Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Within Walls

More ports. There's a second post on Hamburg which has fallen down the back of the sofa because I started it weeks ago - here it is. There will be some more, ah, exotic posts on here soonish, but for the moment my inclinations are pulling me somewhere more familiar. 'What do you think of the walled Old Town?' asked Matt Poacher a little while ago about one of my Southampton writings. See, Southampton has the largest stretch of medieval walls in the UK, outside of York. The truth be told, apart from post-wedding boozing and visits to Eric Lyons' Castle House, I don't spend much time there, and as with Southampton University, more fool me, as it's actually a very smart (if perhaps unintentional) bit of townscape in the Gordon Cullen/Pevsnerian sense, but architecture is fairly little to do with what makes it good. The relevance of this with reference to the demise of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment will be an additional subject. This post, even more than with Oxford, is indebted to Pevsner's half-finished Visual Planning and the Picturesque.

It starts, as it should, with an overhead walkway, joining up two broken parts of the walls, alongside a derelict 60s building with 2001 windows; the view is terminated in typical townscape style with a tower, which here is Lyons' council slab block, the area's best building. You have to ignore WestQuay for this walk to be enjoyable, but after that, pickings here are rich - what is interesting about this place is the various attempts to build within and around ruination and fragmentation, some of them quite successful.

Firstly, there's some of your actual architecture here, courtesy of non-Smithsons-employing Brutalists Lyons Israel Ellis - simple, robust blocks placed in amongst the bombed-out fragments of Georgian and Victorian housing - but they pick up the rhythm and unpretentious vigour of the surrounding buildings. Crucially, they don't pretend to be suburban or small-town.

This is exactly what all the subsequent architecture does, and to enjoy it this fact has to be accepted. Most of it is 1980s housing association design, deeply provincial, anti-urban and occasionally rather twee - but what it does, and does well, is set up interestingly reciprocal spaces, create some sort of intrigue in the movement uphill, and framing some unusually (for the south of England) generous public spaces. Here, for instance, the 80s blocks are genuinely quite pretty in their interaction with the sloping site and the existing remnants.

The walls themselves were restored by Leon Berger during his heroic 50s-60s tenure as head of the City Architects Department, and they're pieced together in an unassuming and frankly Brutalist manner, the roughness of the concrete linking bridges fitting the functionalist harshness of the 13th century encampment very nicely.

What is even better is the way that they really encourage exploration - there's an invitation to try to find out how to get under and around these bridges, and when I was little this was exciting stuff - a playground in the truest sense, because it didn't patronise, because it felt like a discovery.

The places where Wall meets building are always slightly disappointing - the architectural form, after the 1960s, is always a little too close to the Holiday Village genre for my taste, and the architects clearly haven't noticed that there's little pretty about a ruined fortress if you actuallylook at it, rather than have the instant ooh-look-heritage reaction. Again, what saves this is something non-architectural...

...the passage under the blocks, which leads to the main street. This is a classic Townscape approach, a refreshingly unpatrolled and unpoliced way of walking, and designing via contrasts rather than being In Keeping.

It ends at the (passenger, not container) port, and with a medieval storehouse which is now used as the Maritime Museum; there are two salient things in here, an exhibit on the Titanic (obviously) and a scale model of the port in the 1930s, a strikingly beautiful but all-but-unphotographable thing. It also has the most capricious opening hours of any museum in the UK.

But perhaps what makes this a mini-masterpiece of Townscape is the contrast with what comes after, or what goes alongside - a large area of land reclaimed in the 1930s, which is now the dispersed, low-density drosscape of the Pirelli site and its hinterland, which regular readers will be aware is a personal bete noire that need not be discussed further here.

The walls do at least provide a vantage point that would be perfect for snipers. This was, obviously, the place's original function - to aim arrows at the French marauders. Now the same could be productively perpetrated against those coming in on business from the New Forest.

Southampton is pockmarked with places where you can mourn the future - one of them is just behind the De Vere hotel. When this was constructed, the building below was demolished.

(image via Flickr user Robert R&N)

The walled city has a forgotten feeling which makes it by far the most pleasant place to walk in the city centre, the total lack of chain pubs, chain stores and marauding students and/or locals making it so pleasant you could even forget you were in Southampton. This has been a little disrupted by something called 'The French Quarter'.

I dismissed these blocks, so arrogantly bland in such a unique area, so unwilling to embrace the manifold possibilities of the fragmented and ruined context, as 'rote yuppiedromes' in BD a while ago, and a partner at John Thompson wrote in defence:

Our scheme in Southampton’s French Quarter, mentioned in your feature last week, offers truly mixed uses, mixed tenure and tenure-blind accommodation. It also supports commercial office and retail, sheltered and affordable rented accommodation, shared ownership and outright sale homes — the sale units have all sold faster than other similar developments. Rather like dropping in a missing piece of the jigsaw, it has also repaired a historic piece of Southampton’s Old Town, knitting the development back into the community — including removing a chunk of 1960s “highway engineer’s dream”, a six-lane carriageway, and replacing it with a piece of responsive urbanism. It isn’t about “starchitecture”, nor about great Corbusian-friendly slabs of flats that Cabe can get overexcited about — and which would probably be demolished in 20 years. It may not be by the Smithsons or one of the tax-dodging fancy ones, but it is architecture that works, that people want to live in, and that hopefully will still be working in 50-100 years.

You see, to me this appeared to be a straightforward, shoddy, stack-em-up cheap bit of pseudo-vernacular, with no council housing included, that was unworthy of a once-at-least-almost-great city, a design which would have been exactly the same anywhere in the UK, but apparently not. The 'partial removal' of the carriageway that they seem so proud of pales rather in comparison with the fact that, as you can see from these pictures, the area replaces the urbanism of the 60s and the 80s, both of which were sensitive here, in their very different ways, both defined by permeable spaces and civic virtues, with bland blocks hugging the street line, with the only spaces inbetween the vast surface car parks. Yet, strangely, they seem so much more pleased with themselves than were the anonymous architects of the councils and the housing associations. Funny, that.

There is one fairly interesting new thing happening here, and that's a bit of city-branding - usually something I would disdain, but here at least it reminds the place that it is somewhere -which it is prone to forget. Part of this has been through typography and road signs, which may be signs to gigantic malls and midwestern Leisure Worlds, but it's a start. And to see Priestley here is appropriate...

You can still take a ship here - this is the new QE2, complete with retro-modernist red funnel. It won't take you to New York or anywhere useful, but on a vague cruise round nowhere in particular, for an extremely large sum of money. As ever, its huge scale and confidence are deeply incongruous in this stragglescape...

The photo above is taken in the vicinity of the first high-rise to be built here for a generation, which sits at the end of the old walled town, and which you can see below. Like the old town, it's an example of good ideas badly implemented (albeit here far worse). Of course it's right and just that the port-side should have some sort of monumental presence, something that announces urbanity and arrival - and you can imagine this was enough to sway CABE, because CABE didn't have the power to just tell the developers to hire a decent architect. As a silhouette, it's fine. The fact that it's a tacky, clichéd, forgettable Blairite craphouse of a tower was outside their remit - a tower was a good idea, wasn't it? Well, yes. The response to this sort of failure should have been to have given CABE some teeth (and to have sacked around half of its leadership) but instead it goes, in the 'bonfire of the quangos'. Here are some of the things that stayed.

Originally published on 2/11/10, at SDMYABT.

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