Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II may not have been as vocal about architecture as her son but she was there for the openings of many important buildings. In a celebration of her life we look at how her openings marked the decades, since the 1950s, embedded in our social and architectural history
Stevenage Shopping Precinct, Hertfordshire
Leonard Vincent, Stevenage Development Corporation, first phase constructed 1956-8
Formally opened by the Queen on 20 April 1959
The early 1950s saw battles across Britain between major retailers and planners, who championed the pedestrian precinct as a safer and more attractive way to shop. At Stevenage a local campaign by residents saw pedestrianisation win out. Vincent designed a main thoroughfare – Queensway – and central Town Square, with traffic wholly eliminated to peripheral service areas and a bus station.
The lines of shops followed a standardised grid to provide a neutral background for signage and the goods themselves, but with murals and sculpture providing colourful highlights. The Queen unveiled the central clock tower which features a map of the town in tiles. On the same day she also visited her first public house, the Pied Piper in the new town’s southern neighbourhood.
York University, Heslington, York
Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners (partner in charge Andrew Derbyshire), built from 1963 onwards
Formally opened by the Queen on 22 October 1965
The 1960s saw the Baby Boomers of the immediate post-war reach adulthood, and the building of new schools was overtaken by the demand for higher education facilities. The UK’s universities doubled in number, with nine built completely from scratch between 1959 and 1968. The vision of individual academics and solid investment from the Treasury made university building the crowning glory of Britain’s post-war architecture. Promotion by Leslie Martin, professor of architecture at Cambridge, ensured many young practices produced their finest work in this field. York University, commissioned in 1961, stands out because it combined prefabricated construction – seen as the future for large-scale, repetitive building – with a stunning landscape setting. Both elements were born of necessity: the waterlogged site had to be drained by a settlement lake and could only support lightweight structures, making the CLASP system developed to ‘ride’ areas of mining subsidence ideal.
Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London
Denys Lasdun & Partners, constructed 1969-77
Formally opened by the Queen on 25 October 1976
The 1970s saw the completion of many large, long-standing projects that mark the apotheosis of post-war rebuilding. But modernism was now the style of the establishment and the decade saw the beginnings of a reaction. Nowhere was this more evident than in the theatre, where the long, expensive building programmes of the National and Barbican theatres were decried by young actors and directors who preferred to adapt old buildings such as warehouses. They were a great impetus to the conservation movement. But the National Theatre (Royal National Theatre from 1988) remains a great building, its three auditoria opening over 1976-7, offering a variety of staging in spaces that remain exciting. Above all the concrete construction, well-seen in the foyers and stepped elevations, is exemplary.
Lloyd’s Building, City of London
Richard Rogers Partnership, constructed 1981-6
Formally opened by the Queen on 18 November 1986
A landmark for the City and a symbol of the 1980s financial boom, Lloyd’s is also one of the most distinctive buildings of the high-tech movement and its celebrated promoter, Richard Rogers. The building’s Meccano image has a practical motive: putting the lifts, stairs and services on the outside leaves the central core of the building as a free, flexible space – the Room, key to trading and set on four levels linked by central escalators. The underwriter Lloyd’s had already outgrown two buildings in the 20th century and was not to be caught out again. The shiny steel exterior also belies its underlying concrete construction, necessary for fire purposes and a feature of the Room, where it contrasts with the Lutine Bell salvaged in 1857. Strangest of all is the reconstruction of Robert Adam’s dining room from Bowood House at the top of the building.
Stansted Airport, Essex
Foster Associates, constructed 1986-91
Formally opened by the Queen on 15 March 1991
The 1990s saw a rapid expansion in air travel and new airports built across the world by leading architects. Stansted led the way, the redevelopment of a wartime airfield first mooted as London’s third airport in 1967, though this was confirmed only in 1985 – well after Norman Foster’s first involvement in 1981. The novelty of his design lay in its clarity, with services and a railway station tucked into the side of the hilltop site so the building appears only one storey high. The subsequent addition of more shops and security has failed to wholly conceal the open web of spreading steel trusses and roof lights. Foster compared his structure to a Victorian train shed, with a similarly simple route from the entrance to the means of travel. His practice also designed the original internal fittings, a single vision that offered a new, calming experience of air travel.
Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh
Enric Miralles / Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT) with RMJM, constructed 1999-2004
Opened by the Queen on 9 October 2004
The Queen had officially opened the revived Scottish Parliament on 6 May 1999, but it had to meet in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland while delays and rising costs beset its new building. Miralles revised his beguiling competition winning entry, fitting all the required accommodation on to the too-small site, then died suddenly – as did the chief client, Donald Dewer. Miralles’s wife Tagliabue completed the project. There is a sensitivity to the small scale of its setting at the foot of the Royal Mile, while giving Edinburgh a rare shot of eccentricity. The main debating chamber and, even more so, the MSPs’ lobby are sculptural spaces in organic curvilinear forms, naturally lit and lined in oak and sycamore. Critics wondered if the political debates could match these sylvan, magical spaces. The curious windows of the MSPs’ offices, complete with built-in seat, resemble the Kellogg’s cockerel symbol.
Olympic Stadium / Swimming Pool / Velodrome
Populous / Zaha Hadid Architects / Hopkins Architects, constructed 2008-12
Opened by the Queen on 27 July 2012
Perhaps the Queen’s most famous opening, thanks to the cameo appearance of James Bond and that parachute jump seen by millions across the world. The Olympic Park still feels raw and its surroundings bleak, but the three main buildings have survived the last ten years pretty well. The stadium, a light oval eco-skeleton concealed by poor cladding, was designed to be reduced in capacity, but a greater issue has been its adaptability into a football ground. The pool was clipped of its wings to reveal Hadid’s talismanic curves, like a mermaid casting off her land-legs and her own finest legacy in Britain. Best of all is the velodrome, the pringle for professionals where amateurs can play on the surrounding track, and peer inside through the unusual number of windows. It expresses the eco-efficiency and lightness of a bicycle as well as being a symbol of the resurgence in British cycling.
Various architects, constructed 2009-22
Opened by the Queen on 17 May 2022
Nine different architectural practices designed the ten new stations, with Weston Williamson & Partners producing two. Whereas in the 1990s the Jubilee Line Extension aimed at variety and individuality, here a consortium was established under Grimshaw Architects to ensure consistency. The results are very large, minimal and functional stations, in which architectural forms are expressed subtly, usually in the concrete roofs and restrained artworks. There are classical inspired columns, but the post-modern flourishes of the 1990s feel long gone. The yellow glass of Canary Wharf, by Adamson Associate Architects and Foster & Partners, offers a rare touch of colour in a stark palette of grey. Many of the new facilities had to be plugged into existing transport hubs, making for complexities and delays, but with the advantage that many are near the surface and maximise natural lighting. Perhaps the most striking is the timber roof at Abbey Wood, by Fereday Pollard.