Monday 24 May 2010

Portsmouth’s Carbuncle: The Tricorn Tragedy

(Originally published in Prototype X2, 2006.  Re-edited Feb. 2014)

The Tricorn is no more.  Leveled at last, its absence worries like a pulled tooth. In place of its concrete tiers and towers, the flatness of a temporary carpark yawns between the red brick Gothic of haunted St Agatha's (released at last from the dockyard and with God reinstalled, but still washed up like a ship cut adrift from its age and surroundings) and the ripped backside of Cascades, Portsmouth's very own air-conditioned nightmare. Driving past this desolation, we see the manifestation of urban folly and bureaucratic indecision. Like the Saturday afternoon achievements of Pompey Football Club (a deep-seated love of soccer is compulsory in Portsmouth), all this is supposed to make us proud. "Tricorn Down - Portsmouth Up!" was the Maoist-style slogan hung from the Tricorn as it awaited its own execution.

The Tricorn, of course, was never intended to provoke indifference. Designed by Rodney Gordon of the modish Owen Luder Partnership, it was a product of the controversial school of architecture that had been given the name 'Brutalism' from the French term for the material employed; béton brut or rough concrete. The shopping centre aroused strong positive and negative reactions right from its opening in 1966, when the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth reportedly admitted "It looks horrible from the outside..." The following year, it won the Civic Trust Award in recognition of its "exciting visual composition".  Then, in 1968, it was voted “the fourth ugliest building in Britain”…

Sections of the ‘quality’ press were ecstatic in their appreciation of the Tricorn's design. The Sunday Times lauded it as "an exotic essay in reinforced concrete, using towers, pyramids and minarets to give an eastern feel - the character of the Casbah".  Ian Nairn in The Observer was similarly gushing; "At last there is something to shout about in Portsmouth. Britain's primary naval port has a dreary record of post-war buildings; in fact, nothing grand has gone up there since the 1890s. The new Tricorn development designed by Owen Luder will change all that. It is in Charlotte Street, part of the main shopping centre, and it provided the full developer's repertoire: shops, supermarket, rooftop carparking, a tower carpark as well, flats, two pubs and a wholesale market. This is in fact a complete town ... every student's dream made visible; spiral staircases, heroically modelled facades, writhing compositions of cross-overs and pass-unders. Everything is going on at once on about six different levels."

Picking up on the Middle Eastern theme (strangely appropriate, given the 'Star and Crescent' design of  Portsmouth's city arms, said to have been brought back from Palestine by the crusader King Richard the Lionheart), architectural historian David Lloyd, writing in 1972, eulogised the shopping centre's imaginative appearance; "In form it is a romantic piece of 'concrete sculpture' on a huge scale ... The shape of the Tricorn as seen from the road to the north-west suggests allusions both to an Arabic city and to an oil refinery, expressed in the medium of concrete. The effects of the horizontal 'trays' of car parking space separated by dark space are dramatically exploited as are the concrete driveways up the round towers at the angles. The main building is massively chunky in form, and the irregular skyline is punctuated by round-topped turrets." Some years later he remarked "If only the building were painted in white ... its wonderful sculptural form would be even more emphasised."

This brings us to the Tricorn's greatest shortcoming; concrete decay. The structure's Space Age aspirations were sadly betrayed by the encroaching ugliness of its physical fabric. This fact alone gave sufficient ammunition to the building’s enemies and caused resentment to a general public ignorant of the advanced science of concrete restoration. Poetic souls, attuned to the interplay between Man and Nature, could gain lugubrious sustenance from the stained grey walls and stalactites, but for many people the tabloid tag 'ugliest building in Britain' quickly gained resonance.

The Tricorn had other issues as well. For a start, it was never completed. The 'hanging gardens' of greenery envisaged for the upper storeys were left unplanted and some planned lighting and street furniture were not installed.  The social housing built into the complex experienced serious problems with leaking. The design itself presented a challenge;  despite its high-profile visibility from the road, the Tricorn was essentially self-contained and inward-looking.  The Casbah-like structure insulated itself from the rest of the city centre, which did nothing to endear it to Portsmouth’s town planners, who aspired to a more integrated shopping area. Most importantly, the Tricorn failed to attract a 'big-name' store such as Marks and Spencers. The audacious concrete sculpture appeared to be incapable of earning enough money to justify its own existence. Dark murmurings about its future began at an early stage, but there was a widespread belief that it would be too difficult and expensive to knock the Tricorn down; the overwhelming mass of pre-stressed concrete would explode catastrophically when struck by a demolition ball. Under-investment and neglect followed. Portsmouth seemed to be stuck with Luder’s decaying citadel; a grim relic of the ‘Brutalist’ past.

Designed in socially optimistic times, the Tricorn’s warren of entrances eventually turned out to be a lurking ground for vandals and muggers and a pissoir for late night drunks. The stale stench of urine mingled with that of rotten vegetables from the adjoining Charlotte Street market to create an aesthetic experience that was was quintessentially Portsmouth.  Overflowing barrows and market stalls crept beneath dripping grey concrete into the Tricorn's dark precincts to create a vibrant street-scene that melded Dickensian squalor with one of J.G. Ballard's grey dystopias.

To an 'alternative' shopper seeking respite from the cloned tedium of Commercial Road, this was one of the joys of the Tricorn.  The maligned and necrotic structure gave shelter to a diverse and healthy community of independent traders.  Downstairs could be found such delights as Mr. Clive's leather shop (the purchase of a cheap biker jacket from Mr. Clive's was a rite of passage for Portmouth punks and rockers), cheap clothes stalls in ‘Charlotte’s Superstore’, a record shop, a mysterious Chinese food store and a martial arts supplier.  As well as a classic ‘greasy spoon’, the top floor hosted a variety of small open shops selling items such as secondhand paperbacks, comics, secondhand records, witchcraft supplies, and retro-clothing. There was not a 'High Street' name in sight (although the Tricorn had once been the home of Richard Branson’s very first Virgin record store). All these local businesses have now been destroyed, having no place in the portion-controlled corporate paradise aspired to by Portsmouth City Council. Gone too is Basin’s Night Club, which once reverberated to the likes of the Pink Fairies and Robert Calvert.

Ultimately, it is clear that the Tricorn didn’t stand a chance. Yesterday's future had become the present’s embarrassing past. Back in 1984, populist dabbler Charles Windsor had delivered his notorious “carbuncle” speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects.  Claiming to speak up for “‘ordinary’ people (who) need not be made to feel guilty or ignorant if their natural preference is for the more ‘traditional’ designs”, he soon had Portsmouth’s ‘carbuncle’ in his royal cross hairs, inventively describing it as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings”.  Modernist eyesores such as the Tricorn would be purged from the Prince's forelock-tugging Utopia. He was in tune with the zeitgeist; the perpetrators of Thatcher’s Britain looked back to a Merchant Ivory past of country houses, rose-tangled gardens and people who knew their place.  All social evils, from pregnant teenagers to striking binmen, were to be blamed on the left-wing 1960s. Through the prism of this demonology, radical architects were revealed as arrogant and contemptuous technocrats engaged in social engineering; Stalinist manipulators of public space.

The Tricorn clung on, concrete to the core and implacably representative of a hard naval city (one admirer hymned the “poignant relevance” of “its tough macho quality”). Although older residents still had grounds for viewing it as an alien interloper, for those born into its own decade it was as much a part of the Portsmouth landscape as seagulls crying overhead and diesel fumes belched by red and white corporation buses. In its decay, it became symbolic of a city past its prime. Through a kind of sympathetic magic, the Tricorn was held responsible for all the city’s ills and became the victim of a full scale witch hunt. Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock led the campaign for its destruction, declaiming to the press “it has dragged the economy down for years”. Insanity formed a sub-plot; the manager of the Tricorn’s pet shop went on a rampage in the nearby Sainsbury’s superstore, hurling bottles of single malt whisky down the aisles until the police arrived to arrest him.  He was sectioned and packed off to St. James' mental hospital; just another life swept up by the gales of destruction.

Semi-derelict and boarded up (it was in this state for a full ten years), the Tricorn retained its defenders. Serious-minded patricians of the Portsmouth Society conducted a campaign to have the building listed, something which, of course, there should have been no argument about. Ambitious plans to rejuvenate and remodel it were commissioned, seeking resolve its major problems and to provide Portsmouth with much needed housing and a new 'winter garden' in place of the failed department store.  “We have all noticed that public perception of what is beautiful or ugly works on the pendulum principle and reaches its nadir just before a fresh and positive evaluation”, the Society explained.  Unfortunately in the Tricorn’s case the pendulum had already reached the point of no return.

The end was cruel and protracted. Like an inmate on Death Row, the Tricorn clung to existence, in the vain hope that its architectural uniqueness would overcome mere commercial considerations and be recognised by the Heritage Minister. In its diminished state, it was turned into a distracting source of media controversy. ‘Middle England’ jumped in for the kill and Owen Luder’s once-lauded masterpiece was unimaginatively declared the “ugliest building in the UK” in a poll of Radio 4 listeners. Supercilious as ever, the presenters guffawed.  It seemed that the voters were blind to the melanoma-like rash of out-of-town retail hulks spreading across swathes of British countryside. Rodney Gordon's principle had been; “If people don’t notice it, it’s not architecture”.  He was right, but this meant that hideous non-architecture could pass safely without comment, so long as its dullness and ubiquity meant that it could disappear into the background.

In its final days, the Tricorn predictably became a focus for art school anarchists and other ironic types.  A local group of neo-Lettristes calling themselves ‘Proles for Modernism’ attempted to engineer a situation by insinuating themselves into plans for a ‘Tricorn Festival’ to mark the structure's demise. Issuing dubious psychogeographic tracts about an invented "Tricorn Ley Line", they proclaimed the failed shopping centre "a demotic symbol of resistance - it contradicts the role to which it’s assigned". Foaming with affected rage, they vowed to “spit on ‘Prince’ Charles, and on the scum who execute his wishes.” This type of rhetoric was calculated to alarm Taylor Woodrow, the Tricorn’s original builders, now turned demolition contractors.  Unsurprisingly, they withdrew permission for the festival. The official reason was that they suspected a graffiti spree, which was somewhat ironic given the incalculably greater vandalism they had been commissioned to undertake.

The Tricorn's final death sentence was announced in March 2004.  Mike Hancock lost no time to engage in some populist gloating: “With new developments like Gunwharf Quays, the Kings Theatre saved and now the Tricorn coming down, 'Pompey’s on the up.'”  Undeterred by the rabble, Owen Luder defended his creation to the end: "My problem now is that there is a lynch mob - the 'tear it down' lot - who have not given any thought to what the Tricorn was or what it could be. As it is, all they are going to do is knock it down and have a surface level car park, which is where I started in 1961. Portsmouth will regret having demolished the Tricorn in the long term."

At 11.00am on 24.03.04, Mr. Stuart Hamilton, Portsmouth resident and lucky winner of a Council competition, ceremonially commenced demolition to the bombastic strains of Tchaikovsky.  This was a cleverly sarcastic reference to Ian Nairn’s 1960s Observer article, in which the award-winning edifice was described as "an orchestration in reinforced concrete that is the equivalent of the 1812 overture". Solemn and defeated, members of the Portsmouth Society and other Tricorn supporters lined up in the crowd to witness the crass and depressing spectacle.

The campaign to eradicate the irreplaceable architectural heritage of the 1960s continues apace. Next on the death list is Luder’s second Brutalist classic, the Gateshead multi-storey car park that acquired iconic status (and some high profile international supporters such as Sylvester Stallone) from its appearance in the classic British gangster film ‘Get Carter’. Meanwhile, Portsmouth has a new Middle-Eastern inspired architectural emblem in the shape of the ‘Spinnaker Tower’, a half-sized replica of Dubai’s Burj-al-Arab hotel overlooking the harbour. Originally meant to be the centerpiece of Portsmouth’s Millennium celebrations, the scandal-ridden project was finally completed in October 2005 at a cost of £35.6m. £11.1m. of this, contrary to promises given at the outset, was funded by taxpayers through Portsmouth City Council. The building is constructed from concrete.


Anonymous said...

Great post, actually nice to see some different opinions and perspectives on this for once!

I'm trying to track down anyone who used to work in the tricorn, more specifically Charlottes Superstore, would you know of anyone? Or at least where I can find a list of the stores that used to occupy the Superstore?

Thanks again!

Antony Trepniak said...

Mike Hancock update:

Antony Trepniak said...

'Northern Quarter' plans: