Friday, August 07, 2009


(this post, the second or third in an ever-more bitter and long-winded semi-history of my hometown through blogposts, was originally to have been accompanied by photographs taken by myself using a 'fun' camera from Sainsbury's Basics Range ('no frills, get the picture'), but the sheer awfulness of the photos combined with a faulty CD from Boots means that this will be using the work of other, more talented Flickr users, with due credit of course. My photos, while staggeringly inept, at least have a certain atmosphere, so I may scan them in eventually...)

1. Eastern Docks

(photo of former Cunard Offices by Kiloran)

Southampton really has two centres, or a centre and an ex-centre. The ex-centre is something I sometimes almost forget about, so cut-off is it from the bus routes into town so important to suburban boys. This is a shame, as it's here that you could almost believe that you were in a great port city rather than a dead, failed yachting&shopping town. The ex-centre is really two ex-places - the former Southampton Terminus, closed by Beeching and now a fucking Casino - and the eastern docks. It's from here that the Titanic sailed. The Titanic is something that Heritage Southampton is entirely obsessed with, not for any good reason, but because it's famous. The new Tory Council is planning to sell off some of what is one of the finest art collections outside of the capital for the sake of a Titanic Museum in a 'cultural quarter' by the Civic Centre. Now there is in fact a permanent exhibition about the Titanic in the Maritime Museum by the Eastern Docks, but that's in the ex-centre, while the Civic Centre is far nearer to the WestQuay uber-Mall, so a collection that features Picasso, Rodin, Blake, Flemish masters and Vorticists, Op Artists and Renaissance altarpieces, is being flogged for yet another attempt to drag tourists kicking and screaming to an ever-more provincial, ever-more small-minded town - the possibility on building on Southampton's real qualities (there are some) is totally ignored.* But the new Heritage Museum by Wilkinson Eyre will include an Interactive Model of the Titanic, so that's OK then.

The (demolished) Ocean Terminal

Get someone to drop you off at the old Terminus blindfolded, take off the blindfold, look around, and you could almost believe you were Somewhere. There's a lush square ringed by stylish bow-windowed terraces, some Gin Palace-like Art Nouveau Hotels, the handsome Terminus station (ignore the Casino signage) and, oddest of all, the South Western Hotel. Now - obviously - luxury flats, this was The Hotel Where The Titanic's Passengers stayed, a wonderfully ridiculous high-Victorian confection that would look at home in South Kensington - but more interesting is the block adjacent. It's unclear from Pevsner exactly what this was, but it seems it may have been the 1899 Cunard Offices (NB: it may just be an extension of the hotel from the 1920s), and it's a freakish anomaly in the city, an example of proper Grosstadtarchitektur, eight masonry storeys, minimal ornament - perhaps inspiration was taken from the thousands of New Yorkers who must have stayed here. It introduces into Southampton a robust urban scale that is replicated nowhere else in the town, with nothing taller (bar one clocktower) built for half-a-century.

Poster for the Queen Mary, designed in 1936 by a schoolboy and never produced

The secret story here is more unnerving for those that would like a city to be marked by the ambition of its architecture. In the early 20th century Southampton overtook Liverpool as Britain's major commercial port. At exactly the point that Liverpool was erecting megacity monuments to itself along Pier Head, its business was being swiped by Southampton, with the White Star Line transferring there in 1907 and Cunard following in 1921. It's the misfortune of Southampton to have prospered most during the most uninspired period in British architectural history, the long slumber that lasted from 1914 to 1945. The shipping companies and Port Authorities built no Liver Building here, no 'Graces'. Clearly, the plan was that you'd get off the ship, get onto the train, and you'd be in London in just over an hour. Southampton didn't make a distracting fuss about itself, and the provinces were not to get any more ideas above their station. This was a place to travel through, not to, nobody (except its largely powerless inhabitants) really cared about it, and except for a brief period in the 60s, you can tell that nobody has cared much since - Tory councillors with houses in the New Forest sure as hell don't.

The Titanic ought to be a bitter, painful memory for Southampton, because most of the crew - those who weren't allowed into the lifeboats - were from the town, and most of them were from the slums of Northam. Their pay was cancelled immediately, and White Star gave no benefits or compensation, giving a clue as to why this Hampshire town became stridently red after World War One - a sudden shocking realisation that, regardless of all that King & Country nonsense, the ruling class doesn't care about you, a shock which has since dissipated into aiming to join the ruling class (think of the way Craig David, from the decidedly rough Holyrood estate, very near to Terminus Station, used to refer to himself in the third person, talking about himself as 'Craig David the Brand'). Instead, this mass death is something we revel in, because it reminds us of Kate Winslet posing nude for Leonardo Di Caprio and Celine Dion warbling atop the ship's stern. Walking round the remains of the Eastern Dock now, you can see at least two generations of failed regeneration. The Ocean Terminal, a 40s' attempt at glamour opened by the decidedly un-glam figure of Clement Attlee, was demolished in 1983, as were most of the other dock buildings, in favour of some egregious postmodernist dreck, attempting to build Reading-on-Sea. The centrepiece of Ocean Village was 'Canute's Pavilion', a shopping and leisure centre where I once fell on some coral for sale in a Nauticalia shop, gashing my arm. Now Canute's Pavilion has itself been demolished, replaced with the rote yuppiedromes of 'Banana Wharf', and a replacement Ocean Terminal - a simple, not-too-awful steel wing, with a surprisingly swish and svelte retro-modernist carpark adjacent, built for the Cruise Ships that still stop here. There is here the city's one bit of high culture aside from the doomed Art Gallery - the Harbour Lights cinema, designed for the Council in 1995 by Burrell Foley Fischer and far better than it has any right to be - a great piece of nautical high-tech that it always surprises me is allowed to exist.

2. Western Docks

Golf atop a Celebrity Cruiseship

The port is divided into leisure and utility. On the one hand, you have the Cruise Ships, on the other containers, with nothing much (save the Isle of Wight ferry) between luxury and automation. I flick through the local paper and find that soon, Southampton will be briefly home to 'Celebrity Eclipse', 'a 21st century, 122,000 ton engineering marvel', built of course in Germany rather than the long-defunct Soton shipyards, boasting a golf course on the roof. Another cruise ship which was in port on the day I (didn't) take these pictures apparently features a dining room where the tables and chairs are made from ice - it recommends you wear warm clothing. These floating Dubais are a weird thing - placeless and opulent, transporting the cruiser through (literally) nowhere. I have yet to utilise the fact that I have family who work on them to test for myself the theory that they must be so boring as to be almost transcendent. Perhaps I should do so. The other sort of ship is attended to largely by The Robots, with an additional skeleton crew of bored humans.

(photo of Southampton cranes by Southdinista)

I vividly remember playing in Mayflower Park, the windswept public space that divides the city's dead and 'alive' docks, on my birthday. I was, being a child of the 80s, fairly obsessed with robots, specifically Transformers. My parents, were they contributors to my comments box, would tell you, unprompted, the story about me coming home from nursery school claiming we'd been told about 'this robot called God' (well how else to explain it?). On Mayflower Park I would insist, thinking wishfully, that I was in fact a robot. In disguise. Which may explain a lot. I was missing a trick, as the robots were a few yards from the park, in the containerised Western Dock. This vast dock complex was built on reclaimed land in the 30s, so that it could take the ever-more ginormous cruise ships of the era such as the Queen Mary. In the 80s its vastness meant that it could, unlike Liverpool or London, accommodate containerisation with ease. It's also damn hard to see, at least from the Southampton side of the river Test, because you're not meant to see it. The best option is to walk through the bracingly bleak linear park that squeezes itself between the port and the railway line, and amid glimpses of the containers and cranes, avoiding the pylons that never seem to electrocute the passing dogs, you get to Millbrook railway bridge, the only real vantage point. Here you can survey the lines of identical cars, the names on the boxes (MAERSK SEALAND, HYUNDAI) and, best of all, the cranes, these astonishing structures which made obsolete an entire city's manual labour, picking up an unbelievable weight of consumer goods with unassuming panache. It's an incredible sight, but nobody cares to see it. It's never going to be on Southampton City Council's Heritage itinerary - and unless you have a pass, you won't ever see it up close. It carries the morbid thrill of seeing our replacements.

* More on the Art Collection sell-off here and here, plus petition here, for all the good it'll do.


Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

Blimey, you are presumably too young to remember South Western House as the BBC building!

I'm afraid that (AFAIK) the singular transatlantic scaled building in the picture was actually built as an extension to the South Western Hotel in the 1920s, so it isn't a rare bit of pioneering [steel framed?] neo-classicism as early as 1899.

I think the 1899 Cunard building is the more mundane red brick one on the south side of Queens Park and Platform Road just west of the Central Road entrance to the docks (now known as Post Office building?).

9:57 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Cheers for pointing that out, I had my doubts about this from the off - I actually thought it looked '20s, which still fits my presumptions of it as an irruption of Americanism - but the stockbrick at the back suggests no steel frame was involved. Weirdly, Pevsner and Lloyd don't mention the extension at all, but they do mention a 'Palladian' Cunard headquarters, which is why I made the assumption. Odd that they should miss such a thing in their quite extensive discussion of the hotel - maybe deliberately...

10:27 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...and I may not remember it being the local BBC headquarters, but I certainly know the piece of shit profiled here.

11:01 pm  
Blogger eag said...

Oh Shame is this what they call progress?

11:15 pm  
Blogger Markasaurus said...

Interesting to hear you describe the container cranes as robots. Rumour has it that George Lucas got his inspiration for the Imperial Walkers in the Star Wars films from the cranes at the Port of Oakland across the bay from San Francisco. It is amazing how in such a short period of time ports around the world changed from bustling places of commerce, full of people, to wastelands.

12:21 am  
Anonymous FttL said...

OT, basically, but you know about the other Sealand, don't you? (Actually I suspect it's been mentioned here before, by someone):

The history of Sealand is a story of a struggle for liberty. Sealand was founded on the principle that any group of people dissatisfied with the oppressive laws and restrictions of existing nation states may declare independence in any place not claimed to be under the jurisdiction of another sovereign entity. The location chosen was Roughs Tower, an island fortress created in World War II by Britain and subsequently abandoned to the jurisdiction of the High Seas. The independence of Sealand was upheld in a 1968 British court decision where the judge held that Roughs Tower stood in international waters and did not fall under the legal jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. This gave birth to Sealand's national motto of E Mare Libertas, or "From the Sea, Freedom".

You can see it from the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze, should you ever visit (god knows why you would).

10:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I used to spend a lot of time in Southampton, so always particularly enjoy your pieces on it, especially as (for one reason and another) I will probably never go there again.

Incidentally, now's as good a time as any to mention that I saw a bloke walking up Gower Street carrying a copy of Militant Modernism, presumably freshly bought from Full Marks.


1:56 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

My comment is probably too late is usual, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts' on HBO's second series of 'The Wire'. The scene where they showed a video of an almost completely automated Port in Europe to the Union leader was particularly resonant as as the City of Baltimore's attempt to replace the docks with luxury flats...

4:08 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Seen it and absolutely love it, and am perennialy annoyed that nothing so good has been done/will be done on the British city - I'll work it into something sooner or later, no doubt, though this apex of Wire-ology is hard to top.

2:17 pm  
Blogger Dejan Nikolic said...

Agnetha this sounds like something suitably Tsukermanist for you. I like them much better than DAFT PUNK.

11:26 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

Ta! - Thanks for the wire-ology. That's just what I needed.

9:08 am  
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First off, I have to say that I LOVE cruise ships.
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For 2 years I also worked shoreside in Miami as a database IT guy.

During my years on ships, I have to stay that many things happened
and that life is definately stranger than fiction on cruise ships.

Many people have asked me to share the stories I have collected over
the years, so I am complying with their request.

My site is:

If you had any stories of your own to add, please
send them to me and I will be happy to add them.

Sean B. Halliday

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2:11 am  
Anonymous Old Sotonian said...

An old Sotonian writes -
The Sea Centre has now been built - it costs £9 to see it so no one bothers - interesting - but the minimalist design uses too much space and therefore more costly - which they expect the punters to pay for. All the paintings I used to see at the art gallery as a child are all hidden in offices or might have been sold in return we get huge exhibitions on single contemporary artists with nothing to do with Southampton.
Thanks for the pic of Ocean Terminal - I was part of a protest group in the 80s against its demolition. Art Deco leopard skin chairs with telephones attached, were auction off for £1 each - I was sick. The beautiful white domed Royal Pier was flogged off too and is now a curry house.
When I returned from a cruise we were given a free film of all the ports we visited - Norway - Amsterdam etc. Southampton just had a short track with people sat outside Yates wine bar getting drunk and a still of the bargate!
Keep up the good work

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