Friday, 21 October 2011

Urban Trawl: Aberdeen

It often escapes attention, especially south of the border, but the UK is a petrol state. Although, unlike that riot-torn paragon of inequality, violence and social collapse Norway, the British government had the good sense to leave North Sea Oil in private hands, much money has been generated by the oil deposits off the north-east coast of Scotland, and it should have left some interesting effect on Aberdeen. This former fishing and shipbuilding town should, in theory, be a pulsating hub of the enterprise economy, it should glitter with gorgeous architecture, vaulting forms and general pugnacity. Full of petrodollars and a large population of 'wealth creators', it ought to be a thumping vindication of British free market capitalism.

Strained sarcasm aside, it isn't quite that. Aberdeen, when it was a pejoratively thin-lipped and Presbyterian town that made its money from fish and boats, had the kind of proper architectural and urbanist ambition so common to Scotland and so foreign to England. Strict building laws, a focused and clear town plan, decent upstanding architecture, all worked together to create a unified, coherent urban identity. It also had the luck of ready supplies of granite. It is odd to find an entire city made of this stuff, to put it mildly; under the slate grey skies, it is an environment so regionally specific that it could easily get lachrymose; literally almost everything in sight is grey. You can just imagine the likes of Will Alsop, Christophe Egret or AHMM having coronaries in the face of it. 'But where is the vibrancy?'

In fact, Aberdeen is bustling most of the day, with the colour scheme obviously not having an immediately depressing effect, and in that at least the traces of the oil money can be seen. The central paradox of Aberdeen, though, and it can be expanded across the UK as a whole, is as follows. When it was a relatively poor town, Aberdeen spent enormous amounts of its time and money on architecture and planning; Union Street nearly bankrupted it. Architecture from the 1930s to 1970s shows a decent, if sometimes dour municipal standard being kept up. Yet in the thirty-five years since Aberdeen has been The Oil Capital Of Europe, the city has not seen a single worthwhile building in the city centre. Not one. Over a quarter-century of parsimony and mediocrity has been wealth's bequest to the city. In fact, as you soon find if you cross the Dee into the tenements of Torry, not even wealth has been wealth's bequest to the city. Maybe for the first few years, until the gold rush calmed down, there just wasn't time – but the recent proposals, and recent buildings, are perhaps worst of all. That this isn't even surprising is indictment enough. How on earth did we settle for this? How did Aberdeen settle for it?

Often, the reason for the poverty of architecture in the UK is easily ascribed to industrial decline. The story is the same whether the site is in Wapping, Govan or Holbeck; shell-shocked municipalities agreeing to anything that might possibly reinvigorate their moribund economies and generate jobs and investment; fancy architecture can wait, but for god's sake don't put off Persimmon, Tesco or Travelodge. What makes Aberdeen an almost shocking experience is that here it doesn't apply. There's a port, and it's working all day, with ships and dockers in constant movement. The harbour area reflects that, from the new hotels to the signs in Norwegian in the waterside theme pubs, to the monumentally obnoxious traffic, with endless lines of lorries and the longest pedestrian waiting times imaginable. Unlike the superficially comparable nuclear port of Barrow it doesn't feel like a strange securitised graft onto a dying town, but very much part of it, organically connected to the life of the city. Yet just next to it is a new Ibis Hotel that is every bit as dismal as every other Ibis Hotel in the UK – more so perhaps because of the way it clumsily spreads itself out across a sloping cobbled street, which terminates in a miserable Vue cinema. Aberdeen's planning department surely knows that Ibis needs them more than vice versa. It can't have come from lack of confidence. Yet the exact same racket is at work here as everywhere else.

Aberdeen's 'civic heart' is going to undergo changes, as the REGENERATING ABERDEEN posters everywhere make clear. Regenerating it from what, you might ask? From what recent period of decline in this highly economically successful city? That noted, something strange happens to dereliction in Aberdeen. The pristine granite doesn't really age, but of course things grow on disused buildings here as much as they do everywhere else, so there is the interesting spectacle of shrubbery growing out of otherwise sparkling grey stone buildings, seen most vividly on the Edwardian baroque Mackintosh department store, which also boasts some nice Jules Verne external walkways. The general standard of 18th and 19th century buildings in Aberdeen is impressive, partly for rectitude, partly just for consistency, and that tradition of slightly staid but dignified architecture was obviously continued in the early 20th century, as in the ghostly neo-Gothic of Alexander Marshall Mackenzie's Marishal College and his conversely amusingly stolid neoclassical St Mark's Church; and the American classical RBS building on Union Street showed metropolitan flair. The 1960s municipal buildings are similarly flattered by their material. The only pre-petrol disappointment is Aberdeen Market, its ungentrified space clearly very important to the city's liveliness, but architecturally sadly introverted.

Where it gets really interesting, however, is in the sweep of the Rosemount Viaduct, whose dramatic engineering leads up to tall, thin tenements and eventually to A.B Gardner's Rosemount Gardens, a delightful mini-Karl-Marx-Hof in granite. Copying practically to the letter albeit on a miniature scale the precedent of Red Vienna, this is a curving courtyard building enclosing secluded gardens, decorated on the street façade with optimistic Eric Gill-like sculptures. Very interestingly, and unusually for a non-new town in Scotland, post-war modernism was of exactly the same quality, although on a far greater scale. In fact, they emphasise their size fearlessly; the especially dramatic hilltop Gallowgate estate features maisonettes and then towers stepping upwards from a vigorously modelled car park. What is unusual is the level of upkeep. Whatever scorn should rightly be poured upon Aberdeen's recent architectural commissioning, they can't be faulted for maintenance of their council housing estates; one of the city' many puzzles. Yet these towers were clearly of a high quality from the start. Under the control of municipal architect George McKeith rather than Wates or Wimpey, there was no system-building, no cheap solutions, but in-situ concrete, sharp Corbusian designs, and granite infill that glows beautifully in the (admittedly rare) sun. And somehow, the city has neither privatised them or let them rot. It's a wonderful surprise. They were still building tower blocks to this standard as late as 1985. Why here? It doesn't seem to exactly fit with the city's other priorities. But at least the money went somewhere decent, for once.

But conversely, walk around the Victorian tenements of Torry, and you could be in a granite Gorbals, depressed and sad as the ships go in and out of the dock just adjacent. The walk there goes through some of the places where the oil money went, most of which is mercifully confined to the suburbs. A drab 70s office block with a new, even cheaper new glass bit added, is the offices for Sodexho, ODS Petrodata, Atkins – a strange mix of engineers and our usual outsourcing vultures. Further on, the wipe-clean business park nonentity of the Bridge View office block, and then Union Square, the city's new megamall. In the centre of town, just opposite Marishal College, there's a city council poster of Union Square's surface car park, its grim exurban-imposed-on-inner-urban expanse in front of Marks & Spencers, as if they were proud of it. Next to it is a clumsily massed Jury's Inn, but the mall itself commits its own acts of civic thuggery – namely incorporating and swallowing up part of Aberdeen Railway Station next door, which has instead a reduced, unimpressive back-side frontage to the street. It's so much less important.

The real disaster hasn't happened yet. Union Terrace Gardens is a fabulous public space carved out of infrastructural accident, a bowl curving down from a viaduct along a railway track, a magical little place of mature trees, strange steps and courting goths. It's completely unique in its topography, a park with real terrain, not a mere civic concession. It is scheduled, despite heavy opposition but with the assistance of local oil millionaires, to be levelled, to create an underground shopping mall, or rather a 'cross between an Italian Piazza and a mini-Central Park'. Is there anything more provincial than that statement? We could be a great Scottish city, but instead we'll settle for a crap version of somewhere else. Like so much else in Aberdeen, it is baffling.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Urban Trawl: Edinburgh

For those of us, like the present writer, who have never been to Edinburgh before, Waverley Station offers two very different introductions. First, you arrive in the most chaotically planned railway station, much of it under scaffolding, a multi-level maze; the first thing you see when leaving the Kings Cross train is a cluster of Police vans. Walk around this station a little bit and you find a grand, top-lit neoclassical entrance hall that was clearly once very elegant. At the centre of it is a little pod housing a branch of Costa Coffee. Anti-pigeon netting hovers above it like cobwebs, and no less than twelve CCTV cameras flank the edges, in case you were planning to loot a latte. Scottish home rule might perhaps be making this overwhelmingly left-of-centre country a more humane place than its southern neighbour, but this station is a sight which could only be found in Great Britain. Heavy security, blaring commerce, mistreated imperial grandeur, confusing non-planning, all are present and correct.

Find your way out of the station and you see something else, and the suffocating Festival crowds become irrelevant. A Victorian-futurist high bridge soars overhead, and it plunges bisecting two tall towers, masonry on steel frames, baroque in theory, Gothic in practice. It's a scene as excitingly metropolitan as anything you'll find in Scotland's de facto rather than de jure capital in Glasgow, and it instantly replaces the initial feeling of irritation and dread with one of expectation and anticipation. Look to one side of this amazing mise-en-scene and you find a brutally craggy acropolis; look to the other side and there's a planned neoclassical city of great urbanity. Familiarity with Edinburgh might well breed contempt, but these first impressions are of awe. And awe also, at how this unusual and dramatic form of urbanism can have become so popular, with the teeming crowds all around. Take Edinburgh and make it into a list of things people like in cities, and you'll find it highly counter-intuitive. What people like, apparently, is highly coherent and even authoritarian town planning, steep and melodramatic topography, very tall buildings, the total dominance of flats, with hardly any single-family houses to be seen - and sombre, dark colour everywhere, with only tiny hints of the rustic or the twee. While with other places that it might be compared to – a Bath, a York – there's the sense that if tourism was taken away the whole thing might disappear, in Edinburgh you feel that it could get along very nicely without all this unseemly bustle, thank you very much.

I received a quick lesson in Edinburgh topography by travelling through the coherence of the New Town, watching it gradually devolve into tenements that could be easily relocated to Glasgow (although their settings could not be), then past a large (and here, especially incongruously crap) PFI school to Fettes College, who are hosting a public art event of some description. Tony Blair's alma mater has a darkling presence on the skyline in this end of Edinburgh. David Bryce's blackened, gory design towers domineeringly over an area of privilege as marked as anything in Mayfair. Yet it is also an area of flats, and flats built as flats. The axis leading away from it is lined by interwar tenements, showing the basic components of Scottish mass housing – the stone, the dignity, the high windows, the scraggy backsides – beginning to accommodate a few cosmetic features from the modern movement, such as moderne typography, glazed stairwells and the elimination of previous tenements' already minimal ornament. You wonder what might have happened if this minor reform had been taken as a model for post-war urban mass housing in Scotland rather than a botched revolution (or at least, until you find their much less attractive working class equivalents elsewhere in the city).

Edinburgh has within it a planning tradition which is the opposing force to all grands projets – the legacy of Patrick Geddes, the late 19th/early 20th century planner who recommended 'conservative surgery' to repair slum districts – such as the tall late medieval/renaissance tenements of the Old Town were when he started writing. One of the things about Edinburgh that makes it charming rather than merely impressive is the results of this at the bottom end of the Royal Mile. Here, tiny council estates, designed alternately in an unpretentious grey and brown Scottish Brutalist-Vernacular or in a arcaded neo-classicism evocative of reconstructed post-war Central Europe, are as dignified and undemonstrative as their repaired and renovated pre-modern forbears. The Gorbals or the East End of Glasgow should have been treated like this in the 1960s. However sensible Geddes-style incremental planning might be for these sorts of dense, highly developed areas, they also rest on a certain degree of architectural skill that, for some unfathomable reason, has been absent in recent additions. It isn't as if Edinburgh doesn't have the architects fit for the task – small-scale gems like Richard Murphy's Fruitmarket Gallery, or other small-scale interventions by the likes of Murphy and Malcolm Fraser prove otherwise. Yet the new housing around Holyrood is fine as planning and disappointing as architecture, as cheap as a new stunning development in the Thames Valley. The stone-clad bank offices nearby are even worse.

On brief acquaintance, there are two large-scale structures in Edinburgh after Geddes that abandon conservative surgery and instead go for the drastic and risky operation, one high-end, one low. The latter is 'St James' Shopping', the sort of structure to bring out the antimodernist in even your correspondent *, a complex whose ability to have received planning permission even in the 1960s is truly extraordinary, straggling as it does in front of the unforgettable symmetrical vista of Waterloo Place. Its recent redevelopment compounds the injury, labouring under the twin misapprehensions that it can all be made better via wonky shapes (iconic!) and stone-cladding (contextual!). Turn from that back to Holyrood, to the other non-conservative piece of surgery – EMBT's Scottish Parliament. This is not an easily dismissed building. Spreading into fragments at the foot of the hill, its complexities defy glib analysis, although on short acquaintance the most striking aspect is how Miralles and Tagliabue specifically tried to design the ubiquitous security features of a contemporary government building. Rather than leaving it to the Council, the architects helpfully provided bristly organic high fences and sensually curved concrete blast walls.

For all the local references, it does not grow out of the site in the same way as Edinburgh's other acropolis, the former Scottish Office of St Andrew's House. Thomas Tait's very '30s design has a nod here to Constructivism and there to Italian Novecento, but it feels organic to the landscape in a corporeal, non-rhetorical way.

Its grandiose planning is continued in the other Scottish Government building in Leith, but not much else. RMJM's paranoid panorama of business park misery is an example of how the derelict port has been transformed via all manner of pepper-potting, of luxury flats, bistros and the like. Not much of it seems to have trickled down into the later tenements, miserable Presbyterian things compared with their predecessors, nor into the port town's Brutalist blocks. These are sometimes fine, heroic architecture, like the famed, sinuous 'Banana Flats', but sometimes less impressive as urbanism, with the Banana block's car park a barrier between itself and the rest of the city. Otherwise, Leith is abundant in evidence that 'conservative surgery' in and of itself is not much better if the architecture is devoid of presence, elegance, or often even competence.

Now and again in Leith you find an infill site between warehouses and tenements that has a genuinely worthwhile building lodged in, but mostly it's a matter of will-this-do, shameful in a city with an architectural legacy like this. It's no use blaming it on the context - Leith itself can nearly hold its own with the city centre, with several hard, dark classical buildings that are fittingly muscular and robust, lasting as far as the spectacular Americanist concrete atlantis of the Flour Mills.

Yet the rest of Leith Dock is, and no exaggeration here, one of the worst new developments in the UK, and that it should have come to this here is unforgivable. Reading or Southampton can boast little worse than Conran's exurban, introverted Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre, some awful regen-cliché flats, or the pitiful Mint Casino. In any city this would be a scandal, let alone one as rich as this, with architects as talented, in a capital that has not exactly been short of investment. There is no excuse for this other than philistinism, stupidity, desperation and graft. The site is now pockmarked with wasteland, and Edinburgh Council need to be publicly shamed into clawing back at least some pride by starting over with something that is at least slightly worthy of its location.

* (on second viewing, the back side by the bus stop is pretty good)

Originally published in Building Design, 25/8/11

Monday, 12 September 2011

Viddy Well

Things has said some unexpectedly nice things about the photographic arm of this series/blog/book/project, so here's a few sets for your delectation that are otherwise unwritten-up. Lincoln, Leicester, Wakefield, Newport, Brecon, Cardiff, Catford, Eltham, Stratford, Edinburgh, Leith, Kew, Bournemouth. Most or some of these will be written about properly sooner or later.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Urban Trawl: The Valleys

'South Wales needs a Plan!' declared a book published during the Great Depression, on one of the 'distressed areas' hit hardest during the 1930s. The cities of South Wales – Cardiff, Newport, Swansea – became boomtowns in the late nineteenth century for one reason, and one reason only – to export and process the produce of the coal seam that ran across the valleys, and the tiny industrial towns that arose to service them. Now, in 2011, it seems the place needs a Plan, again; among the places worst hit by the recession are the likes of Merthyr Tydfil, which face huge rates of unemployment. The same places hit, in the same ways, yet again. Iain Duncan Smith helpfully suggested that the people of Merthyr up sticks to Cardiff, where there are nine unemployed people for every job vacancy. The Valleys are at least topical.

Does it even make sense to include the Valleys in something called 'Urban Trawl'? They don't fit the pattern of any other rural or urban settlement in the UK. These long rows of terraces, distributed along steep, scarred and verdant hills, are obviously too dense and industrial to be 'the countryside', no matter how gorgeously they might nestle in those undulations; they're largely too small, too bounded to feel like towns as commonly understood. They could be considered one great big town, parted by billowing topography. You'd be either a fool or very poor to attempt to negotiate it without a car. Linking the Valleys together coherently could only work via expensive, dramatic solutions – an underground railway, a system of funiculars. The place does get some investment. Since the mines were crushed in the 1980s, with the steelworks gradually following suit, call centres and local government offices filled the gap; talk of remaking them into Silicon Valleys came to little. The Valleys are often so beautiful that you could imagine them one day becoming tourist centres, but snobbery checks that. High architecture, especially of the twentieth century, has touched them little, although there are remarkable finds to be had.

We begin at Aberfan, whose tightly packed terraces packed up along hillsides introduce the scene – an urban-rural landscape mirrored in the linear strip of gravestones to commemorate the children killed by a landslide of coalfield waste in 1966. An early reminder not to romanticise that industrial past. From there, we travel to Merthyr Tydfil, another place full of meanings and resonances. The red flag, as a political symbol, was born here, in the Merthyr rising of 1831. It would have been nice for this have been commemorated in the public art that is invariably scattered around a post-industrial town, but there is at least a very appropriate welded metal sculpture by Charles Sansbury marking the entrance to the town, placed on a roundabout. Brackish, severe, beautiful in its harshness, it is very Merthyr. Next to the roundabout are offices for the Welsh Assembly (a nothing building), and the town's only tower block. Nondescript as architecture, it's notable both for being one of the more urbe-in-rus towers in the UK, and for commanding one of the finest views conceivable, for what is no doubt a knock-down price. The poverty of the town fairly whacks you in the face, especially in the dense concrete shopping precinct of St Tydfil, but it looks like its residents care for their area more than is common in the south-east of England. The terraces are spick, span and colourfully painted, rising up the slopes in a manner that almost evokes Brighton. What you can't miss is the desuetude of the public buildings. The Miners Institute is without roof, overtaken by greenery. At the town's centre is a gigantic Tesco, which from a hill looks exactly like the steelworks supermarkets replace. At the town's other exit is the recently closed streamline moderne Hoover Factory. Merthyr Tydfil also has a signposted 'Café Quarter'.

The next village we stop in is Mountain Ash, in the Cynon Valley. Rows of precise, clipped council terraces lead towards one of the Valleys' several breath-stealing panoramic views, where the terraces, the hillsides and the variously derelict chapels and institutes come together in an accidental composition. The fulsome baroque town hall points out that it serves an 'urban district council', which answers the question posed in our introduction, although Mountain Ash's population is just over 7000. That said, it has bustling traffic at rush hour, presumably as it commutes back from Cardiff and Newport. A barn houses the local Citizens Advice Bureau. The landscape is magnificent, with forests of pine (apparently the result of post-war planning decisions) tightly enclosing what, for once, can aptly be called an urban village. The hills make the place glorious as spectacle, and perhaps horribly claustrophobic as a place to live.

That certainly seems the case with Brynmawr, another series of terrace strips which once abutted the famous Rubber Factory, surely for a time Wales' most famous 20th century building; a failed attempt at co-operative industry, at doing things differently, eventually demolished in 2001 in defiance of listing. By the end, it was a Semtex factory. After a few hours in the traumatic townscape of Ebbw Vale, you could easily imagine terrorist cells emerging, avenging the damage done to the town and its people. The anti-tank measures and frisking at Cardiff's Senedd suddenly make sense. Follow the sign to the DHSS, and you can find some of the saddest sights in Britain. Worn, never-changed signs to the Civic Centre lead to a decent, if undemonstrative 1960s complex, its office blocks surrounded by the churned-up paving of a car park. A distressed leisure centre has a growth on it, the bright yellow and green tentacles of swimming pool flumes, with broken glass underneath. An angular underpass from here brings you to the rest of the town, and it has the most eloquent graffiti I've ever seen. 'AMAZING VALUE £5 – A WORKING CLASS HERO'. Then there's a small recreational ground, and the start of the terraces. The street lights are on. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, in July.

There's a lot to love in Ebbw Vale; the incongruously enormous, hulking scraping spire of Christ Church, dwarfing the terraces, evidently intended to be a landmark for miles around; the compact centre, with the unexpected pleasure of a Festival of Britain interior in the Crossing Café; another sadly derelict austere-baroque Workers' Institute; even the concrete car park at its centre, a fittingly muscular design reminiscent of Gateshead's demolished Trinity Centre. This one was saved, but improved by being painted white and covered in metal wire. The public art here, sadly in contrast to Merthyr, is pro forma, a swooping metal clock surrounded by steel balls. It was commissioned the year after the steelworks closed; the site is still being cleared for impending 'regeneration'. These things always feel like a sop, but the rest of the country owes Ebbw Vale and neighbouring Tredegar a favour, to put it mildly.

On a hilltop between the two towns, commanding views of only partly re-landscaped industrial waste, surrounding works, terraces and hills that would be crammed with sightseers were they elsewhere, is a memorial to NHS founder Aneurin Bevan. It's the most striking tectonic thing in the area, although it goes back to the very foundations of architecture. It is a stone circle, in the place where he used to speak to constituents. It feels moving, mystical, an ancient monument to the belief in a viable future. We were there on the NHS' 63rd birthday.

Tredegar has one of the Valleys' nearest things to a town plan – an iron column with a clock on top, around which the centre revolves. Here is 'Spirit of Bevan', a film co-operative. The local miners' self-run health service was the NHS' original inspiration. There's a little monument also to a more modernist social architecture – Powell Alport and Partners' Tredegar Library, a striking, dynamic little piece of Brutalism, a riot of angles and geometries now accompanied by a mural of the town's radical heritage. It bears repeating that the idea of the National Health Service was born here, not in Manchester, not in Birmingham, not in London. And as in the surrounding towns, what the rest of the country has to present this place is out-of-town retail parks and call centres.

The last thirty years has fairly clearly had little to offer the Valleys. The finest piece of new architecture we see, by a long chalk, is Arup's Chartist Bridge, in Blackwood. Opened in 2005, it's a sweeping cable-stayed bridge, simple and dramatic enough to shame all our Calatrava imitations. It's encouraging that this monument's function is to bring these scattered towns closer together, irrespective of the exurban dross of the 'Sirhowy Enterprise Way' nearby. Next to it is a colossal socialist realist sculpture of a Chartist, by Sebastian Boyesen. Constructed from steel mesh, it looks ghostly, an apparition of a power that has disappeared, for the moment.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Urban Trawl: Plymouth

When you arrive, it's blocked off by a car park, and shadowed by a clearly once shiny but now greying glass office block; but you find it soon enough. It starts with a series of underpasses. These aren't your common or garden subways, but wide open things, a sort of combination of underpass and grand public square. Pass under them and you're right in the middle of an axis, flanked by large, severe Portland stone buildings. The space is vast, something which subsequent planners have tried to efface via everything from funfairs to gardens to giant TV screens. Stylistically, this boulevard is not quite classical, but not quite modernist either; for that, you must walk all the way to the end, where you'll find two towers – one, the elegant and well-made Civic Centre, now almost derelict, the other, a bland and shoddy Holiday Inn, very much occupied. Then you're at a wide public park looking out over a glorious waterfront, a view of warships, rolling green hills and rocky Cornish cliffs, with a lighthouse, a lido, and an art deco war memorial for company. This is Armada Way, the main street of Plymouth city centre.

It's the axial fulcrum of a comprehensive plan, in the British city more damaged than any other by Luftwaffe attacks. Patrick Abercrombie's plan was not especially avant-garde – certainly a lot less so than his plans for London – and nor was the architecture. It's in a style which is as yet un-named, some sort of Attlee—Scando-Stalino-classicism, which anyone familiar with The Moor in Sheffield or Above Bar in Southampton will recognise, though it is superior to both. Architecturally, it lacks the futurity of near-contemporaries such as London's ultramodernist Churchill Gardens or populist Lansbury Estate, or the multilevel replanning of Coventry. Its compatriots are elsewhere – August Perret's Le Havre, or, rather more controversially, post-war East Berlin or Warsaw. A big boulevard, for the tanks to go down (this is a garrison town after all) symmetrical stone buildings, ceremonial plazas. It's not what 1950s critics considered the architecture of democracy. At this distance, however, its insistence on the traditional street seems more contemporary, as does its continental nature - a space seemingly designed for cafes to spill out onto the pavement, which they do. If, for Aldo Rossi, the Stalinallee was 'Europe's last great street', then Armada Way is certainly Britain's last.

It's also a counterfactual in stone. Abercrombie's Plymouth is what might have happened everywhere in the UK if proper, ideological CIAM modernism had never enjoyed its brief moment of planning hegemony. Its driving ideas are those of inter-war, twilight-of-empire Britain, as are its architects – Thomas Tait, William Crabtree, Louis de Soissons, Giles Gilbert Scott. The influences of Lutyens and Charles Holden are also palpable. It's curious that Gavin Stamp, for instance, has recently repeated the claim that 1940s-50s Plymouth brought little of value to replace the destroyed city, given that it represents exactly what he has been arguing for in British architecture and planning for some decades. These dignified masonry buildings, in a non-dogmatic classical tradition, are as equally far from Le Corbusier and Leon Krier. But funnily enough, central Plymouth is seemingly held in no greater public affection than the more hardline Coventry or Sheffield. Invariably, the plan is described as a 'concrete jungle' in circles non-architectural, despite the fact that the dominant materials are Portland Stone, granite and brick. It's a reminder that modernity and planning itself, not its stylistic vagaries, are what offend a certain kind of British psyche. It is not pretty. Cohesive it may be, but central Plymouth does not look like Bath, and some will never forgive it that fact.

What it does prove, however, is that this modernised classicism was tired by the late 1940s. Some individual buildings do impress – the two stepped department stores which provide the axis' main focus, by Tait and Alec French, are loomingly powerful as anything from the 1930s, and B.C Sherren's National Provincial Bank is lovely, albeit remarkably similar to the precisely contemporary Finland Station in Leningrad – but overall the cohesiveness, planting and sheer generosity of space are what is really of value here. The architecture is palpably an aesthetics in its dotage. In a very prominent place is Giles Gilbert Scott's last completed church, a sadly wan, provincial design from the architect of Battersea and Liverpool. In some ways, central Plymouth is a reminder of just how necessary modernism was. Slightly later structures like the Civic Centre and the wonderful Pannier Market reflect this, especially the whale-like concrete interior of the latter. After the 1960s, the grand civic gesture sometimes continued in a different form; Peter Moro's late 1970s Theatre Royal is central Plymouth's only Brutalist building, and an excellent one, its geometrical complexity and harsh volumes akin more to Moro's ex-Tecton partner Lasdun than his own more clipped work. Nearby, The Pavilions is a messily ambitious structure where pedways link a swimming pool to a car park, shopping and then back to the Abercrombie centre, a laudably ambitious undertaking marred by cheap and nasty '80s retail detailing.

So much for the planned centre. Plymouth is lucky enough to have both one of the UK's most complete pieces of grand city planning and one of the most interesting, albeit sanitised, areas of ad hoc inner-urban townscape. Walk round the breathtaking panorama of the Hoe past an inadvertently proto-Brutalist fortress, and you're in the Barbican, an area once slated for demolition full of snickets, strange and surprising vernacular architecture and, interestingly, very sensitive modernist infill. Plymouth evidently had one of the best post-war City Architects in HJW Stirling, and his Paton Wilson Quadrant is a lovely council estate of lush, bright stone, tile-hanging, Swedish details and easy informality, a remarkable contrast with the Hausmannian melodrama a few yards away. Sadly all this cleverness and warmth gives way further along Sutton Harbour to the luxury architecture of the 1990s and 2000s, with several more-or-less miserable blocks of flats, here particularly unimpressive and badly made. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, Plymouth seemed to lose all its confidence, seemed to start to hate itself. It's a familiar enough story in the north of England, and deindustrialised, poor, shabby but often glorious old Plymouth has more in common with a Bradford or a Liverpool than with the seaside, spa and silicone towns of the south.

The last of the modernist buildings in Plymouth is an apartment block, Ocean Court, an elegant and faintly 70s sci-fi irregular ziggurat. It's the sort of thing you might normally find in Benidorm, and it points to one of the two ideas for contemporary Plymouth – luxury waterside living. Opposite, in Stonehouse, is Urban Splash's atypically sensitive conversion of John Rennie's King William Victualling Yard into flats; adjacent are a couple of surviving sheds putting together warships and yachts, as other dock buildings are assigned to a different social class.

In the centre, redevelopment is neither as elegant as here in Stonehouse nor as identikit as around Sutton Harbour – instead there are two structures which have a good pop at the 'iconic'. There's Chapman Taylor's notorious Drake Circus mall, which swallows a chunk of Abercrombie Portland Stone street, but is most embarrassing for the way it axially frames the bombed-out Charles Church with trespa wafers, and for the lumpen car park which faces a 'public' square; facing that is Henning Larsen's Roland Levinsky Building for the University. With its combination of gestural vernacular and angular Regen shape-making, it's of its time, though it genuinely attempts to make something of its prominent site, a decent attempt at civic presence. These two make a little effort, one with some success and one with much bathos, to create something specific to Plymouth. Much more typical are the little encroachments into the planned centre, all of an extremely low quality – prefab hotels, already dated Blairite apartment blocks, a miserable little casino. More encouragingly, its rigid zoning is being lifted – one of Tait's great towers is now student flats, inadvertently giving ubiquitous developers Unite their only architecturally notable building.

The planned post-war Plymouth is now being recognised as being of value, with publications, listings and possible conservation areas. It's about time that social democratic Britain was the subject of something more than giggling and ridicule, and there's no doubt that the incremental demolitions around the edges of the place and their replacement with dross should be stopped. Yet the notion the centre could become an object for Keep Calm and Carry On austerity tourism forgets that naval tourism already exists here, and hasn't exactly reversed the city's decline. Plymouth already has its post-industrial leisure, its riverside galleries and loft conversions, and yet remains poor. It needs new ideas. But as a place to come and think about alternatives, you could do a lot worse than this forlorn, bracing city.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Unison Building, Euston Road

Although they don't, funnily enough, tend to be considered part of the Big Society, Trade Unions are still, by an overwhelming margin, the largest civil society organisations in the UK. The Unions are voluntary, democratic, mutual, bottom-up, and yet they're the very obverse of 'localism', philanthropy and the other current shibboleths. Membership might have declined since its late 1970s peak, and a series of amalgamations might have swallowed up many of the once-influential unions, with even the fearsome Transport & General Workers Union absorbed into the most recent of them, Unite – but Union membership still stands at seven million, which puts the much-vaunted likes of, say, London Citizens in the shade. And paradoxically, the frontal attacks on public sector unions from the coalition has revealed their unexpected strength, whether in the half a million who marched in London on March 26 or the 750,000 or so strikers who walked out last week. The largest, along with Unite, of today's amalgamated super-unions, the public sector union Unison have just begun occupying the first purpose-built trade union headquarters to have been erected in the UK for nearly thirty years. While as a piece of architecture it's quite deliberately unspectacular, Squire and Partners' building shows a face of the trade union movement that is seldom seen. The stereotypes of donkey jackets, gavel-bashing and intense masculinity are wholly absent – instead, this is quite consciously an exercise in branding and modernisation. It suggests what the 1997-2008 era's Blairite buildings might have been like if Labour had remained a socialist party. It's a fascinating, occasionally rather inspiring place. But the first thing to note about the Unison building is what it is not.

Oddly, given their once-central and still key role in British political life, trade unions have not always been major sponsors of architecture. The most famous of them is in central London, in the form of David Aberdeen's Congress House for the TUC, a very expensively detailed Corbusian palazzo, with its Jacob Epstein sculpture and craftsmanlike finishes. It is one of several in the Bloomsbury/Kings Cross area, near to the termini serving the North and the Midlands, traditionally the unions' strongholds. Even now, the NUJ, Unite and others are nearby. Also in the area is the original headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, a stripped classical building now occupied by University College. The NUM moved out of here even before their fateful defeat in the Miners Strike of 1984-5, to a purpose-built headquarters designed by Malcolm Lister – relocated to Sheffield, as a gesture of distrust to Union leadership's tendency to get cosy with the Great Wen. It was left unfinished at the end of the strike. Unison's tower is almost certainly the first of its kind since then. It even has the odd stylistic similarity, with both centring on severe columns as a slightly strained metaphor for mutual support. It's worth remembering that Dave Prentis, the head of Unison – not a leader who is exactly known as a firebrand – has said of the current wave of public sector strikes that it will be unlike the Miners strike, as 'this time, we'll win'.

The air of siege and conspiracy that all this might imply is conspicuous by its absence; no union barons or smoke-filled rooms to be seen. Michael Poots, the project architect at Squire and Partners, talks of it as a 'corporate headquarters'; Unison's site manager John Cole speaks of a 'bold high street frontage', and both talk about it as a form of branding, a statement of what trade unions are in the 21st century. Cole contrasts it with the office block Unison previously occupied just across the road – a large, slit-windowed, Gorilla House concrete tower which he refers to as 'the East European grey concrete building'. The union had considered moving to the City of London (before deciding that 'culturally, it didn't quite fit'), but decided to stay near to other unions and to the termini for the North. But happenstance has meant that the new Unison building directly faces the old.

Originally designed for the local government union NALGO, one of those that merged into Unison, Cole says of it now that 'it was basically a concrete tower block', although this is also a fair description of the most obvious element in the new Unison building. To the Euston Road, it is a concrete-clad, steel-framed tower, with a mild case of the barcode façades and a rhythm of different window heights; but this becomes more complex at the rear and the side, where that corporate symbol, a glass atrium, links it to the listed Arts & Crafts Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, a former women's hospital, and at the back, a small cluster of housing. It's a complex more than a singular building, although this is hardly apparent from the laconic street frontage, where the most notable moment is the aforementioned branding. A large UNISON logo at the top and at the entrance, making the purpose-built nature of the project apparent, and announcing the union's public presence.

The main bulk of the complex is the office block in the tower, spilling into the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, and curiously it's here that the difference between this place and any other corporate headquarters is most apparent. On one level, it's a question of rhetoric. You find the brightly coloured sloganeering that adorned some Blairite structures, but the content is very different. Instead of, say, AHMM's Westminster Academy and its Mandelsonian mantra of 'Enterprise, Global Citizenship, Communication', each room features the rather more meaty, contentious 'Solidarity, Participation, Democracy, Equality'. What would once have been called 'improving quotations' are also littered around the building, inscribed into glass doors and internal windows, with 'everything from Mahatma Gandhi to Billy Bragg'. Most memorably, given that the UK has, as Tony Blair once proudly pointed out, the most repressive labour laws in the western world, one wall comes via Michael Foot: 'most liberties have been won by those who broke the law'. All this heated (albeit soft-toned and lower-case in the graphic design) rhetoric has to have some sort of correspondence to how the building actually functions. Given that the organisation exists at least in part to fight for better working conditions, it had to be 'an exemplar working environment' And here Unison are clearest about the old NALGO building's limitations. Dark and lit by artificial light, John Cole also points out that it had 'no social spaces'. Instead, the union 'wanted large floor plates' in order to be able to create these areas. In the concrete tower block, there's a very pleasant roof garden, a cafe, a creche, a 'breakout room' and much else. In design terms, these aims are compromised a little by the rather cold, identikit corporate detailing. Cole comments that opulence was out of the question, as 'we have lots of low-paid members' (something that certainly didn't deter the designers of Congress House in the 1940s) but there's no doubt that they work. When walking around it I chance upon a small office get-together, with crisps and what is (euphemistically?) described as 'juice'. One comments that in three days there, she'd met six fellow Unison employees she'd never met before. 'It shows how a building can change things'.

Most of the workers I saw here were women, and the building seems to – perhaps inadvertently – reflect where Unions are currently strongest, in poorly-paid but traditionally 'white-collar' jobs, largely female, and highly computer-literate. In the face of accusations that unions are lumbering pre-modern dinosaurs, Cole proudly points out that Unison has the the largest intranet in Europe, and Michael Poot lists with equal pride the building's impeccable environmental credentials. Given the evident successes of the internal arrangement, the lightness and airiness of the place, it's a shame that its design language stays at such a low voltage.

That's something which becomes especially clear with the transition to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building. This late 19th century hospital was closed in 2002, with its functions transferred to nearby UCH. The complex entailed a complete restoration of its much smaller, cosier rooms, with the original tiles and fireplaces scrupulously pieced back together. Sometimes this leads to enjoyably surreal juxtapositions, as when a vaguely art nouveau fireplace sits unused in the corner of a video conference room. Irrespective of the TUC's brief foray into high modernism, the most famous visual image of trade unionism is deeply Arts and Crafts-influenced – the embroidered trade union banners that are still carried on marches, where the aesthetics of William Morris socialism, in a pre-branding era, still have a vivid emotional role. Framed with foliage, symmetrically organised and allegorical, sometimes you even find architectural modernism immortalised on them. One RMT banner I spotted on a protest a few months ago was centred on an image of Charles Holden's Arnos Grove station. This powerful language is at least partly present in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building. In its main room, which is being adapted as a museum, with interactive exhibits on feminism, the health service and trade unionism, there is remade arts and crafts furniture (that you can sit on, for once!) and a small library, featuring the likes of Friedrich Engels, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sheila Rowbotham. If the rest of the building avoids the traditional notions of what trade unionism looks like, here there's a reminder, and its a quietly powerful one. Perhaps this is a project which needed rhetoric and imagery as much as clarity and spaciousness. While Squire and Partners clearly took the place very seriously, a more nonconformist firm might have reconciled the traditional and forward-looking impulses of the union in a more forthright, convincing, dialectical way. Instead, the pretty but mute faceted roof of the atrium provides the main connection.

The atrium also leads the way towards the housing that was demanded by planning – deceptively so, as there is no public access. It's a decent, unspectacular, stock brick scheme of houses and flats, 'mixed' as ever, and clearly demarcated between the private element facing one way and the 'social' side the other, with both quite aggressively gated from the street. Here, you're reminded that the context is the redevelopment of Somers Town and Kings Cross, a working class industrial area of dense council housing undergoing severe gentrification, from HOK's BioMed Centre behind the British Library, that was fiercely opposed by local campaigners who pointed out that the site was zoned as social housing, to the new St Pancras International and King's Place. It's the sort of area where unions used to thrive, being completely transformed. The Unison building shows trade unionism transforming in turn, and in that, it's an optimistic, encouraging building, an enclave of sobriety and solidarity in amidst the regen tat. It stands its ground, quietly – but in terms of what happens inside, this might well prove to be one of the more influential recent buildings in London.

Originally published in Building Design, 6/7/11

Monday, 27 June 2011

Holiday: Hunstanton and Heacham

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We stayed in a road called 'The Drift', in Heacham. This is a former fishing village, now minor beach resort, on the north coast of Norfolk, looking over the Wash. In the 1790s Norfolk (soon to be supplanted by Lancashire as Britain's industrial area) was a hotbed of Jacobinism. The'Heacham Declaration' announced the formation of an early, universal trade union, swiftly suppressed under the sedition act. Today it is a small village (Victorian and earlier) bookended by, at one side a series of bungalows, and at another, towards the beach, caravan parks. Both are a kind of quotidian minimal architecture, bereft of ornament, but somehow unobtrusive in their modernity. The most impressive minimal architecture in Heacham is the Pillboxes.

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They look over the North Beach, in case the Nazis attack via The Wash. What two men in bunkers could have done against the Wehrmacht is a moot point.

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Three miles from Heacham is Hunstanton, a proper seaside resort, with Penny Arcades, shops called things like 'Geezer's Palace', amusements including arcade games of the mid-80s (Track and Field!), and so forth. Like all seaside towns it has gone to seed in an interesting way. At the seafront are curved concrete walls to prevent floods. Also like all seaside towns, concrete and Modernism are quietly, blithely acceptable, perhaps because the purpose is hedonism, however circumscribed, rather than English home-making.

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The most famous thing about Hunstanton, although it doesn't feature on the postcards, is a much less blithe kind of Modernism: the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1949, while they were (remarkably) in their early 20s, it is as far from seaside jollity and all its cheerful crapness as could possibly be imagined.

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Practically anyone interested in 20th century architecture will have seen it in photographs, the water tower at the entrance and the severe geometries. 'The first New Brutalist Building', 'the most truly modern building in Britain'. This gives you absolutely no hint of just how wildly incongruous it is with the surrounding area. In amongst the bungalows and such, this sleek, ruthless object. The Smithsons spoke of the building having two lives - one as a noisy comprehensive school, 'and another life when the building is empty, a life of pure space'. Me and my sister go there on a Sunday. The gates are open, so we get the life of pure space. The 'found objects' element you always see in photos is the metal water tower, not the even stranger, even starker brick tower behind it.

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Yet it's just a secondary school. Its fame worldwide seems to accord with its obscurity in Norfolk. A perfect example of Welfare State ethics in its most extraordinary form - a sublime object dropped, seemingly at random, landing in the midst of an unremarkable English everyday. Now, of course, rather than being truly comprehensive it 'specialises' in Maths and Computing, in that offensive Blairite manner - something that polymaths like the Smithsons, enthusiasts for art, pop, science, philosophy, would undoubtedly have been depressed by - but Secondary Modern will always be the phrase associated with it, with the latter of the two words stressed.

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The length of the main block is almost a shock, the deliberate aestheticism and imposition. Without ever using the raw concrete that Brutalism would be known for, it creates the sense of power and force, the memorable image, that the style brought to Modernism. Even the additions, the black panels on the main block's windows (to stop the sea winds smashing them) seem to reinforce the buildings' domineering effect. All this at one storey high, with De Stijl colours and stock brick - pointedly not the local stone and ragged brickwork which features in so many buildings in the area, which itself seems a Dutch importation, has something rather continental about it.

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At the back are fields which seem to go on forever. The endless Norfolk flatlands, with barely a hill all the way to the Urals.

Originally posted at SDMYABT on 06/09/08