Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Ugliest Building in Britain

‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’ HRH Prince Charles

Everyone had a strong opinion on Portsmouth’s Tricorn shopping centre. In 1967 the Observer architecture critic Ian Nairn raved that it had been “given an architectural orchestration in reinforced concrete that is the equivalent of Berlioz or the 1812 Overture.” The same year it became the first shopping development to win a Civic Trust Architecture award. Yet in surveys of public opinion since the sixties, it has regularly been named “the ugliest building in Britain.”

The Tricorn scheme was first hatched in the early 60s. Portsmouth had suffered heavily from bombing and, like many other cities, began to make plans to renew and develop its beleaguered centre. In the contemporary schemes for New Towns like Stevenage, Cumbernauld, and Basildon, shops, residential and leisure facilities were designed by a single team of architects and built together around a central public space. Portsmouth opted to design a new mini-centre along these lines. Architect Owen Luder was commissioned to design one building to meet all of Portsmouth’s needs. It would contain a department store, a supermarket, smaller shops, residential flats, a multi-storey car park, restaurants, bars and the re-housed Commercial Road wholesale market.

When it opened, though, the new Tricorn centre cut an odd profile across the city. Locals didn’t know what to make of it. No-one could deny it was a dramatic, eye catching structure. Boat-shaped parking decks were stacked against the skyline. Access for cars came via a huge spiral ramp. The entire centre was open to the elements, the walls completely flat and bereft of any applied decoration. The whole piece was executed in concrete, unpainted and unrendered. The walls bore only the slight textures of the wooden shuttering into which the liquid concrete had been poured.

This style, popular with architects in the sixties, was christened “brutalism”, both in recognition of its uncompromising look, and after the French beton brut (unpainted concrete). Le Corbusier had been the first well-known architect to use concrete in this way, on his “Unite d’Habitation” of 1948-54, a huge housing block in Marseilles commissioned on a tiny postwar budget. The architect decided that instead of trying to disguise the harsh economic realities of the period, he would declare them in the structure itself, by refusing to paint, decorate, or smooth out his raw material. This new style of Brutalism enjoyed a brief but all encompassing worldwide postwar vogue, mainly because it was cheap to do. The Tricorn was no exception. It went from a model to a working building in four years and cost only £200,000. The Council needed a quick solution, and they got it cheap.

The official opening of the Tricorn in 1966 was a disaster. The rain bucketed down, gathering in lakes on the uneven surface of the first floor market, while the Lord Mayor made an apologetic speech.

“It looks horrible from the outside” he acknowledged, “but we are not here for things which look pretty, but which work.”

The centre didn’t work, though. By 1969 many shops had still not been let – and the market traders were complaining.

“You can say what you want about Commercial Road,” said Mr Chamberlain, a trader, “but we were happy there”. Amongst the grievances were inadequate drainage, the lack of shelter from the elements, dangerous approach roads and an absence of toilet facilities. The story was just as bad over in the residential blocks. Victor Hogg left the flats in the early seventies.

“It was lovely when we first moved in,” he admitted. “but in less than a year, the walls were black with mould. Come winter everything got damp.”

Portsmouth’s newer ‘Cascades’ shopping centre, opened only a street away in 1989, cost £100 million, and took the council fifteen years from conception to completion. Heralded as “one of the most complicated planning and development schemes ever undertaken in this country” it won no architectural awards, and no plaudits in the broadsheets. The council had learned it’s lesson though - it was never voted the ugliest building in Britain.

After Cascades opened, there were a few half-hearted attempts to resurrect the failing Tricorn. In 1993 some of the walls were painted white. Soon after, there was a pathetic attempt to “rebrand” the Tricorn with the Cascades logo. Yet in 1995 Rod Vorm, the longest serving trader, admitted defeat and closed his shop. The place was now completely empty, and its fate appeared to be sealed. A demolition date was set.

Perversely, in a sudden and unexpected twist, some local residents chose this moment to stick up for the centre and demand its preservation. The Portsmouth Society, dedicated to protecting the heritage of the area, applied to English Heritage for a grade II listing, forcing the Council to halt all future plans pending the decision. Portsmouth Society secretary Roger James wrote that the Tricorn was a piece of “sculptural architecture” worthy of preservation.

The Society’s move came at a time when English Heritage was in the throes of a deep re-appraisal of postwar architecture. People began to appreciate the need to protect hitherto maligned structures, lest they lose forever these snapshots of a different era. The early 90s saw Denys Lasdun’s brutalist National Theatre, along with a host of other brutal classics from the Barbican centre to the earliest motorway flyovers, receive a Grade I listing. The Tricorn, however, was not to be so lucky. After some months of deliberation, English Heritage decided that the building was “unsuccessful.”

Various further demolition schemes came and went in the late 90s, while the structure continued to rot. The dark, narrow, piss-stinking alleyways engendered a hideous sense of foreboding even during daylight hours. Incidences of suicides in the multi-storey car park were so high that The Samaritans affixed placards on the top level. The whole place was altogether a different world from its sister centre Cascades, only a few metres away. Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock summed up emotions when he said “it’s as if there’s a curse on the city from the Tricorn”.

With the rise of the internet, support for the preservation of the space grew stronger, but it was changing. It no longer spoke of “beauty” or “sculptural architecture” but focussed on the Tricorn as a kind of symbol for anti-consumerism. One such group, Proles for Modernism, organized a so-called Freeart Collective Festival there “to make some human marks and noise in a city saturated with little more than commercial signage and naval heritage.” The Tricorn’s purpose in this process, according to the organization, was that it “disrupts the city, ideologically and visually. It does not woo the shopper, rather it breaks the icon that shopping has become.” So the Tricorn, according to this new wave of fans, was “completed” by its emptiness and failure.

Two anonymous Portsmouth writers launched an internet defence of the Tricorn, entitled “Our Brutal Friend”. “Essential to our support”, they wrote, “is that the Tricorn refused to exist as a mute space, a facilitator of an anodyne, seamless shopping experience.” They pointed out that Portsmouth Council had thus far only failed to demolish the hated monolith because they couldn’t stump up the cash to replace it. “The buildings continued existence owes more to the demands of ultra-capitalism than it does to its official heritage value”.

David Ferrone and Martin Fickling, two young film-makers, spent four years documenting the life of the centre. Their film was nominated for an award in Southampton’s Harbour Lights festival. Additionally, the bare walls of the centre offered a vast blank space for graffiti writers in the city. The wall next to the old wholesale market on the first floor became home to a huge multi-coloured mural, sprayed by local people. The spraycan art varied from the funny, scrappy and whimsical to the abstract and beautiful. On the ground floor there grew a separate, bitchy narrative of people and relationships, scrawled in marker pen by bored teenagers.

The story finally reached its conclusion in 2004 when the Tricorn centre was knocked down, despite some last minute fears that the demolition would unleash a horrendous plague of rats and fleas on Portsmouth. Local news played angry scenes of residents arguing with anti-demolition protesters, before applauding and cheering to see the overdue toppling of the “giant pigeon loft” that had blighted their city for nearly forty years.
Photographs by Peter James Field

6 comments:

  1. Great video - so interesting to hear the observations of the architect.

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  2. The last in tact sign from the Tricorn is going up for auction by Nesbits Portsmouth on the 7th of Dec 2011. For more info please contact Nesbits.

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  3. This is a great piece of work; thank you!

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  4. Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading it!

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  5. Hi, We (Strong Island) are asking people to submit their photos of the Tricorn for the upcoming Tricorn exhibition at the Portsmouth City Museum. We are curating a community panel in the exhibition and would love as many great photos as possible by the people of Portsmouth. You can find out all the details at:

    http://www.strong-island.co.uk/2014/01/20/we-want-your-tricorn-photos-for-the-museum-exhibition/

    I saw your great photos of the Tricorn on Flickr, If you would like to submit your photos please get in touch with me via email: paul@strong-island.co.uk

    Thank you in advance!

    Best,

    Paul.

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