In Search of Southampton
Although I've written posts and pieces denouncing the New Labour strategy of regeneration via the 'creative industries', the clawing back of municipal pride from Thatcherite underdevelopment via sheds for sponsorship, relational aesthetics or 'interactivity' (The Public, Baltic, Magma, Millennium Dome, Urbis, add to the list where you see fit), there is a hint - only a hint - of jealousy there. That is, jealousy that even though I may hate both the built result and its ideological legitimation, at least there is some kind of civic pride here, that something other than shopping is considered worth running a city about. The reason for this not because I have lived in London for the last 9 years, but because I lived from birth until a few weeks after my 18th birthday in Southampton.
Too southern and too surrounded by the Tory heartland for the radical, poor-but-sexy cool-by-association of Northern cities; too close to London to avoid a consistent brain drain, even its two Universities (one of which is a Russell Group research colossus) are so rigidly science-based that no taint of artiness ever seems to penetrate the M27. Southampton is a thousand-year old non-place. Yet this, after all, might be what distinguishes it. I used to be annoyed by the way that whenever my hometown was mentioned in a work of art - from Lennon's 'Ballad of John and Yoko' to Lewis' Snooty Baronet - it was only as a place to pass through - off the boat, onto the train, and in Waterloo in 1 hour 15. Southampton was Heathrow before Heathrow, and has never quite known what to do with itself since the ship was succeeded by the jet. I was missing the point - Southampton is a city as terminus.
Southampton, like Coventry, Plymouth and east London, nearly became a non-place in a quite literal sense. In November 1940 the centre was flattened and thousands fled the city, many sleeping rough in the surrounding countryside rather than returning to the inferno. Yet what happened when reconstruction came? Southampton is twinned with Le Havre, a French port that was similarly ruthlessly Blitzed, yet the reconstruction by Auguste Perret for that city is - while by no means fearlessly Modernist - confident, contemporary, urban, large-scaled, proud. Southampton got what you see above, now with the additional frisson of a faded McDonalds sign. A one-storey Portland Stone shopping parade, designed in a staggeringly timid manner. Yet while the planners of Le Havre might have looked over the Atlantic covetously at the USA's skyscrapers and daylight factories, those of 1940s Southampton recognised that the future lay somewhere else. Pevsner, absolutely spot on, described this parade as being akin to a Midwestern town. While the gigantic ships, those ribbon-windowed beauties that inspired a million modernist buildings, sailed to New York from just a few yards away, Southampton channelled the spirit of Iowa.
However, Southampton City Council took a 30-year detour before it realised in the 1990s that Soton's destiny was to be the most American city in Britain, in the least glamorous sense. In Soft City, a fine psychogeographic study marked by a very early 70s paranoia, Jonathan Raban went looking for the most quintessential, standard exemplar of the British transformation of Corbusian utopia into dystopia, and found it in Southampton. The work of the city architect, one L. Berger, is indeed a curious amalgam of seemingly every midcentury cliche. Zeilenbau arrangements at Weston Shore and Thornhill, mixed development everywhere else; beton brut, weatherboarding, bare stock brick, slabs and points. The city had long been one of the best British candidates for a Ville Radieuse, with Victorian planning creating The Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard that ran all the way to the 'Gateway to Empire', and a series of central parks that are what appear in my mind whenever I read Graham Greene, and most of all, safeguarding the great Southampton Common.
In the interwar years this verdancy was expanded by the garden suburbs, little Welwyns designed by the architect Herbert Collins in the city's northern suburbs, inadequately emulated by the city council in the form of the inept Flower Estate, its cottages the incongruous setting for perhaps the town's nastiest area (and as the setting for the most unhappy three years in my life, it is a main source of the chip on my shoulder). And this is an incredibly violent city - Home Office statistics last year proved it to have Britain's third highest levels of violent crime after Manchester and Sheffield. Much of this crime is probably due to a town vs gown divide in a city where the gown is smug and affluent and the town chronically depressed. The Flower Estate abuts Southampton University, where Monsanto-funded youth frolic in a mostly Basil Spence-designed campus (not his finest work, but with a couple of moments of sheer genius).
As someone said to me in Liverpool last year, the difference between these two Transatlantic ports, the thing that makes the smaller of them the more brutal, is the lack of sentiment and civic pride. Liverpool has a whole mythology, however sentimental it may be, of its own importance and beauty; Soton knows it fucking hates Portsmouth but proclaims very little else about itself. At a stretch, perhaps, it is proud of being the disembarkation point of the 'world's biggest metaphor' in 1912, and the former home of England's most underrated footballer. But you wouldn't imagine the town could be anything other than perfectly calm, looking at the common's drained pools and bare trees on Boxing Day.
L Berger's work was mainly 'mixed development' to an amusing degree. A one-storey house next to a three-storey block of flats next to an eighteen-storey tower. As I was staying in Shirley/Freemantle, near the Western Dock, I photographed Shirley Towers and its surrounding estate, a calm and very very cold late December afternoon, as my example of Berger's buildings. I used to look at this place with some awe as a teen, with Bowie's 'Warszawa' playing in my head. Appropriate, as Polish is now heard as often in Shirley as English, in a town which has always had a large Eastern European contingent. I propose a twinning of Nowa Huta and Thornhill.
Here, the tower is shrouded in mist, as if it were a mirage. None of the gardens are private, which we're now supposed to think is a bad thing.
This little girl guards the estate.
The space underneath Shirley Towers is skin-strippingly cold.
Next to it is what is described as THE BARLOW HOME, which I am guessing was a place where Alms were dispensed or where the mentally unwell or elderly were 'rested'.
Up the road from the tower is Strawberry Fields, a Thatcher-era development which, I assume from the mild effort made in its design, is the product of a Housing Association rather than a spec builder. Just behind it is the '60s block Hatherley Mansions, a possible choice of residence in my dotage. Across the road from Strawberry Fields is something which aspires to being more 'urban'. Both are based on different but equally risible fantasies about what this city actually is. It is as little a moody metropolis as it is rural, even though it was where 'Re-rewind' was recorded.
This is all extraneous to what the city is really for.
The buildings the council didn't sponsor, those of the marvellously named central strip Above Bar and its environs, are in the style recently and amusingly described by Stephen Bayley as 'John Lewis Modernism', here at its most nondescript. The city's great rival, Portsmouth got the wild beast Tricorn, but we got lots of what you could at a stretch call 'Festival style' department stores of remarkable drabness. Southampton and Portsmouth were nearly merged in the 1960s, under proposals by Colin Buchanan, into one linear metropolis. As it is these two fairly similar depressed ports maintain a remarkably stupid mutual hatred. Not that I have any sympathy with that squaddie-ridden hole and its silly sub-Dubai Spinnaker tower. Anyway, when containerisation and Heathrow destroyed Soton's raison d'etre, it attempted to become Hampshire's Shopping Extravaganza, dragging the burghers of Boyatts Wood, Bishop's Waltham, Chilworth, Locks Heath, Fair Oak et al ad nauseam into the city to buy stuff. Draft one: East Street. Nobody comes here. I can't remember anyone ever coming here. It adjoins a huge office block, which is architecturally undistinguished but has a classic Brutalist escape staircase, hence the tortuous angle above. I bought a copy of Le Corbusier's Modulor in East Street Oxfam the day I took these photos.
The blur is flattering, I think. Regardless, East Street, actually placed in a street, and adjoining a tall, urban building, was clearly not American enough. Draft two, the postmodernist mall of the Bargate Centre, next to an 'iconic' Medieval remnant. In Southampton even 'alternative' culture happens in Malls, and the Bargate found its niche in the late '90s by catering to ravers, skaters, Goths and metallers rather than the original targets of children and their harassed parents. Faced with eviction in 2000, my Mum was rehoused by the council in a flat next to the Bargate centre. Due to my brother's largesse, the flat soon became centre of activity seemingly for the entire town's population of stoners, skaters and general bourgeois scum, who were occasionally inclined to excreting on the stairs.
There are four big malls in the centre, while Eastleigh, a railway works with houses attached on the city's outskirts, has its own Mall, now being redesigned in an Erskine-ish manner, but originally as pomo as the Bargate. I lived in Eastleigh in the late 80s and early 90s, right next to the Swan Centre, which swept away Victorian market streets much to my joy. As a child I loved, loved Malls. We never called them by that Americanism (these were Shopping Centres). but I had a birthday in McDonalds, with branded party hats and gifts, I ate donuts and Deep Pan Pizza, and as adolescence hit I listlessly read magazines in WH Smiths until I was thrown out. I was glad when I realised there was a word - Loitering - for this pastime. Upon moving into the city proper, affections were transferred to the Marlands. Draft three of the Soton Mall. Here I once shoplifted a Jonathan Richman album. I shoplifted in Shirley Woolworths too, albeit something much less cool. Needless to say, seeing the place as it is now, as it dies ignominiously, is a thrill. Look at it here, the glossy shelves reduced to the state of the shabbiest pound shop.
Meanwhile, the Marlands apparently nearly went bankrupt, but was successfully turned instead into 'The Mall', where it leeches on some bland post-war blocks. I couldn't bring myself to photograph the original elevations - those with a taste for the nadir of 20th century architecture can probably find them via google. Linked by a walkway to car parks and an Asda, the significance of the Marlands was as the first strike in the transformation of a huge swathe of reclaimed land into Iowa, after all these failed attempts at being a coherent town. A huge site once occupied by a cable works and a power station was, in the late 90s, turned into a series of strip malls and boxes, one which has now taken on a remarkable life of its own. The first I really remember is LEISURE WORLD, an unforgiving box which me and my gal used to call THE MINISTRY OF LEISURE.
As it went up, curtain-wall office blocks went down, wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer before being thrown into the water. Then the strip mall of Western Esplanade, then some rather functionalist car parks, then the vast West Quay, the retail behemoth for which the others are all unsuccessful drafts. Although I planned to photograph all of the big city centre malls, the latter was so rammed full of bargain hunters that I literally couldn't stomach it, being an ill, neurasthenic type and all. West Quay is now itself generating offshoots - one of which is apparently going to be designed by Foreign Office Architects, but I'm not holding my breath for that - and now has a huge blue IKEA box. The area is incredibly hard to photograph as there is almost nowhere where you can stand without being run over. This whole vast site is one massive retail park, right in the middle of a town of 250,000 people and a sprawl of at least double that. Even the most blindly, blandly utilitarian of post-war planners could never have done something so criminally short-sighted as create out of this huge space of potential such a crushing collection of sheds, where the car is not so much king as emperor.
What is appropriate about it, though, is the way in which it joins onto the equally vast Container Port. The roads in the Western Dock are called First, Second, Third Avenue. Follow them and you might reach the Millbrook Superbowl, where you can play that most American and Blue Collar of sports, ten-pin bowling. Go back the other way along the approach to the M27, and the containers become an organising principle. Stacks of containers full of goods one one side, stacks of containers full of people buying goods on the other, each of them in the form of coloured or corrugated boxes. The elegance of the principle is perfect, and some enterprising post-Fordist is bound to combine the two sooner or later - completing the circle by transporting people in those boxes too, using them for transportation, shopping, living, all at once. Sure, there's no windows in these things, but a few branches of Costa and nobody will complain. Then, untouched by human hands, the containers could be dropped in Dubai or Shenzen, the cruise ships of the 21st century. Just across the water from this container city is a gigantic incinerator. A perfect dome, not Rogers' deflated tent, silver, not Teflon. It turns rubbish into electricity, and it shines with a sinister optimism.