland.

The mid-20th century was therefore a peak period of large exchange building before the technology changed dramatically with the eventual privatisation of telecommunications in 1981 after British Telecommunications became an independent company from of the Post Office and the subsequent gradual move to digital technology. More recently the primacy of digital telecommunications has rendered large exchanges with administration wings obsolete. In 2018, 5,600 telephone exchanges are recorded in the United Kingdom, 315 of these are in Scotland (SamKnows 2018).

Substantial telephone exchange buildings are found in city-and larger town-centres throughout Scotland and the building type is not rare in this context. As the technology developed from its inception in the 1880s, the buildings increased in size and capacity. Because of its association with the Post Office the earliest exchange buildings were typically in a style appropriate to public buildings at the turn of the twentieth century which was usual neo-classical or Baroque in design. Throughout the 20th century these buildings predominantly followed architectural trends of the day and from the 1960s onward could be extremely plain, functional buildings.

In 2018, there were 13 purpose-built telephone exchanges that are listed. The majority of these were built before the Second World War. Listed telephone exchanges built immediately after the Second World War include the Moderne style Fountainbridge Telephone Exchange, Edinburgh (1948-52) (listed at category B, LB44933) and the Modernist style Waverley Telephone Exchange (1964) (listed at category B, LB51018) and Woodcroft Telephone Exchange, Edinburgh (1958-1960) which has been demolished (listed at category C, LB50035).

The Perth Telephone Exchange was built during a peak period of the telephone's technological development, when national and international telecommunications were being further developed and during the significant expansion of the Scottish communications network in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this context it is not a rare example of its building type. However, it is an architecturally distinctive example of a telephone exchange which is also largely unaltered externally. It is directly illustrative of telecommunications technology of this period, as it includes a large administration wing and large operators rooms, a component that was no longer required soon after as the technology changed.

Social historical interest

Perth Telephone Exchange is directly illustrative of Scotland's modern telecommunications infrastructure immediately after the Second World War. Its design includes a distinctive glazed administration wing, a component that later telephone exchanges no longer required because of the improvements in automated and later digital technology.

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