Sunday, January 31, 2010

Municipal Miscellany



A Things-style round-up of odds and ends, in lieu of a serious post, in order to partially dispel any concern that I am abdicating my blogging duties. I'm not abdicating so much as hoping somewhere else will take over my functions for a bit. The reason for this isn't so much sloth as the work of assembling and expanding the various Urban Trawls into a book to be published by Verso at the end of the year, entitled A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. More details and shameless, grasping plugging will ensue when there's a cover and such things. Meanwhile, and all mostly come across in the writing of the above...


I've probably linked to him before, but Iqbal Aalam is one of the most consistently brilliant things about Flickr - an architect with a seemingly endless slide collection of photos from 1960s-1980s (mostly) British architecture, which he occasionally updates by going back to photograph the sites as they are now. Some recent, insightful and depressing sets have been about Milton Keynes, specifically its attempts to purge itself of its science fiction past. At the top of his page now are pics of the demolition of the Bletchley Pyramid in favour of an astoundingly bland PFI style scheme that Cabe urged not to be given planning permission; but English Heritage decided a black glass pyramid was 'relatively commonplace'. So on those terms, I look eagerly forward to them delisting those thousands of Georgian terraces. More tragicomically, there's also some newly-taken pics of Norman Foster's Bean Hill, his first housing scheme, done on an extremely low budget in the mid-70s, now the least Fosteresque buildings imaginable. It's not often in the retrospectives, although a prize should be given to anyone who somehow manages to present Baron Foster of Thames Bank with photographs of what it looks like now.


Via one of my favourite Flickr groups, the Skybridge-Skywalk-Skyway pool, documenting the elevated pedestrian links across the city that we really ought to have by now, I found this fascinating set of The Mumbai Flyover, more specifically a series of overhead pedestrian walkways that are fulfilling one of the less utopian promises of Metropolis - the affluent in the sky, with the poor down below. The direct demarcation of class in terms of the very means of traversing exactly the same spaces. Unexpectedly, the photos are all by Andrew Harris, UCL geographer and organiser of some very interesting urbanist symposia. At which point I remembered he'd sent me one of these pics before, where he tells me 'although deemed pro-pedestrian it seems they are generally a way of removing pavements from busy roads, bypassing poor areas of housing and generating significant revenue for construction firms and their friends.'


The literal elevation of one class above another was, according to this old Prospect article, attempted by Wilson and Womersley in their plans for the University of Manchester, where the students would have the sky and the 'hoi polloi' Oxford Road. That's as maybe, considering the hoi polloi were often then living along walkways designed by Wilson and Womersley in Hulme - but the article is mostly lamenting the (then-imminent, now long-completed) demolition of the Maths Tower, one of the post-IRA bomb sacrifices to the hungry deities of regeneration. However, as is so often the case, the sacrifice accompanies a reconstruction, albeit of a rather strange sort. Photographs of the Mathematics Tower, designed by Scherrer & Hicks in 1967-8 and demolished just under 40 years later, appear remarkably similar to those of Islington Wharf, in Award-Winning Ancoats, New Emerging Manchester, designed by Broadway Malyan in 2007-8 at the time of the Maths Tower's demise. There's the very same combination of North-West redbrick vernacular and a series of canted, angular glass towers stepping upwards. Were these purveyors of shiny Dubaisms trying to appease the memory of Brutalism? No walkways however, of course.


In a similar Mancunian vein, here's a project on Hattersley, a suburban estate nudging the Pennines, on the outskirts of Cottonopolis, a document of a landscapes equally weird and mundane (link courtesy of Palace). Islington Wharf, meanwhile, is nominally part of New Islington, an incomparably inept redevelopment (with some interesting architecture scattered across the rubble) of the former Cardroom Estate, which is a vivid, extreme example of what has happened to municipal housing in the last decades. Councils are now actually building stuff, to a small extent, after the effective decriminalisation of council housing last year; among those designing it, in Lozells, Birmingham, is the proprietor of No2Self. He very kindly asked me to compose a short introduction to what is alive and what is dead in municipal housing to take with him to the planning committee. It mostly draws on stuff that has appeared here before, but it can be viewed and downloaded here, should you wish to do so.



Meanwhile, in more Brutalist revival news, Koolhaas borrows idea from the neglected late 'cosmic' period of Soviet architecture. But you know, in glass rather than concrete - but note the hapless commenter who asks ' I thought we we're trying to get rid of ugly concrete looking buildings like this?' If things were that simple. (link courtesy of the fragrant Ms Pyzik)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Before/After



Hoping at some point to comment on this, and this, and also this, which is a very good reply to my previous post on High-Tech, all of which seem potentially linked in some way. Too busy to do any of this unfortunately, because of a large project that I will be plugging on here soon. In the interim, here's the complete proceedings of the Modernism After Postmodernism event at UEL - me, Mark Fisher, Nina Power and Jeremy Gilbert pondering aforementioned subject in a variety of different and complimentary ways. I'm a bit quiet and improvising (or rambling) on the vagaries of modernism/postmodernism/what happens next in one city, the city being Sheffield. There are many, many 'ummm's. It also has a PDF of my presentation, and apologies to those (including The Sesquipedalist) whose photos I used uncredited.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dialectic of High-Tech


This post on the grim decline of High Tech is brilliant, so much so I feel a bit of a git taking issue. But I've been writing on Ludwig Hilberseimer and such things for the now somewhat less unfinished thesis for the last fortnight, so the intractable questions of architecture, technology and ideology are all rather stuck in my head, and as I only sent off the most recent chapter half an hour ago this might continue to have its tone. Anyway. It seems that loads of the oppositions set up here between technological 'solutionism' and the enormously depressing end result in this post (essentially, how Brits attempting to bring Bucky Fuller to Blighty winds up in Tesco) can be mapped very closely onto the 1920s in Germany and the USSR with rather different results. For instance, E&V quotes Richard Rogers thus:

'Returning to Britain to set up our first architectural practice (Team 4, comprising Norman and Wendy Foster, Su Rogers and myself) we realised the importance of the American experience where the architect is a genuine problem-solver rather than a mere stylist. We understood that the traditional European approach, constrained by cultural and formal conventions, could never meet the needs of a changing society that we were going to try to serve.'

Basically, in a statement like this you have a complete and utter denial of the ideological aspect of architecture.

Well, yes in a sense you do, but you can easily imagine this statement being made by a 1920s leftist architectural figure, a Moisei Ginzburg or a Walter Gropius, who were both entirely intent on using their architecture to serve a very specific ideological client and a specific society. In both cases, we could agree on the virtues of this client in say, 1924, and its barbarism in say, 1934. Context is all. And Rogers (and even Foster, in the attempt to design out in inequality in the Willis Faber building) in the 70s were wanting to apply American industrial expertise to an increasingly 'classless' Wilsonian social democracy of social mobility and technological advance, in much the same way that Gropius or Ginzburg were bringing Taylorism and Fordism to Ekaterinberg and Dessau, applying it to things like socialised housing, socialist cities and what have you, that an actual Taylorist or Fordist would abhor. After the astonishing paroxysm of Lloyds, where the Marcuse-quoting Labourite gives capital the best fucking building it's ever going to have, High-Tech had the choice of going further in that direction, creating an accelerationist architecture, essentially, or of pretending that this 'changing society' was still changing for the better, and toning down the harsh elements of their architecture in favour of an ornamentalism of struts that eventually ends up in Terminal 5 - a building which cloaks its very real and very sinister subsidiary functions and relations better than perhaps any other in Britain; or in the neo-International Style of Foster, where this Buckminster Fuller disciple ends up recreating the very architecture, the same formalised imitation of technology, that Fuller set out to ridicule and destroy.


I'm generally not that bothered about the sin of 'solutionism' any more than I'm bothered about the 'ethical fallacy, at least until it becomes (with varying degrees of regularity) a massive fib, or at present both a fib and a pernicious cliché. I don't think someone like Fuller can be dismissed as merely 'ludicrously naive' - he's both ludicrously naive and enormously important, in the sense that the possibilities he and his English epigones proposed for an egalitarian technological society remain possibilities, and don't cease to be such because capitalism has foreclosed them. Pointing out that foreclosure even has a certain propaganda value - these things were once possible, and now they aren't regarded as such, the phenomenon that Mark Fisher describes as retrospective 'impossibilism' - and to abandon the occasionally illusory idea of 'functionalism', of architecture as merely one, not neccessarily aesthetic component in a larger entity, leads to another kind of idiocy entirely, and one that is if anything more pernicious - the grotesque division of labour between lauded demiurge and obscure engineer in the work of the one-time deconstructivists. Another very very interesting argument in here is that some high-tech, in the most straightforwardly blank version, as Tesco's rather than as the abhorrent Spitalfields Market, is something that

obeys the law far more strictly what the Big Other requires of them. A Tesco superstore, with its boring white structure, its boring white spaces and its boring bottom-line materials; this is the pre-fabricated High-Tech future. I’m deeply ambivalent about this situation – a superstore is genuinely the truth of the High-Tech rhetoric, one could even picture it as a socialist’s dream come true, but of course, it might well have been what was demanded, but it certainly wasn’t what was wanted.


While also describing rather precisely the manner in which Hilberseimer's serried, intimidating semi-satire of a Fordist city ends up as the blank second phase of the Rockefeller Centre (or maybe more interestingly as the DDR's remodelling of Alexanderplatz...), this again seems to me weirdly static. So Tesco's is boring. No shit. But at the same time, what of the suggestion, recently made by Fredric Jameson, that something as skull-crushingly horrible as Wal-Mart contains, in its ease, abundance, cheapness and extremely extensive use of automation, a vision of utopia? It seems as important here to hang onto the dialectic of the avant-garde as the dialectic of enlightenment. Why can't we do with Tesco what Meyerhold did with Taylor - take a form of new domination as something which actually contains something we can use, something that is latent - not as the grim end-point of a once-emancipatory dialectic of clipped-together instant architecture, but as an unknowing component of a potential other society which would have a certain use for the insufferably naive solutionism of those who now design astoundingly bland buildings and sit in the House of Lords. As Jameson writes of WalMart, 'to apprehend it for a moment in positive or progressive terms is to open up the current system in the direction of something else'.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Copy

Saturday, January 02, 2010

From the Mill to the Mall



The main reason for all this obsessive city-cataloguing, this rewriting and rewriting of the same piece - other than certain writing commitments combined with residual guilt from endlessly complaining about the place's provincialism despite my (and almost all my former Southampton friends) contributing to this in our small way, by fucking off to London or even further at the earliest opportunity - is that Southampton presents itself as a puzzle. Every time I go there the question 'how did this happen?' presents itself. How did this city, which by all accounts was once the undisputed regional capital (a perusal of The Buildings of England's extremely complimentary 1966 entry on the city is instructive here) get to the point where an entire stretch of its centre, as large as a small town, was given over to a gigantic retail park? How is it that the 16th largest city in the country has the 3rd highest level of violent crime and the 3rd worst exam results, despite being central to one of the most affluent counties? And does any of this have anything to do with the fact that the city contains what was, when built, the largest urban mall in Britain?



In simple terms of policy, these questions are easy enough to answer, and were extensively discussed by George Monbiot in Captive State. A large industrial site on reclaimed land became 'open for development' in the 1990s. The Labour council decided to designate it as a retail area at the same time as the rival inner-city retail centre of St Mary's was 'regenerated' out of recognition, its shops demolished and its market torn down. As the site was previously merely industrial, it was clearly of little aesthetic worth - the precedent meant that anything could be built there, it didn't have to have any particular urban qualities, as the Cable Works certainly didn't have to. Happily enough, the site was already easily accessed from the M27, so the result is that the extremely affluent surrounding areas can get into the shopping malls easily and quickly, where they will find abundant parking space. Jobs For Local People are no doubt the eventual result, and the alibi for the extremely profitable land deals. The result is a city devoid of any real civic pride, with a series of chain pubs where shops used to be, competing for cheap pints. I know how and why this all happened, but there's more to this city, elements to it which suggest different things could have happened, could still do so. The following walk tries, following the first, to cleave to the waterfront as much as is possible - i.e, not much - to try and ascertain what the presence of an almost-hidden but enormously successful container port does to the city centre itself.


1. Sheds, Bombsites, Ships
Leaving Southampton Central Station on its southern entrance, you can see the containers already, next to the grimy sheds of the Mountbatten Retail Park. The most immediately noticeable urban artefacts are the hotels. Hotels are, in my experience, the most reliably awful examples of British architecture built in the last 30 years, closely followed by the similar typology of Halls of Residence. Is this to do with some kind of national aversion to the concept of hospitality? Do their developers worry that architecture might deter custom? Or are they just unbelievably tight-fisted? This particular cluster of hotels was lucky enough to receive a specific denunciation from Bad British Architecture - a Novotel and an Ibis, similarly blockily lumpen, aptly described by the Ghost of Nairn as 'simply incompetent building, let alone design'. Its astounding crapness makes you wonder if there is a deliberate policy of discouraging cruise passengers from actually staying in the city. Across the road from them a Police Operational Command Unit is being erected, to designs by multinational giants of shit Broadway Malyan.


The site currently consists of a concrete frame and some brickwork, presumably to be In Keeping with some numinous vernacular. There's an onsite Christmas tree. This seasonal jollity is not continued by the police advertisements outside the station itself, which are all, rather staggeringly, about knives and knife crime, presenting those driving in from the M27 with another reason to avoid venturing any further than the malls.


The major dockside building is the Solent Flour Mills, which is remarkably enough still working, and there have been no proposals to my knowledge to turn it into a lottery-funded art gallery. It's absolutely huge, and of course inaccessible to the public. The Dock Gates were built around the same time in the early 1930s. The clocks have all had their hands removed.


The most salient thing about industrial architecture after Fordism is the changeover from an architecture of light to an architecture of windowless enclosure. The Solent Mills are a fine example of a Fordist 'daylight factory', notable as much for the expanses of glass as for the expanses of brick. Conversely, post-Fordist industry (as there is such a thing - the presumption that post-Fordist automatically equals post-industrial is seldom correct) is marked by sheds without glass, where the ideology of transparency is transferred to financial capital and their shiny office blocks. The de-industrialisation of Southampton (which happens in train with the intensified automation of the container port) means that there are few windowless industrial sheds in the centre of town, but there are windowless Leisure sheds.


Leisure World, as I was informed by Mr Rabbie, is a 'bizarrely adaptive reuse' of a former automated warehouse, which became in the late 90s a gigantic shed of entertainment. Note the Casino, one of several in the centre, presumably intended for the cruise passengers. The carpark of Leisure World is one of the few places where you can see certain things - the cyclopean scale of the Flour Mills, for one, and for another, the pathetic tin canopy of the City Cruise Terminal. I spent much time walking round said car park with my camera, where I saw among other things that the nightclubs - formerly Ikon and Diva - are now called Icehouse and Disco New York, perhaps as some partial memory of the thousands of New Yorkers who passed through this city in the first half of the last century. Sadly I can't show you pictures of any of these things. As I take a photograph of the wavy roof of Ikea from behind the Leisure Container, a voice from behind me says 'what do you think you're doing?' I explain that I'm a journalist (and restrain myself from informing him that I'm conducting a peripatetic investigation of the Problem of Southampton, which is what I am in fact doing) and get out my Press Pass, which says on the back that the Police Federation recognises me as a 'bona fide news gatherer'. 'That's nice', he says when I get out the NUJ card. 'But have you got permission?' 'What, to take photos in a carpark?' 'This is private property. You have to have permission.' He then makes me delete the photographs I took in the car park from the digital camera, one by one, before I am allowed out. I take one last photo before I step out of the car park onto the 'street', which you can see above.


There is no street here. This whole gigantic site is designed solely for the car, so my being a pedestrian is already suspicious, impeccably white and well-spoken as I may be. There are two recent buildings as part of this spreading mass of shed, one for Ikea, which includes - oh yes - some public art on the wooden spirals of its car park; and another for cruise operator Carnival, which, with its high-tech cribbings, is almost a work of architecture, although not a work of urban architecture - it's a business park building that is, somehow, literally yards from a medieval walled town.



Similarly un-shed-like is the 1994 De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel ('the Brunswick Centre with a glass pyramid fucked into it', cherchez le ghost). I've long found this a risible, ridiculous building, but somehow in the context of blank, deathly sheds it seems to have at least some ambition, some statement of place and clumsy grandeur - and surely better a failed, absurd grandiosity than the utterly grim utiltarianism of the other city hotels (and behind the De Vere, you can see Eric Lyons' Castle House tower block being reclad with green glass and UPVC, something I hoped I would never see but am unsurprised to do so - it must be made to look as cheap as everything else). I'm walking past it to get to Mayflower Park, the only place in the whole city where something resembling an uninterrupted view of the harbour is available to the pedestrian.


I've written about the incinerator before. I like it very much. The symmetry of the two ships next to their island cranes is similarly poignant. The park itself is, as ever, beautifully desolate, and enlivened by City Architect Leon Berger's quietly fantastic Taliesin shelters. This was, pre-crash, the mooted location for The Spitfire Wing, a potential carrier of what the local paper, the Echo, calls 'the wow factor', the *iconic*, monumental landmark building the city apparently lacks, spurred by its increasingly desperate attempts to compete with, of all things, Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower. An article in the same paper a year or so ago claimed that this has been replaced with the 'woe factor', as almost all the new projects that had been announced or had received planning permission were cancelled or shelved. Since then, a couple are limping their way to completion, which presumably represents 'green shoots'. In response to all this, Tory council leader Royston Smith commented 'Southampton's golden age will just have to be put back a couple of years'.


The Isle of Wight ferries depart from here, and were the focus of sympathy action with the Vestas Wind Turbine Occupation last year, a reminder that the city is not as dead as it may appear. The Red Funnel Ferry promises a 'wight christmas'. The wonderfully silly Edwardian dock building adjacent is now Maxim's Casino.


New Southampton looks much the same as New Everywhere Else, with the proviso that it took them a little while longer to cotton onto the psuedomodernist turn, so pitched roofs and 'decorative' banded brickwork continued here for longer than other cities. This includes the 'French Quarter' (Southampton is lucky enough to have only one 'Quarter', though a Cultural Quarter has been promised for some time), which contains a 'Property Cafe'. Near to all this is an earlier attempt to design a new city district from half-a-century ago, the Holy Rood council estate, designed to replace a bombed slum.


Designed by Lyons Israel Ellis, a finishing school for Brutalists from the Smithsons to Stirling and Neave Brown, in the 1950s, Holy Rood has always seemed the poor relation to their masterpiece, Wyndham Court - a much more straightforward scattering of low and medium-rise modernist blocks, using the soft-Brutalist vernacular of stock-brick and concrete. The interesting things about it come from the layout rather than the aesthetic, which is powerful and robust but not especially tectonically exciting. You pass under buildings, through courtyards and gardens. You can't drink there, though. At one end, a piece of public art manages to be actually quite good, providing a signpost for the place which doesn't make it look institutional, without going for the usual alternative of being brightly patronising.


On one side the estate is faced by complimentary blocks by Leon Berger, and on the other by the pallid mild-modernism of the Debenhams Department Store. It's a fairly unimpressive way to rebuild a bomb-devastated city compared to, say, Sheffield, Rotterdam or Le Havre, but to see exactly what makes it so worthwhile you need to see what comes next.


It uses almost exactly the same materials and components - brick, glass, orthogonal geometry, balconies, a flat roof - but is so mean and inept that it makes the surrounding 1950s buildings look like remnants from a great, lost civilisation by comparison. Apologies for the appalling quality of the photograph, but it didn't deserve much better.


The effects of aerial warfare are visible on practically every corner if you look hard enough, but Holy Rood Church is the most eloquent statement of it - a bombed-out church which was left in its ruined state as a memorial, specifically to the Merchant Navy. It has become a generalised memorial space, so there's a plaque dedicated to the Falklands War (grotesquely putting this nasty squabble on the same level as the fight against Nazi Germany), and an earlier memorial to the Titanic. The oral history here is being enjoyed by my sister Frances.


2. Ocean Village Idiot


Not far from here is the South Western Hotel, whose Americanist 1920s extension I have already raved about here. Its environs are one of the few places where you can get some idea of what the first skyscrapers might have been like, in that the two-storey surroundings are dominated by something four times their height, but nothing has really attempted to follow it in the immediate area (save some abysmal halls of residence), so it suggests an imminent take-off, frozen in time. More to the point, I have become accustomed to not looking at the bad things in this part of town, because here they are almost outnumbered by good things. If the Terminus Station were reopened, then the city's centre of gravity would be shifted from a gigantic retail park to a disparate, complex city, near to the estates of Northam, St Mary and Holy Rood, the (small but quite lovely) walled town, and some attempts at civic architecture courtesy of Cunard, White Star and the South-Western Railway. The station is now a casino.


The train shed is a car park, and though some of the station's service buildings survive, the aforementioned Halls of Residence would have to be demolished before the station could be rebuilt. Which would be a tragedy, I know.


Before getting back to the point, here are two urbanist jokes for light relief. One, Crescent Apartments, yuppiedromes left unfinished after the crash. The other, a pub stuck inbetween random light industry.




Near here is the original, Eastern Dock, the one from which the Titanic (and all the others) sailed, the place where Cunard and White Star moved their offices from Liverpool, in order, no doubt, to be closer to London (recently Liverpool has been threatening a belated revenge, and who can blame them). This was transformed in the 1980s into 'Ocean Village', a combined marina, business park and leisure complex. The name itself implies what was supposed to happen to this area of the city. I tend to think that a place which builds something like the South Western Hotel, Wyndham Court, or even that Civic Centre Gavin Stamp likes so much, is not a village, nor even a Town, but a City. Evidently the City Council disagreed. The deco Ocean Terminal was flattened to build Ocean Village, and the most recent building here is a car park in neo-deco style, as if in some kind of act of repentance.



Surrounding it are the local bank HQs, all designed in a business park style that is a fine reminder of why the late 70s-90s are currently as loathed by architectural fashion as much as the 40s-60s were beforehand, aside from a mere changing of the guard. What is so depressing about this place is the way that the formal return of decoration, vernacular etc is paralleled by an alienating, anti-pedestrian, motorcity approach to planning that is inherited from modernism's worst aspects – this is basically a series of surface car parks with buildings inbetween, rather than vice versa, and all the jollity, the stained glass, the patterns and the pediments appear as pathetic attempts to distract the driver or pedestrian from the alienating newness of the landscape.


I do have some good memories of this place in its form as a leisure complex, I'll admit, and I find the postmodernism of spectacle and gee-gaws somewhat preferable – the Trocadero over New Urbanism. The sole surviving dock building here used to lead into 'Canute's Pavilion', a mirror-glass mall which featured such joys as a 'humorous' T-shirt shop, Edwardian arcade games and ice cream parlours. It also had a shop which sold nautical tat of various sorts, including a piece of coral onto which I fell as a child, gashing my arm in the process. After only around 15 years of existence, Canute's Pavilion was demolished a few years ago for what is one of the few attempts here at the Urban Renaissance jive.


Two blocks, restaurants on the ground floor, three more shelved by the recession but masked by the ads, big meaningless bit of Public Art in the middle, and preservation of the disused public transport tracks as ornaments.


Norman Bates just out of shot.


But, as stated, at least it doesn't look like this, the earlier architecture of the 'marina'...


The pornography of property is plastered across the building site, but as ever the enduring question is – what sort of luxury is this, which seems predicated on the occupants of the flats being so permanently exhausted by their work that they need be so infantilised, that they need to relax and be indulged in these secluded, ostentatiously calm places? Not to mention the question what sort of luxury involves such minuscule proportions and such mean materials. Yet compared with the woeful vernacular architecture of the rest of the marina I have to admit to a thankfulness that this at least resembles city architecture, and admit to preferring that central Southampton resemble aspirational, yuppified Leeds or Manchester than upper-crust Havant, or Bursledon - one of the few ways in which Blairism is marginally, slightly, if almost imperceptibly, preferable to its more straightforward precursor, Thatcherism. There is, though, no sense here of the freedoms of a city, and the marketing - based on exclusivity and seclusion - implies that these are, as Meades claims, suburbs in the guise of inner cities. That even this won't stick in somewhere as doggedly suburban as south-east England is indicated by the unfinished nature of this already cheap project. Southampton's hold on urbanity is light, indefinite. It is liable to crumble at a touch.


Somehow in the middle of all this there is the Harbour Lights Cinema, and I never cease to marvel at how incongruously fine it is, how generous and clever a building, and how - unlike everything else here - it can be looked at more than once. New things can be found in it. Like everything else of worth it was ritually attacked by the local press, and there's no doubt that hardly anybody from the estates ever goes here (well, me and my sister do, but we don't count) but I'd be far more upset to see this go than I was when Canute's Pavilion was knocked down.

3. WestQuay


This is all really just leading up to BDP's enormous WestQuay mega-mall, the main occupant of the former Pirelli site. I've previously gingerly avoided it, settling for the odd one-line dismissal of the place. I don't like it, obviously, but the language that is used to attack it is remarkably similar to that which is used to attack some of the architecture I love. It's out of scale, it's too monumental, it's fortress-like, it's Not In Keeping, it leads to abrupt and shocking contrasts, it's too clean and too shiny...well, yes. Look at it here, where it bridges the street, next to a line of Regency Terraces, and note the arch contempt for that which precedes it, and the paltry way in which it attempts to 'respond' to the terrace through an industrial, lightly brick-clad wall, with storage ever so slightly legible as its function.


Similarly, remembering that the shopping mall's suppressed dreamlife, from Victor Gruen to Walter Benjamin - if being especially whimsical, we could even mention BDP's own socialist past - is an attempt to recreate social spaces, to become a social condenser in the service of consumer capitalism. If we condemn the malls without being quite careful about how we do so, we line up with the likes of Paul Kingsnorth, those who care more about the destruction of small shops than the destruction of the human race.


I still hate it. Some of my friends helped build it, you know. Indulging in a bit of manual labour to save up money for their gap years. This irritated me, these middle class kids doing working class jobs which I had made damn sure I would never have to do myself. They cut their hair and acquired a sudden interest in football, while I grew mine and became ever less interested in Saints' decline. The first time I ever went to WestQuay I was shocked by it, not least because of the fact it coincided with the destruction of St Mary's Street - and I found in their Waterstone's a copy of the Monbiot book which has a chapter on this very topic. I read the entire chapter in there as a minor, piffling protest. Last week when there I bumped into an old friend, which happens very seldom in Southampton (because they all left around the same time I did). Minutes later I found this on the shelves, in the Philosophy section.


I don't know if I would have bragged about it or not if I had known when I spoke to her. Probably. Last time I spoke to this person she asked if I still lived on the Flower Estate, where she once stayed on an excursion from (relatively!) genteel Portswood. Briefly continuing in this self-dramatising vein, the following walkway has a walk-on part in the first chapter of the book above.


Before WestQuay there was Colonel Seifert's Arundel Towers - two office blocks surmounting a car park, a slide of which I have been known to use as illustration in discussion of the destruction of modernism in Britain. I remember it, faintly, the strangeness and intrigue of its multiple levels and the Dog and Duck pub more than the twin towers. The break with Arundel Towers' approach to urbanism was hardly total. In terms of how it interacts with the landscape, WestQuay is in fact strikingly like some of my favourite post-war buildings - especially Castle Market or the Epic Building in Sheffield - in that it incorporates a deep slope, multiple levels and entry points, and two major walkways bridging the roads that the developers couldn't obliterate - but unlike those, there's no pleasure for the walker in traversing all these different ways of getting from A to B. This isn't merely because the earlier buildings are picturesquely lived-in and dilapidated, but because they aren't seamless, you feel the movement from one place to another, you are able to enjoy it in some manner, and the spaces contain places where you could stop and think, rather than be induced to consume at every possible moment.


But WestQuay is a remarkably complex building, including within itself a deceptively small street façade to Above Bar, the high street it destroyed, a glazed viewing area as part of the 'food court', a Mendelsohnian, curved John Lewis store, and inside what the mall's website describes as a 'focal point', a descendant of Gruen's 'social' spaces, where the lifts and escalators are all clustered, giving a frictionless impression of constant movement. The gestures at contextualism are present, correct, and pathetic - at the end which faces the Medieval Walls, the architects have given it a complimentary and functionless watchtower, and the shiny, plasticky cladding is infilled with rubble to be In Keeping (something which was also employed by Leon Berger in his tower blocks at St Mary's and Shirley). This rubble is mostly at ground-floor level, where it is part of sloping walls, thick enough to withstand a blast or a ramraid. It has a symbolic function quite aside from the pomo 'reference' to the medieval wall - to deter anyone who ought not to be here.


What makes it particularly malign is what happens at the back. Behind the walls and behind Above Bar are the service spaces of West Quay, and they take up a massive amount of urban space, made up mostly of multistorey car parks, but also of the series of retail parks that accompanied the main mall - three of them, all themselves with attendant massive car parks. Needless to say, this is not a nice place to walk if you are a pedestrian. The entire area - there might be a mile of this stuff or more - is simply not for walking in, and although this might be expected on the Kentish hinterland of the M25, it bears repeating that this is right in the centre of a city. This is part of its justification: it keeps people in the city. But the economy is exactly the same as that of an out-of-town mall - reached by car, actively discouraging leaving the malls and venturing into the city around, uninterested in the possibilities of the city itself, and leaving the other side of town, the side of it that is not shopping mall, to rot. One upshot of this is the weekend's ultraviolence along Above Bar, another is the continuing disintegration of St Mary's. But service industry jobs were indeed duly created.


WestQuay does make an effort in certain respects, and this effort makes it all the more tragic. You can promenade around it, as you can along the city walls. Yet there's a spectacular incoherence to it all - each part seems disconnected to the other, aside from the wipe-clean white cladding - it's never pulled together through any design idea of any sort because it's simply impossible to do so. You simply can't make a building as complex as this into something legible unless the architect is exceptionally talented and/or conscientious (apologies to all at BDP for the implication that they may be neither). We can see here once again how over the last decade a Modernism of a sort has continued, not as a coherent ideology, an aesthetic or a formal language which embraces and intensifies the experience of modernity, but via the element of it lamented by urbanists and sentimentalists since the 1920s - the war on the pedestrian. This is a landscape where the car is dominant, where the idea of streets, of walking, of an element of surprise, are comprehensively designed out. Conversely, the only way to rediscover some kind of element of excitement in these spaces is to walk around (not inside) them, precisely because the planning itself does not want you to. You see things. You don't see people, but you see intriguing things, some sort of autonomous logic of commerce almost without leavening or prettification (I say almost, as some of the car parks are made of brick, as that's the vernacular of some language or other). Like the container port, this is 'the exposed nerve cables of capital', an inhuman space where it no longer needs to present a human face.