Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Urban Trawl: West Midlands Metropolitan Area

Last month, Chinese authorities designated the Pearl River Delta, a cluster of cities with a population of 43 million, as a single city. Amidst the apocalyptic pronouncements on this, few noticed that this basically entails trying to create decent public provision for something the market had thrown up carelessly long before. Such unplanned agglomerations were pioneered here in the 19th century, and London aside, the Metropolitan County of the West Midlands is the largest – though not being a city by itself, it has nary a fraction of London's infrastructure. At its centre is Britain's indisputable Second City in terms of population, economic importance and size, although it's hard to credit it.

The Metropolitan West Midlands, and Birmingham in particular, is so consummately English that authorities might as well take a leaf out of Speer's book and rename it Anglia. Here there is a small but massively overdeveloped commercial centre, ringed with wasteland and empty luxury flats, surrounded by seemingly faceless sprawl – Victorian, 30s, 60s – indistinguishable to the observer, highly differentiated to the local. The car rules, with mid-century engineers' frankly manly interventions still utterly dominating; by comparison, public transport is pathetic, especially the poky tram with the temerity to call itself a 'Metro'.

Here, red brick and terracotta is more furiously red, council high-rises are duller, semis are bleaker, roads are beefier than anywhere else – but it's hard to define anything about this being specifically Brummie or Black Country, in the way that certain architectures are instantly recognisable as Mancunian, Scouse, Glaswegian, Geordie. What marks it out is its quintessence of Englishness; anything in the UK outside the West Midlands can be found in here, somewhere. Given the place's size and complexity, what follows is an attempt, highly tentative, to work out what might actually make it distinctive.

Knowing that the Second City tag has never sit well, successive administrations have tried to beef up this place, though they've never succeeded in treating it as the coherent metropolis that it would be in a less capricious nation. From Herbert Manzoni's plans of the 1950s to the current 'Big City Plan', it constantly tries to remake itself into something worthy of its status. It isn't, but there's still a hell of a lot here to look at and walk through. The walkways and underpasses ploughed through the town, the subordination of aesthetics to circulation, established a multilevel principle that endures, for good and ill. Some buildings which have frankly embarrassing façades – Associated Architects' stodgy Mailbox, Make's typically fussy Cube – are, as (semi)-public space, much better than they are as urban scenery, with internal and external walkways threading along the robustly, if slightly cloyingly, landscaped canal paths. Associated's less fancy version is superior, with real urban drama inside, while Make's is a ghost mall with fiddly geometries and creepy public art - figures with hearts for heads, of all things. Both are designed by locals. To see where premier league architects place Birmingham in the pecking order, walk round the corner to Foster's shocking SeaLife Centre, surely his worst ever building.

The West Midlands is, along with Teesside, the area of the country worst hit by the slump, and in the wastes of Digbeth you can tell. Here, an unbuilt park creates a swathe of wasteland, framing bland flats and Grimshaw's exurban Millennium Point, with surviving light industry further in frustrating the desire to impose the new immaterial economy on the place. It's a far cry from the rampant overdevelopment within the ring road. Building for the past decade has been intense, with buildings practically piled on top of each other; a 1990s attempt at reasonably careful New Urbanist planning at Brindleyplace didn't provide much of a model for the speculative scuffle of the new skyline. Brindleyplace itself is built around Porphyrios' eerie, flat, redbrick Stalinist centrepiece and some gravel squares, and though nothing special, it compares favourably with the new Bull Ring, a series of tinny things by Benoy, with Future Systems' Selfridges bolted on at the corner as a concession to architectural value. Whatever its disputable merits as ego-driven architecture, as an object on the skyline it's enduringly surreal, fitting the overdriven chaos. New towers are a rum bunch. Worst is the Orion Building, designed with the input of couturier John Roche, a bizarre contrast with the compacted Vorticism of the New Street signal box; adjacent there's Ian Simpson's equally jolly and aggressive Beetham Tower, an overbearing uncle of a building, and by far the inferior of the namesake in Simpson's home city. The skyline is best as an abstract, seen from a distance, where their illegibility becomes a virtue.

Post-war Brum is, like the contemporary city, a mash-up of speculative tat and some fearless originals; the latter represented best by the local firm of John Madin, whose doomed NatWest tower has such presence on Chamberlain Square. Just nearby is Madin's Brutalist Central Library. It has always impressed in photographs, but to really experience it you have to walk around the square, to feel just how well it fits into the 19th century ensemble, aligning perfectly with everything from the Corinthian Town Hall to the arch of the Victorian baroque council house, completing the public space with great elegance, without patronising 'references'. The Library too is doomed, condemned through sitting on a site of outstanding commercial potential, which is surely what led successive architecture ministers to dismiss English Heritage's attempts at listing. It has nothing to do with the quality of the building.

Mecanoo's replacement, under construction already, will potentially be a decent enough building, but it will also be an off-the-peg product of a firm who aren't terribly bothered about Birmingham. A unique solution, rooted deeply in place, by architects who lived in and knew their city, will be supplanted with an international firm's signature. With that, a little portion of the Big City Plan will be completed.

For a place that can seem so identikit to the uninitiated, the question of context is a live one – there is equal case for rejection and embrace of the surrounding area. Caruso St John's Walsall New Art Gallery is a gorgeous example of the latter, with the kind of achingly precise detailing you seldom get in British architecture; it's somewhere between living room and car park, in the best possible sense. The fact it contains a local collection is not coincidental to its specificity, and though it might be surrounded alternately by wasteland slated for Urban Splashing and decades of shabbiness, it doesn't appear loftily disconnected from the area. From the top you can see Walsall's one great feature, the way the high street ends at markets and a hilltop church, to which the Gallery forms a corresponding high point.

Its antipode is close by in West Bromwich, in the form of Alsop's famously expensive folly, The Public. The surroundings here are even less promising – arterial roads, sheds, general straggle - so Alsop took the Cedric Price approach of designing a contextless big shed that could be reconfigured by its users as theatre, gallery, interactive exhibit and suchlike. This would have been low-budget and probably successful. But as an architect-artist – he paints, you know – Alsop also filled it with strange bespoke objects, all tied into the building, making it permanent, making the mooted adaptability and cheapness merely rhetorical. The Public is where Price's ideas end up when mixed up with the cult of the starchitect – in a profligate kerfuffle.

From here, we head to Coventry, the second largest city in the Metropolitan West Midlands, scarcely ten minutes journey from Birmingham but not officially part of its conurbation, from which it is divided by a slender green belt. Here we found things that Birmingham and the Black Country's built environment seems mostly to lack – planning, and emotion. The Cathedral is still painfully moving, as much for the ruin as for the Basil Spence replacement; corten steel panels indicating where bombed shops and houses used to be are a fine recent addition. Along with Pringle's new wing to the Herbert Gallery, it's the only post-70s object in the centre that doesn't feel like a desecration.

Walking through the squares, precincts and arcades of the reconstructed city, it sinks in that this place was taken more seriously than any other bombed-out town centre, more carefully planned, more thought about, with its views and vistas a model of townscape. It's as affecting in its own way as the cathedral. A recently re-erected Gordon Cullen mural confirms it nicely – yet the buildings it depicts are alternately crumbling or subject to the most depressingly lumpen additions. In the most central precinct, tacky pitched roofs and galumphing escalators stamp all over the 1950s buildings. The uncomprehending ignorance evokes a child scribbling over a Mondrian. Once Coventry had serious city building ambitions, made real attempts at combining modernity, history and urbanity. Birmingham's model of speculation, demolition and bluff profit-making was always more influential, however – and so it remains.

Originally published in Building Design, 21/2/11

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Monday, 21 March 2011


Photos of the Trawls round Preston and Barrow.

Urban Trawl: Barrow-in-Furness

Urban Trawl often hears the question 'but why on earth would you want to go there?!' I don't think I ever heard that so often as with Barrow-in-Furness.

So, why Barrow? Well, apart from the short answer – because people live there – for two main reasons, for two things that make it most unlike any other comparable town. First of all, the urbanism. Not only is it a rare planned town, but remarkably, for a place so small, much of its Victorian centre is made up of hard, big city architecture; specifically, the kind of speculative tenement flats found more often in Scotland or Germany and practically nowhere else in England. Second interesting thing - the fact that unlike practically any other northern industrial town, Barrow still makes stuff, and it makes stuff right in the centre of town, right in your face; especially extraordinary given what unpleasant stuff this is. And Barrow's sheer remoteness has a certain intrigue – it's probably the most geographically obscure large town in the UK, its 60,000 people squeezed into a peninsula and two tiny islands in a protrusion (a 'cul de sac' or an 'armpit' depending who you ask) at the edge of Cumbria, although in both history and accent Barrow is indisputably part of Lancashire.


Barrow is also one of the towns in Britain least architecturally affected by the 20th century, and the 21st has made only the slightest inroads, once inoffensively and once atrociously. The prospect from the station centres on a red brick and glass swoopy-roofed office block and some predictable Blairboxes, both fairly uninteresting - but there's far worse in other, larger towns. That's about as far as the Urban Renaissance model reached in this most dense of industrial towns, though a dockside scheme, 'The Waterfront', promised to roll out the more depressing form of marina dromeage, only to be indefinitely shelved a year ago, with little more than some paths completed. There's a possible reason for this failure. While most of these dockside schemes have little more than some ornamental cranes and a grain silo or two for company, this one would have been in the shadow of what is indisputably the most impressive industrial monument of post-1960s Britain, though competition may not be fierce.

This is BAE Systems' Devonshire Dock Hall, better known here as the Trident Shed, or alternately 'Maggie's Farm', due to her role in getting it built in the mid-1980s, perhaps the only major example where her politics led to the opening rather than closing of a factory. We're in the territory described in Robert Wyatt's heartbreaking song 'Shipbuilding' – what would otherwise be a stone dead industrial town is kept on life support by perpetual warfare; and no doubt 'someone got filled in for saying that people get killed in the results of the shipbuilding'. As here is where the submarines that carry the British 'nuclear deterrent' are built; one submarine will be rolling out of 'DDH' the week that this goes to press. Architecturally – if that's the word – the Devonshire Dock Hall is genuinely astonishing, a Death Star clad in corrugated metal, visible from as far away as Blackpool, the size of several Unites d'Habitation stacked end-to-end. Its white cladding is filthy with grime, and would already stick out in what is otherwise a redbrick and red sandstone town, even if it wasn't so colossal. Adjacent is the relatively Lilliputian 1994 Dock Museum, bland on the outside but with a multi-level interior that rewards some exploration.

The only area where 'defending jobs' was ever really invoked by the governments of the last twenty years was in Defence, so the preponderance of actual working – if minimally staffed – industry shouldn't be that surprising, but it comes as a shock nonetheless. Mostly, industry today is hidden in the exurbs, or obliterated, or, if possible, made into luxury flats. Here, we're so far away from where media might be looking or the middle classes might think of moving, that the suburbanisation of industry never happened. The centre of Barrow industry is on Barrow Island, reached by a high level bridge from the centre. Residentially, this is an extreme landscape. The first reference for its tall, symmetrical sandstone tenements might be Glasgow, but venture round the back of Michaelson Street or Schooner Street and the feeling is more Hanseatic than Scottish, and the rubble stone and peaked roofs are Baltic in feel.

Drop someone blindfolded here and they'd never believe they were in so small a town. These blocks are approximately as unforgiving as they are impressive – in terms of public space, playgrounds, or any alleviation of the general hardness, the crappiest system-built estate of the 1960s is superior, but the tenements' power and urbanity are still bracing. It might have been company housing for abominably treated workers, but it at least assumes its tenants are adults. Yet they're a fragment, a bizarre relic of a time when observers could call this place 'the English Chicago' without smirking. On one side, the tall flats subside into two-up-two-downs and then end at the bay, disappearing into a mess of works, boats and World War Two Pillboxes strewn around at random. On the other side, the impossibly strange rendered concrete of Seeley & Paget's St John's Church, a Norse-Arabic mirage.

At the entrance to Barrow Island is a handsome sandstone office block, the terminus of the immensely long sandstone shed built in the 1890s for Vickers, the engineering corporation who were responsible for much of Barrow's late Victorian development from steeltown into shipbuilding port. The sandstone bases of earlier factories form the ground floors to BAE Systems' immense new sheds. Just opposite the tenements, you're flanked by jagged-roofed yellow and grey sheds and cannot fail to notice a building that proudly tells you it produces 'Global Combat Systems Weapons'. I'm amazed when I come out the other end of the BAE works that nobody has tried to impound my camera. Men in high-vis jackets look unconcerned. Nothing could better sum up the place's ease with its function as producer of instruments to kill and maim.

This is of course what it always was, and the town has always thrived on profiting from war - although once that at least went alongside an intent to build a town of some distinction out of the whole sordid business. Railway entrepreneur James Ramsden, Barrow's de facto founder, produced a town plan in the 1860s centred around grand squares (now entropic roundabouts) and sponsored a Town Hall competition whose result, designed by William Henry Lynn, is first-rate, its turrets and towers in a red sandstone northern Gothic that is perfect for the place's atmosphere, light and topography.

On Walney Island, reached via the spindly Jubilee Bridge from the Trident Shed, is Vickerstown, a Garden City by the water built under the influence of Bourneville; half-timbered arts and crafts houses, some not much bigger than back-to-backs, lead towards more standard, eerily spacious 30s and 60s low-rise housing which contrasts outrageously with Barrow Island's ultra-urbanity, a sharp retreat from the idea that this could ever be a 'Chicago'. Finally there's a beach, the Irish Sea, an epiphanic view of the Lake District, and the Round House, a council-built midcentury modern flight of fancy now housing a Chinese restaurant. At Barrow's northern edge, the head of Vickers got Lutyens to design his house, a stark dry run for Castle Drogo. Can the era of BAE Systems boast of a similar architectural legacy?

Well - Barrow might not be Chicago, but on the site of the Hindpool steelworks is 'Hollywood Park', one of the most dispiriting retail developments in the British Isles. The wipeclean Pizza Huts and PC Worlds are not so much an affront to the redbrick context as blissfully unaware of it, and the vast car parks break into what is otherwise a refreshingly compact town. And that's about it. BAE make enormous profits in Barrow – the town's airport basically exists for their use - but as an indicator of Barrow's future, in the centre a training agency advertisement declares to the young, 'EMA stops soon. Sign up now!'

There is nowhere in England quite like Barrow-in-Furness, and that surely counts for something; in an alarmingly short space and time you can walk through some of the most unusual architectural terrain in the country, and find the unique persistence of city centre industry. That said, the boarded-up shops, the derelict pubs, the empty streets, all tell their own story. It's probably more comfortable to be poor here in 2010 than in 1910 – but should that excuse the brain death in anodised aluminium that is Hollywood Park, or the complete failure to plough at least some of the money extracted from this town into it? Architecturally, Barrow today is nowhere. Yet once, this minuscule town was compared with megacities like Glasgow and Chicago, and that ambition can still be dimly detected.

Originally published in Building Design, 13/1/11

Friday, 18 March 2011

Trying to Say Nice Things About Leeds

A Walk around Holbeck

The centre of Leeds initially induced a kind of horror in me – a Manchester without the civic pride or the pop and radical history, an oversized Reading with a chip on its shoulder, a 'bosses city' of lawyers and stockbrokers, a city where hep property developers couldn't even invoke pop precedent for their Brazilifications of council estates (having lamentably ignored my slogan suggestion – 'Saxton – at Home You'll Feel Like A Tourist!'). There's little doubt that there's more to it than that, obviously. There's a lot here to like, if you can duck down into the ring road away from the regen and the 'Leeds look' – the Arcades, several rudely Ruskinian warehouses, Cuthbert Brodrick's astonishing town hall, Chamberlin Powell and Bon's University buildings; and it's also the last major city in the UK to have had a City Architect, John Thorp, who retired last year. He was not, however, replaced.

I must admit I was initially hard pressed to see how a city which had made so many enormous architectural blunders as Leeds, with its numerous wobbly roofed, terracotta-clad towers, could have passed through the inquiring eye of a Civic watchdog of some sort, except on the most superficial level – the use of red brick, terracotta and trespa to keep it 'in keeping'. However! The recently completed Granary Wharf scheme in Holbeck won a few architectural awards, and was widely recognised as some sort of valediction for Thorp on the eve of his retirement, so on a recent visit to the city the first thing I wanted to do was have a look.

Holbeck is at the back of the train station, reached by a labyrinthine route down steps, across canals and under arches. On the way, you see the work of Leeds' major 20th and 21st century architects, and it is not especially flattering. Here's John Poulson, whose one decent building, the Leeds International Pool, was recently flattened.

Lots of what at first seem to be the worst recent Leeds buildings turn out to be reclads and extensions of its worst 1960s towers. If there's a lesson in this aside from 'you can't polish a turd', it's that no convincing aesthetic of retrofitting has yet emerged, aside from cladding either in 'local materials' or brightly coloured plastic, and most heinous of all, adding on top the jolly regen wavy roof that Joel Anderson christened the 'Blair hat'. Surely this tower awaits both, although nobody will lament it when it occurs.

Then there's Carey Jones, who have stamped their, hmm, 'identity' on the city, and much of the rest of the North, in a mostly lamentable fashion, especially through the unforgivable Sky Plaza for Unite – though this car park is very far from their worst, being as aggressive and inhuman as the function necessitates. It's also a better bit of townscape than the yawning surface car park next to it. Leeds – 'Motorway City of the 70s' (!) is almost as much a motorcity as Birmingham, and its that hostility to pedestrians (outside the ring road) that helps make it so obnoxious. The best thing about the car park is this frankly unexpected Bugsy Malone ground floor. Marvellous.

And finally Aedas, a firm that began in Huddersfield before eventually becoming an Anglo-Chinese behemoth. Aside from the terracotta, it's hard to work out what makes their work specifically Northern – and maybe a Modernist argument could be made for this. It's an International Style, so why shouldn't Leeds look like a lower-rise, lower-density Hong Kong? Because it's boring, mainly. Bridgewater Place – 'the Dalek', as it is known – is inescapable here. It does have a bit of a futurist dash as a tower, a silvery tube of steel and glass – it'll be the kitsch of the 2020s or 2030s, and I suspect when its time comes, as it will, we'll all be trying to save it - but around the back the way it extends itself grimly along the street is particularly dispiriting.

There's nothing in principle wrong with Leeds' encouragement of towers, nothing at all – when cities impose height limits it merely results in lumpen, squished office blocks, and the more enlightened contextualist will note that Leeds has a tower tradition, from the Town Hall to the Tower Works. The latter, a series of three Italianate chimneys for a steel pin factory, is exactly equidistant from Bridgewater Place and Granary Wharf. It's a nice example of the Victorian need to accompany the terrifyingly new with the familiar and antiquarian, a 'future shock absorber', in Kodwo Eshun's invaluable phrase – although the sheer surrealism of these games of make-believe are part of what make them enjoyable.

Top Loiner Alan Bennett once suggested that, had Leeds conserved rather than demolished so much of its Victorian heritage, it might have become a tourist destination, like the Italian Renaissance towns which its architects used as a copybook. That's a little improbable – partly, because what is so much fun about the likes of Tower Works is the sheer coarseness, the references to elegant precedent necessarily being executed in rough red brick, and detailed by proletarians, not craftsmen, like these 'Brickwork' boys below. And if you want a Northern Industrial Renaissance city mostly undamaged by planners, it's only ten minutes on the train to Bradford. Not many tourists there.

The first interesting thing about Granary Wharf is that it has somehow managed to avoid certain contemporary clichés despite being designed by the very architects responsible for perpetrating them elsewhere. The bridge that leads to it, for instance, is not a white-painted Calatravan skeleton or a Wilkinsonian arch, but a Corten steel construction of sombre elegance. There's more of that to come.

The main architects of Granary Wharf are Carey Jones themselves, but everyone I spoke to in Leeds put its success down to John Thorp's direct involvement and an unusually enlightened developer. Certainly you can see the strictures of the Civic Architect here – a palette of brown Corten steel balconies and dark brick infill (into the usual concrete frame, obviously), and a form apparently dictated by an industrial building formerly on the site; but it's the absence of the Blair Hats and the bloody terracotta which are especially welcome.

The tower is very impressive – the irregular windows don't make a fuss of themselves, the cylinder is eye-catching, even -yech- 'iconic', if we must – without being egotistically Fosterian or cheaply Aedasish. So here, given that we have exactly the same architects – Messrs Carey Jones – and the same clients, in principle – these are luxury City Centre Apartments, in a city with plenty of empty new flats - the main question is: what went right? This is not a facetious question. Up the road is Carey Jones ' horrendously shoddy and drab Clarence Dock, which has bits falling off it already. But here, even the detailing is good, for God's sake. You could almost be in a country which took its architecture seriously.

The conclusion is partly depressing and partly encouraging. In the latter case, well – the City Architect triumphs, hurrah! - imposing coherence, urban order and proper design upon some usually pretty shoddy persons and places. This is especially pleasing. Recently Nick Johnson of Urban Splash answered a question at a RIBA event about whether or not Municipal Architects should return, thusly: 'I would no more trust a council architect to design me a house than a council hairdresser to cut my hair'. Leaving aside the chutzpah of saying this when you've bought up and sold as luxury apartments no less than four council estates, one of them in Leeds, this scheme is a fine rejoinder. And maybe, just maybe, the new City Architects could be designing the council housing that the 5 million people on the waiting list are waiting for. The other conclusion, which it would seem is a more popular one among architects, is that architecture is only as good as its developers, and hence we should be wishing for more enlightened property speculators to save us all.

After Granary Wharf, this bit of Holbeck need not detain us further, as it's mostly full of the 'Leeds Look'. This, an 80s movement to use local materials, pitched roofs and classical tripartite divisions in (mostly) spec office blocks, is in fact a great example of how design control can't stop godawful design by itself. Here, it means lots of business park buildings and lots of car parks. Hence, the problem with the area – which markets itself, take note, as 'Holbeck Urban Village' – is much more apparent. There's some good individual buildings, sure, but as planning the place is awful. The pedestrian faces innumerable nasty subtopian obstacles, like this delightful bit of counterintuitive barbed wire.

The real problem is twofold. Partly there's the sheer obstructiveness to pedestrians, with what are already baffling even by English standards lines of movement made worse by plenty of impassable surface car parks – three times I had to clamber over fences just to get from A to B, and I'm really not an athletic sort. Also, this is Leeds' industrial heartland, and the recent past, pre-City Centre Living, clearly still zoned it as industrial. There's nothing wrong with that, if we take – and why not? - the line, common to both Ian Nairn and Jane Jacobs, that the zoning out of industry has a deleterious effect on cities. But industry in the late 20th century meant the car, and more than that, it meant the lorry; and that means virtually no chance for density or urban coherence. So there's a lot of typically exurban 80s-90s industry/post-industry around, from light factory units to strip malls and car showrooms, which sit strangely with derelict mills here and mills-as-apartments-or-offices there.

So the light industrial units above are immediately facing...this.

OK, I'll concede - so here Leeds has something that neither Manchester nor Sheffield nor Bradford can match – the truly unbelievable Temple Works, a flax mill designed as an Egyptian Temple. In lesser hands this could be merely showy fluff, as those familiar with the Tobacco Factory, Mornington Crescent will know. Temple Works is an epoch away from that sort of Hollywood Egyptian. Here, at an earlier stage of the industrial revolution, Walter Benjamin's claim that the future carries with it the archaic can be seen at its most uncanny, and most physically arresting. It is all done with total conviction; the grey stone, the strong, aggressive detail, the sense of looming, compacted power. The birth of civilisation as the aesthetic for the birth of industrial civilisation, and both hungry for sacrifice. As a place to work in it must have been terrifying.

This overwhelming impression is from only part of the building – the roof recently collapsed, and it's currently undergoing emergency repairs. There's parts of it missing anyway - Temple Works originally had a obelisk chimney and a grass roof on which sheep were encouraged to graze: neither, sadly is there any more. There are plenty of other factories, though, with grass growing out of them, if you venture just a little bit further from the waterside regen part of the 'Urban Village'. Smashed windows and rot awaiting the next property boom. This area was the city's red light district for years, and just round the back of the City Centre Apartments is one of Leeds' poorest areas.

There's plenty of remains from the last boom along the Aire. BREAM 'Very Good'! Save 30% of Your Occupational Costs! There's a real desperation about the signs along here, with the trespa-as-stone delight of No 1 Leeds being especially keen...

Then you end up at a gigantic, alarmingly dense and domineering Carey Jones thing, then the centre. This one is in the real 21st Century Leeds vernacular, with the full vocabulary of bulk ineptly offset by metal balconies and terracotta cladding, which in this case apparently is a reclad of the local Post Office HQ. After making my way past it, I turn round to see what it looks like from the 'front'. I've been here before, and the wasteland from two years ago remains unfilled.

Urban Trawl: Preston

Preston, Lancashire, is the newest city in the UK. This might sound puzzling, given its age, but it acquired city status only in 2002. According to 1920s Home Office directives, the 'grant of the title is only recommended in the case of towns of the first rank in population, size and importance, and having a distinctive character and identity of their own.' Does Preston fit any of these categories?

One of the promises of the erstwhile urban renaissance was that it could not only restore dignity and urbanity to cities whose greatness should not be in dispute – London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow – but also strengthen the urban qualities of smaller cities that might otherwise be straggling, vague, indistinct – the Wakefields and Readings of the UK. Preston sits between those two poles, in that it made major attempts to create some sort of coherent cityness, in the late 19th and mid-20th century. The decade in which it became a city made no such effort.

Preston might have ancient roots, but it's essentially a town of the industrial revolution; in fact, one of the towns of the industrial revolution, with its appalling environment and its frighteningly revolutionary workers spurring Charles Dickens to write Hard Times, whose utilitarian villain Gradgrind, famously unable to see anything other than monetary value, clearly still has some presence here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was also a pioneer in post-war roadbuilding, with the first stretch of motorway encircling it, and an inner-ring road further inside. It had a last, rather than first in 1969, when it became the centre of Central Lancashire New Town, the final New Town to be designated – before the unofficial New Town of Poundbury, at least. And Preston was pioneering in its radicalism too, one of the crucibles of the labour movement – and there are still independent leftwing councillors in the inner city area of Deepdale.

This combination of austere Victorian and post-war utopian values is reflected, for better or worse, in Building Design Partnership, the socialist collective founded here in the early 60s by local boy George Grenfell-Baines - now of course most familiar as one of the country's faceless architectural leviathans, and the only thing to have left Preston of national architectural significance. With another major exception, that is – the Harris Museum and Library.

At the centre of Preston is one of the greatest of sombre Northern civic complexes, made up of various administrative buildings, a stark Giles Gilbert Scott war memorial, a wide, imposing public square, and 'the Harris' – a piece of late Greek revival, with striking, almost Schinkel-like clarity and power, with nothing extraneous, no hint of Victorian fol-de-rol, a literal temple of working-class self-education, emblazoned with the words 'On Earth there is nothing great but Man – In Man there is nothing great but Mind'. It's a magnificent asset for any city, but here, where much of the townscape is shabby and stunted, it stands out as a beacon of what was once thought possible.

So, too, does the complex just behind it, but in a much tricksier way. Here there is one of those classically 1960s attempts to redevelop a town through the remaking of its circulation into walkways, underpasses and towers, with people separated from cars. It contains a couple of decent towers by BDP, under their most famous partner, the Brutalist Keith Ingham, both of which create a distinctive, vigorous skyline, but are a little loveless; something which could certainly not be said about the building beneath – Preston Bus Station. This, like Birmingham Central Library or Robin Hood Gardens, is one of those structures that a headline writer might call 'Brutalism's Euston Arch' – buildings trenchantly fought for by those who love them, destined to be removed for short-term profit. Yet unlike those two, it's held in undisputed public esteem – it recently won a local newspaper poll for best building in Preston. There's no surprise why – its glorious sweep is so simple, so confident, so right, that only a churlish antimodernist could not be seduced by it. Inside, matters are a little different – original signage battles with recent tat, and a clean is direly in order. It connects with a fussier, but also interesting Guildhall by RMJM, an oddly prescient building which straddles Stirling's red period and pomo; BDP's rival post-war megafirm also helped design the Central Market nearby, drab on the outside but a bustling Coronation Street Constructivist delight inside.

Stirling and BDP also led a partially successful attempt to build modernist housing to complement this modernist centre. I say partially, because the two had very different fates, in surprising ways. Stirling and Gowan's low-rise, brick housing was needlessly demolished, but BDP's two concrete tower blocks, an elegant, faceted design by its future chairman Keith Scott, still stand. A predictable answer as to why - they were sold to developers. It's sad that buildings like Stirling and Gowan's went when so much dross survived (or was built after), but Preston boasts some great little moments of accidental townscape nonetheless. One involves taking a passageway from a crumbling, cobbled Victorian snicket, past concrete car parks where cotton mills used to stand, via BDP's housing and its apologetic Housing Association successors, past typical milltown terraces emerging, suddenly and abruptly, into semis and bungalows – and an entrance down a magical series of winding stairs and alongside thick, autumnal undergrowth, to Avenham Park, the third (of three) genuinely special things about Preston.

There's a lot to love here – this is no flat piece of 'public realm', no concession to get planning gain. It's an undulating, complicated, vivid landscape, and one where you can see the city end right in front of you, just a short walk from the centre. It's the Victorian park as Victorian novel, a whole world in itself that you could spend weeks immersing yourself in, and happily it contains the city's one decent 21st century building, a jagged little cafe by McChesney Architects.

So why is it, given that Preston has these three first-class urban moments – the Harris, the Bus Station, the park – that it feels so un-city like, so pinched and unthought-about? The blame can partly be put on the 60s. The inner ring-road is truly horrible, pulling in its train a dross-scape of retail sheds and business parks – one of which houses the offices of BAE systems, the arms manufacturers who are one of the few surviving remnants of industrial Britain, and who build their weapons in the Central Lancs exurbs. It makes the city feel incoherent and drab, something aided by the fact that, after the Bus Station/Guildhall walkway systems fell out of favour, the pedestrian has to stand and wait, giving lots of time to survey just how miserable the townscape is.

The other reason is that Preston hasn't managed to erect more than one decent building in around forty years. Towns like this seldom have the clout or the confidence to challenge developers, and the results have been poor indeed. The whole panoply of outer-suburban blandness is here, in the centre of town – pitched-roofed 90s offices, concrete-framed and shoddily clad 00s Blairboxes, all without the hint of architecture that might have been demanded in a larger town. The feeling that nobody – or nobody in power, at least – seems to care what the city looks like is inescapable. In the most recently developed corner off the ring-road, a new hotel and recent buildings for Central Lancashire University are especially dispiriting. And while there has been one large attempt to plan something large-scale, it seems to compound the city's sadness rather than relieve it.

One of those New Retail Quarters that were planned all over the place in the wake of Liverpool One is mooted for the site of Preston Bus Station. Nearby an advertisement proclaims its putative virtues, and it's a melancholy sight. Next to the CGI of dead-eyed shoppers are the desperate words 'it's a nice place' and 'a bit of development is always good'. Yet the firm who have planned this development are BDP – who thus propose to erase what is perhaps their finest building.

Residentially, Preston's heart is Deepdale, where symmetrical stone terraces give way to quintessential red brick. It's the home of Preston North End FC, and until recently of OMI Architects' National Football Museum, a pretty kitsch but enjoyably tasteless decon mishmash, resembling what Capita might produce if given a book on Melnikov. The Museum was closed recently and moved southwards to Manchester, specifically to Urbis, to replace that museum's former focus on 'the city'. It's a reminder that we don't seem to know or care what makes a city. Nor do we care to try and help somewhere that lies inbetween, that hasn't quite achieved a true city's sense of possibility, drama and distinctive presence; instead, anything it does create is hived off to a bigger city, to a place that doesn't need the favour.

Originally published in Building Design, 2/12/10