Friday, February 20, 2009

'within weeks they'll be reopening the shipyards...'


(the following may be extremely bitter and tedious to anyone not from an uninteresting south coast port, who all have my apologies.)
Well, it isn't anywhere near as much fun as an irate letter from Alain de Botton, but nonetheless. Although most of my original ire was aimed at the defunct, but very long-running Labour Council, particularly the Jenks brothers who presided over the city's transformation into a giant retail park, it now has a Tory council, run by the wonderfully old-Tory-monickered Royston Smith, who has written a fantastically dim, interminable and almost certainly ghost-written (surely nobody could be this boring on their own) letter defending his fair city. Which is in a sense my fair city, as you lot most likely know but he clearly doesn't, making the amusing suggestion that I 'may wish to visit the city again and have a conducted tour — some positive views may emerge' (another commenter also got the implication that I had only been to the city on a day trip. Was my prose so abstruse that the words 'when I was growing up in the city, I' disappeared from view?) 



His long letter is of such tedium that I doubt BD would be interested in publishing my refutation, so it goes here, with my apologies. First, the assertion of how marvellous the shopping centres are. Well they are indeed very big, as Royston correctly notes. The assertion that Soton 'continues to be a safe city' is true in the sense that the reclaimed land has not yet been re-reclaimed by the Solent, and there aren't as far as I've noticed any favelas or gang wars, but for this Southern city of 250,000ish to be found by the Home Office to have a higher rate of violent crime than London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham and Leeds is nonetheless extremely impressive. The letter suggests that I, like all 'architecture critics' am more interested in buildings than the connections and spaces between them. This bit of half-baked Urban Task Force pish is more evidence that the article has been merely skimmed - most of my praise and criticism for the council work of the 1960s and my vitriol at the malls of the Pirelli works in the 90s-00s were based on the places they created, and how they succeeded or, for the most part failed. 



It's also a tad untimely. Royston is keen to point out the imminence of the Foreign Office Architects-designed Watermark WestQuay. He fails to mention that it was indefinitely shelved a week ago, although as a great unbuilt Southampton project it is unlikely to be mourned alongside the monorail and the icerink, given that nobody on speaking terms with sanity thought the city needed another shopping mall in the first place. Note also the mention that more Sotonians are employed in banking and finance than in retail - as if these jobs are somehow more secure. The 'cultural quarter' he cites has been planned for around a decade, and so far has achieved nothing further than a demolished branch of C&A. The letter notes that the old Vospers shipyard will be replaced with a Rogers-masterplanned mixed use development - without mentioning that as architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour were sacked from the job, presumably on suspicion of being potentially interesting.



The real problem, and the motivation for the piece in the first place other than my obvious desire to settle a few scores, and a fact which breaks my otherwise icy heart, is that Southampton is a compendium of all that is evil and wrong in this septic isle, but it didn't and doesn't have to be like this. Compulsory philistinism, virulent consumerism, casual and omnipresent violence and boredom, aesthetic blindness, service industry panopticism, appalling planning, the total subordination of people to capital, the class hatred of its students - these are all absolutely raging in the city, and you can see it by walking around the city for any length of time, in its buildings and its excuses for planning. Yet there is so much I love about Southampton. The people (well, some of them); the extraordinary collisions between (60s) modernity and the medieval; the breathtaking windswept weirdness of the container port, Weston Shore or Wyndham Court; the Victorian civic grandeur of its parks, if not its buildings; the art gallery, with its Vorticists and creaky English abstractionists; the curtain-twitching intrigue of its suburbs, the mundane/fantastic of Shirley High Street and pre-'regeneration' St Mary's. It's not much, but practically all of it has been squandered. I'm fully aware that the other things that could have happened, a North-West culture industry rather than South-East hyperconsumerism, are no solution either. Salford is more unequal and brutal than Southampton, and I reject both - but I do suspect they could at least have given the city a shred of fucking pride. 

(photos again via)

10 Comments:

Anonymous matt said...

Just a sense impression really but I had to pick up a friend from Thornhill the other day and well, christ, who the fuck was in charge of that little creation? I'd love to know precisely what happened to planners post world war two. Was there a collective decision to make places as ugly as possible to exist in? It was like a child had picked up a handful of toy bricks and simply cast them about him.

12:52 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

In charge was, I suspect, the aforementioned Leon Berger, although it might have been Ryder and Yates, who did much of Millbrook. Thornhill is not nice. That's where I had in mind where I thought of twinning Soton and Nowa Huta - though come to think of it the latter is much better.

Not all of the 60s outer suburbs are as terrifying, though - architecturally and in terms of planning some of Townhill Park is a lot more interesting and less 'ohmyfuckingchrist'. And I love Weston Shore, of course...

1:06 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

I've only driven through Townhill so don't have a great deal of experience of it but I suspect a fair proportion of any good feeling is due to the landscape around there - it's fairly dramatic as I remember, which probably covers up a multitude of similar sins.

And Weston is a a stunning, if vaguely harrowing prospect. Ballard's High Rise-on-sea...

1:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard a rumour that Tacheles has been demolished! Is this true?

6:51 pm  
Anonymous FStack said...

Are you sure his first name was Leon, Owen? http://images.google.co.uk/images?q=leonberger&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-GB:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&hl=en&tab=wi makes me suspect Lang Rabbie might have been having a giraffe. Either that, or we have an intersection perfect beyond belief.

11:59 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I did find something confirming it was Leon on some local council newsletter, but that is quite amusing...

9:44 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

this one is most appropriate...

9:45 am  
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