Growing up in Norwich gets you used to quite a few things about the city. If you’ve been here for as long as I have, you stop noticing the churches hidden on street corners, the city walls poking out from behind trees — even a massive castle overlooking the city just becomes part of normal life. Staying on in Norwich for university allows me to get to know the city through the eyes of people who haven’t lived here for quite so long.
Odd discussions of Norwich with university friends often involve chatting about places and buildings, and being known as a local, I often end up giving directions to people. If ever in these talks I mention our City Hall, most responses I get are “what?” and “where?” and this to me is a massive shame. City Hall is often forgotten by Norwich residents and ignored by those visiting. It’s a building that represents us like no other and suits Norwich just perfectly, and we should learn to love it.
To some people it is a bit too brown, a bit too tall, and a bit too wide. Even those at the time of its construction never loved the design. Artist John Piper once described fog as “its friend” and a popular joke from comedian Norman Long likened it to a “marmalade factory”.
City Hall is often forgotten by Norwich residents and ignored by those visiting.
While not the prettiest of structures, the architects responsible for it certainly designed a building of national significance. Inspired by the great Stockholm City Hall, Norwich’s was also built to the highest standards, using high quality materials sourced from around the world. The bricks were specifically made for this construction, each one larger than normal to make the finished building look even grander. The inside is full of marble and expensive wood and the outside boasts the longest balcony in England. Demonstrating its importance, King George VI himself opened City Hall in 1938 to the largest gathering of citizens the city had ever seen.
It’s hard to imagine the building getting the same response today. Admittedly, it does look a bit dated especially when sat alongside the Forum — but I find it hard to ignore just how grand it is. Towering above the marketplace, its monumental length, statuesque clock tower and grand pillars surely can only really be admired. Those involved in designing it, putting it together and opening it would be puzzled as to why our civic centre is so often overlooked these days.
Unusually, the plans to build a grand city hall here only fully materialised after the First World War, far later than most other city halls. The immediate reason for the building of City Hall was to allow civic business to take place properly. The council used to meet in the old Guildhall which, while decorative and historically prominent, was cramped and unhygienic. Council business often had to be undertaken in nearby private buildings. To me however, our City Hall represents far more than a replacement building for the council.
Unlike many other English cities, Norwich fell behind in terms of grand, communal buildings, and was dominated instead by commerce. Historically, there was a huge focus on individual entrepreneurship here, particularly after a lack of development following the industrial revolution. This individualism has always existed in Norwich. Citizens and local governments have in the past been concerned with trade and commerce rather than city projects. In my mind, the emergence of City Hall shows a conscious step away from this, towards a community-driven city with buildings to be proud of.
Citizens and local governments have in the past been concerned with trade and commerce rather than city projects.
That is I suppose, why I think our City Hall should be held in high regard today. It illustrates a move from individuals and trade being the most important part of a city, and a shift towards realising that buildings symbolising politics, culture and community are equally important in creating the fine city we are all so glad to be a part of today. Norwich City Hall perhaps symbolises Norwich more than any other building. It is grand without being over the top, large without being invasive and underappreciated without being entirely forgotten about. I believe we should learn to appreciate our City Hall and all that it stands for.
Featured image courtesy of James Anthony