Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Don't Play the Step Game

Just look at the scene above. It's gorgeous, isn't it? If I'd taken it in monochrome (and was a better photographer), I could have pretended it was an out-take from, say, Maraid's Dad's Architecture Photos - a vision of idyllic postwar Albion, with rolling grassland, pretty of planting all around, and studious youth louchely reclining, presumably reading Pelican paperbacks. This landscape is round the corner from one of the five places where I grew up (this one through the decidedly formative ages of 12-16). I'd love to say that it is what formed my tastes, but it would be a fib.

This is Southampton University, a Russell Group research giant which just happens to be adjacent to a large council estate, more of which later. The University arose out of several additive stages; an early one in red brick in the 1930s, designed by the delightfully named local firm of Gutteridge and Gutteridge, with Giles Gilbert Scott as 'advisor'; concrete, stone and tile designed in the 60s by Basil Spence, with locals Ronald Sims; then a more recent New Labour-era unplanned accretion by Rick Mather, Nick Grimshaw and various nonentities. Even the latter is immeasurably better than anything recent in the city itself, but oddly, in my extensive writings on the place, I never talk of the university. It doesn't seem part of Southampton, at least as I think of it. I'm aware this makes no sense whatsoever.

I'm really not trying for pathos or the prolier-than-thou here, I swear - but there always seemed to be a kind of invisible block around this place, an aura of 'not for you' when I lived next door; this combined with the fact that I was usually too scared to walk up Burgess Road for other reasons. Since then I've avoided the place completely, except to occasionally observe bits of it from my Mum's car on the way to somewhere else. The only time I've ever properly walked through it is on the day I graduated from school in 1997, and my main memory then is of how American the open informality of the campus seemed, not resembling anything I'd seen in England; I got a bus to see Kenickie play live here about a year later, but remember nothing of the associated architecture. Until this visit, I hadn't even visited the John Hansard Gallery. So, the University gets only the most cursory mention in the 51 pages devoted to Southampton inThe Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, as does the adjacent estate. This post should be considered a pre-emptive footnote to said book, as it's now too late to incorporate my observations of these two places into the chapter.

More fool me, as in places, the architecture of Southampton University is enough to make you swoon. This is generally considered a lesser Spence work, and seldom gets into the recent books or archives that have accompanied his Wallpaper*-sponsored rehabilitation. From the little I remembered of it, I assumed this was the right judgement, but I was wrong, wrong wrong. The finest of the buildings is both terrifically simple and fiendishly complex, and sums up the virtues of the place. It's a long block which is, I think - Pevsner is oddly confusing here, maybe Lang Rabbie can step in the comments - a Common Room. In some views, like that above, it just floatson the greenery.

It's actually on several levels - walk up some steps and you get a view of the general idyll...

...from either direction, with the rectilinearity and the winding path a perfect contrivance...

...facing the obligatory, and here very elegant enigmatic Hepworthian sculpture.... the point where it finally meets what the New Urbanist dullards would consider a 'street', ie something with cars and shops on it. Here is a pool and another sculpture (again, it's hard to tell from Pevsner what/who exactly). It's extraordinary architecture, an incredibly simple thing morphing into several distinct views, all of them equally striking. Not all of it is this brilliant, but lots of it is...

There are a few towers dotted around the campus, and at Hyde Park Barracks Spence proved to be an extremely underrated designer of tall buildings; but the best of them isn't by Spence at all, but by the obscure Bournemouth architect Ronald Sims. Again, this is something I had seen a few times at a distance and thought might be vaguely interesting but never bothered to see properly, up close, as a pedestrian; but as soon as I surveyed the prospect below, there was again a reflux of astonishment.

With all its outgrowths of stairs and multiple levels I'm amazed it's still preserved - I suspect this complex is a disabled access nightmare, and Mathematics surely has the occasional student in a wheelchair. That aside, it's shudderingly dramatic, sculptural architecture, its concrete bristling with tempting tactility, alongside the Brutalist wet dream of a staircase which leads to a raised plaza on the third floor. Gobsmacking.

One building I remember both from being driven past it and from it being on the cover of the Pevsner Hampshire and the Isle of Wight volume is Spence's Nuffield Theatre, copper on brick. Again, looking properly at the thing reveals all sorts of drama and ambition - I'm not usually one for details, but the moment here where the copper façade opens out to form a doorway is a delight...the fencing is worrying, though - none of the University buildings are listed, and this being Southampton, there's surely an imperative to smash it up and shove something appalling in its place. But as said, this doesn't feel like Southampton to me. Not even student Southampton - it doesn't connect up with the lumpen boozy studentville of Portswood and Bevois Valley, nor the appalling vernacular student flats in the centre of town. It feels like a complete enclave, and most of the buildings seem to be remarkably well looked-after; it certainly hasn't had an influence on the buildings around it.

Another building I actually remember, and which actually has suffered slightly from the ravages of time, is the Faraday Tower - Spence again, a simple ribbon-windowed tower of laboratories veering towards midcentury conformity, but for its one extraordinary feature -it boasts, for reasons I could never work out, a three-storey cantilever to make it glare out especially bizarrely on the suburbia around. This at least is facing either a drastic façading or demolition. It once featured on a stamp. It gets extra Ghost Box points for apparently having an unused Reactor in the basement.

The recent buildings are nothing special, but if I saw them in the centre of town I'd be quite pleased - they at least seem like modern architecture of some (unspectacular) kind, and they pay some sort of recognition to Spence et al rather than trying to sweep their work away in favour of Proper Streets. It seems Russell Group Universities can get away with being marginally ambitious and civilised, without a Management Consultant in the background telling them to fire everyone and hire Capita.

The earlier, '30s Gutteridge/Scott parts of the place are not especially interesting, competent examples of Scott's Moderne/Gothic/Brick Expressionist mannerism. Pevsner/David Lloyd compare one of their buildings here to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which suggests they'd hit the booze even more heavily than Nairn. This one has a top anticontextual entrance, presumably added by Spence in the '60s.

Practically at the exact same time that this redbrick University was being built at the edge of Southampton Common, Southampton City Council designed its own greenfield enclave, the Flower Estate, as given meaningless roots-flexing namechecking by me on this blog on a few occasions, to the entirely nonplussed reaction of readers unfamiliar with Southampton. This bit of the pavement is the best clue to the age of the place.

I was walking round here with Pyzikówna, and given what I remember of it, I was immediately obnoxiously paranoid - 'don't speak too loudly, don't draw any attention to us'. The first view of the estate from Burgess Road confirmed to stereotype - incredibly cheap-looking grey harling, the slurry slathered onto the brick presumably part of the 'vernacular' in the far North or parts of Scotland, but looking utterly bizarre on the south coast, particularly on this sunny day - with a car parked on the 'front garden'. Most of the Flower Estate is made up of '30s semis, presumably gesturing at Letchworth and the Garden Cities, but resembling more precisely Wythenshawe, Becontree or its Sheffield namesake. Certainly this place doesn't feel like The South as it's commonly understood - it's Rita Sue and Bob Too territory. But there's only a little more stereotypical unpleasantness in this post, although this time fairly temporary....

The irony is that nobody gave us a funny look, nobody seemed at all bothered by our presence there, and certainly nobody remembered me from 13 years ago. On a walk a few months earlier in Warsaw, I'd been less than shocked by the alleged inhumanity of the place where she grew up, and this was her opportunity to return the favour, which she most certainly did. I suppose in either case, the architecture is not really the reason why they were horrible places to grow up. The Flower Estate is made up of a couple of building types - the semis and a few half-terraces, always interrupted to stop 'monotony' (i.e, any coherence or structure) and it is built into a rather lovely valley, whose contours it doesn't bother to do anything remotely interesting with, preferring to loop round and round wanly, without variation or drama; after seeing what Basil Spence could do with a slope just round the corner, the lack of wit or imagination is even more glaring.

Neville Chamberlain, under whom lots of these places were built, claimed that every one of them turned a potential proletarian 'revolutionary' into a 'citizen'. There's no pubs, needless to say, excepting a giant developer's Tudor roadhouse on the estate's edges which is now a McDonalds; there's a school, and a church, and not far away, the Ford Transit factory, which you can see below, the giant windowless white box nearly merging into the sky over Daisy Dip - the admittedly impressive park which is at the estate's centre, attempting to make up for the fact that there are no trees elsewhere in this 'garden suburb'. Basically, this estate represented everything the designers of social housing between the 40s and 70s tried not to do, and - at least on aesthetic grounds - I think they were entirely correct in their scorn.

Unlike the University, though, one part of the estate actually is listed - the aforementioned church, designed in 1933 by N.F Cachemaille-Day, an interwar ecclesiastical architect who, unlike the estate itself, was deeply continental in his architectural affiliations. So it's odd to see him doing something so insufferably English, resorting to something Betjeman might write a poem about - a diminutive Castle Keep to tower over the ersatz village.

So it's not apocalyptic, there's no burning cars to be seen, and no skinheads (they are there in the Estate's presence on Google Streetview, amusingly enough) at least not on this particular day. I don't think the lack of intimidation is because the place has changed that much, but because nobody knows who I am here anymore - everybody knowing who you are is a deeply overrated virtue, something nostalgically longed for in Hoggart-world, but when you're a teenager with funny hair who is useless in a scrap, it's a horrible thing. 'Community' here, as I remember it, proceeded via exclusion and negation - we are x, you are not, so fuck you. No doubt the same effect could have been replicated somewhere more architecturally ambitious, but I'm not entirely sure - there's something about the smallness and meanness of the place which seems to encourage small-mindedness. It might imitate the more generous vernacular cottages of Letchworth or wherever, but look at the shabbiness and parsimony of the proportions, the windows that are no more spacious than those in a back-to-back and much less so than in the Edwardian terraces up the road, the pretentious little details around the all seems so patronising - here you go, here's your little house, little person.

For what it's worth, I lived in the white house in the terrace above. We weren't council tenants - that would come later - but were living in one of the houses that someone had bought on Right to Buy and then sold off. Accordingly, although we were paying less than we would to live practically anywhere else in town on the open market, we were paying considerably more than our next-door neighbours, something presumably compensated for by the clean whitewash - perhaps this bit of desperate aesthetic distinguishing indulged in by our landlord had subliminally influenced everyone to think I thought I was above everyone else, who knows...I have stories I could tell about this place, about impetigo spread as a pestilent game of 'it', about 30-year old skinheads threatening violence upon 13 year-olds for playing loud music, other stories rather less amusing; but I won't. The only bit of real menace or weirdness I could garner from this brief early summer visit was this bit of graffiti.

It's pretty clear and assertive in making its case. According to Google, the Step Game is a game for autistic children. The site says it 'teaches autistic children how to give and understand directions. Stand on the bottom of a staircase with your child and give the first command. You can mix up the commands to involve your child's favorite activity such as "twirl step," "bark like a dog step," or "high five step." You and your child will perform the command, then go to the next step. Celebrate when you reach the top of the stairs then race down to the bottom and switch roles with your child and let her come up with the commands this time.'

Originally published at Sit Down, Man on 14/6/10.

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