After Northampton, Southampton was inevitably the next stop on our tour. The place where Ian Nairn began his road trip exposing the horrors of subtopia (his word) ‘…the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton’. His book Outrage was hugely influential, although unfortunately not influential enough to prevent the cancerous sprawl of motorways, tin sheds with various uses and euphemisms and endless insular housing estates under Mrs Thatcher and her political children.
History and dynamism still discernible (but only just)
Southampton is not a city I had visited before except for brief student adventures but it actually seems very familiar from Owen Hatherley’s acutely observed writing. His book could well also have been called ‘Outrage’ but is actually ‘Ruins’. The evocation of his home town promises a kind of savage exoticism but ends with mostly disappointed hopes. That’s something I understand only too well from my home town, Cardiff and my adopted home, Nottingham - disappointed hopes that is. It is partly thwarted chauvinism and partly the realisation that they could have been so much better as places if only … they had been properly planned. Although not a creative person I literally dream fantastical versions of places I know – really all just jumbled up experiences but always very, very urban and usually very exciting. I wake up and remember that no, it’s not actually like that.
The Vision thing
Wyndham Court - a paradise of visual grammar
Ellis Woodman in his recent very perceptive piece in Building Design identifies the fundamental failure of the planning system as its inability to propose a vision to which developers (or indeed others) can respond. He rightly calls for ‘propositional planning as opposed to our wretched culture of development control’. Too right mate, but actually local government and planning in particular is drowning in bollocks visions – part of Blair’s hugely damaging legacy of public service ‘reform’ – you had to have a vision to tick the performance assessment boxes.
Walking the walls - L. Berger's excellent vision
These corporate motherhood-and-apple-pie visions are much less realistic than my dreams and can be easily parodied. ‘By 2026 (that mythical year in planning policy) Anytown will be a great place to live – a thriving and sustainable community of happy, smiling and prosperous people living virtuous lives. Better advice and counselling will mean that sexual satisfaction will be greatly enhanced but STDs dramatically reduced’ etc, etc - ha, ha. People are paid serious money to dream up this sort of stuff – I know, I’ve been there – and it’s not bad per se but just an illusion, a Pickles-less apolitical world of available resources, ‘partnership’ and an intent of social justice and sustainability.
Plenty o' place-making off Bedford Place
The problem is that, whilst it is focussing on this generic tosh, planning is failing to provide specific spatial and design vision about real places and doing the placemaking which should be shaping the future of our towns and suburbs. Planning has become largely reactive to the overwhelming power of the development industry, now in almost complete command of the built environment – a spatial expression of the economic and political realities of the White revolution. Southampton is no different.
Waterfront city with a world wide reputation?
The inviting Southampton Water - if you can get to it
‘Southampton will be recognised as the region’s economic, social and cultural driver….. It will be a centre of learning (and) have a varied and exciting cultural landscape…..Adapting into a sustainable waterfront city (it) will have a world-wide profile….. Southampton will be known as a city that is good to grow up in and good to grow old in where people are proud to live and economic success is harnessed to social justice…..Residents will feel that they are part of strong, sustainable, healthy communities…..The city will have high-quality, accessible environments designed to protect and enhance the city’s heritage whilst providing attractive and functional settings for 21st Century life…..Public spaces should take priority over car-dominated roads. Well-designed and contemporary public and private realms will be safe, accessible and create a sense of place and a rich built environment in which communities can flourish.’
So sayeth the Core Strategy. Yeah – good – let’s hope so. But there is a huge credibility gap between this optimistic rhetoric and the reality of Southampton today. In 2009 Owen Hatherley, writing with a passion which can only be explained by his great love of the place, concluded ‘Southampton is a compendium of all that is evil and wrong in this septic isle, but it didn't and doesn't have to be like this’.
Soton for NYC
The former station: pissing it away at the Casino
Southampton was a city of promise – the home of the great Transatlantic liners, a new city for the C20th (although actually one of the oldest towns in the country); it had almost American possibilities. Whilst Britain struggled through the last Great Depression Southampton prospered, as the extravagant Civic Centre shows. But the city blazed in 1940, a massive trauma with a lasting impact. After the war there was still optimism - amazing flying boats on Southampton Water as well as the liners and the opening of the magnificent new art deco Ocean Terminal. But the post war redevelopment of the bombed city centre was timid. The jet age robbed Southampton of its status as an international gateway and its role and special identity as a great port city was emasculated. It became less of a city in its own right and more an adjunct of the prosperous South.
The Soft South
West Quay: A dead end for pedestrians
The problem for Southampton is that the South doesn’t really do cities. So much of its economic ‘capital’ is the lush countryside, comfortable ‘heritage’ towns and twee rentier villages. The explosion of the outer metropolitan economy in the last 30 years has mostly been based on smaller towns and exurbs. Southampton is an oddity – a still recognisably working class city beyond the Deep South but economically dependent on its hinterland, rather than the other way round like a real city. This is quite deep seated. Southampton never developed a mercantilist economy, unlike say Bristol or Liverpool, so was always dependent on external initiative and investment rather than generating its own resources. This passivity ends up with the disaster of West Quay, Southampton’s new, tawdry and utterly depressing anti-city centre. In the last 15 years the City of Possibilities but Unrealised Dreams (symbolised by the destruction of Ocean Terminal in 1983) became the City of Subtopia which now laps the very walls of the medieval town.
Solent City - Mayflower Park
There are some striking similarities with Cardiff – late development, narrowly based economy and over reliance on the port, civic centre hubris, wonderful parks, nice suburbs, de-industrialisation, desperation, capitulation to the lowest common denominator of spectacularly incoherent crap new development and abject failure to create a ‘world class’ new maritime city. But although the two cities are similar and similarly sized, Cardiff can fall back on its new role as capital of a small country. Southampton by contrast struggles to assert any regional role. Of course in Pickles World there is no such thing as an English region but historically Southampton was always upstaged by Winchester anyway. The city itself has a population of about 250,000 with as many again in adjacent suburbs and satellite towns. ‘Urban South Hampshire’, which of course also includes the slightly smaller arch rival city of Pompey, has a population of over a million.
From the 1960s planners dreamt of a creating a ‘Solent City’ metropolis north of the port cities and the government commissioned a feasibility study from Colin Buchanan. This concluded that up to 750,000 more people could be accommodated in a new kind of city based on ‘directional grids’. This would not be sprawl however, rather ‘a dispersed but structured and landscaped city with a new kind of urban texture’. There would be a new regional centre near Eastleigh which would eclipse Southampton city centre, inconveniently sited for motorways on its peninsula.
M27 City - Ocean Village
‘Solent City’ was quietly abandoned but a version of this, M27 City, came to pass thanks to Nicholas Ridley’s mad libertarian visions – not as a new kind of urban texture but rather as a subtopian, amorphous and unsustainable cul-de-sac, in both the literal and metaphoric sense. Under Prescott M27 City was again designated a Growth Point but with such a fragmented planning system (10 local planning authorities plus Hampshire), visceral local rivalries, the absurd and selfish delusions of exurbia (reinforced by local MP Chris Huhne) and now Localism this is going nowhere fast.
De-coding the structure
Regency roots - Rockstone Place
Southampton, the real city, actually has lots of advantages. Its site at the head of Southampton Water with the Itchen and the Test to either side and the New Forest beyond should give it dramatic waterside possibilities. Its network of central parks and Southampton Common are superb and very well used, at least on a sunny day in July. The ruined but extensive medieval walls around the old town are stunning and comparable to York or Conwy.
Plenty of quality still visible from High Street
The structure of the real city centre is very clear with a long street (now dubbed the QE2 Mile) running from the Civic Centre to Town Quay. It is punctuated by the Bargate dating from the C12th, which Pevsner says is ‘probably the finest and certainly the most complex town gateway in Britain’. North of this the street is Above Bar and below it is High Street. The old walls enclose the High Street and parallel streets – mostly visible towards Western Esplanade. Town Quay is the only place you can actually reach the water – strange for a place that advertises itself as Sea City.
The western walls before reclamation (and West Quay subtopia)
Two things make orientation and understanding the town confusing. Firstly the western town walls have no relationship with the water whatsoever, although the road below is intriguingly called Western Esplanade. Reclamation of the tidal Test estuary began in the mid C19th and with the huge dock construction of the 1930s a massive new industrial area was created. Come industrial decline cue the ‘regeneration’ of ‘West Quay’- but actually there is no quay, no water and no relation with the town either. Secondly the fine original 1840 Terminus Station designed by Tite and ‘one of the earliest surviving pieces of railway architecture of any scale in Britain’ is not a station but a casino. You arrive at Central Station, an architectural nonentity singled out by Lord Adonis for opprobrium – dreadful facilities, not at all central and hopelessly related to the real city centre, let alone the adjacent West Quay, which of course only does cars.
Arriving at Terminus Station would be a great introduction to Southampton as this area has some sense of being a big city. Next to it is the magnificent Manhattan-like extension of the former South Western Hotel, only 7 stories but feeling like a skyscraper with its elegant stripped down classical orders, exactly what you might expect Southampton to be. The original hotel is 1870 French Renaissance. Opposite is the small Queen’s Park flanked by Queen’s Terrace, with Oxford Street parallel, both including Regency stucco terraces with wildly exaggerated bay windows, remnants of Southampton’s previous life as a resort. If anywhere in the city centre has a slightly metropolitan, up market, feel it is here.
Spot the odd one out, Canute Road
Along Canute Road are various interesting dock related offices intermixed with some gruesome new flats which screen ‘Ocean Village’, a miniature version of Cardiff Bay around a big marina off the Itchen. Everything here is threateningly private apart from the welcoming Harbour Lights film theatre. The original brick and vaguely Po-Mo buildings are resolutely dour but later apartments in pastel stucco with ‘wave balconies’ are quite fun as is the 30s pastiche car park.
Queen’s Park is now cut off from the water and isolated by the inner ring road gyratory. You can just glimpse the ships through heavy duty security fencing. To the west is Town Quay, the only place where the water is accessible to the public and from where ferries depart. The adjacent Royal Pier is shamefully derelict although its jolly Brightonesque pavilion survives as a Thai restaurant. From the rather scrappy Mayflower Park you can watch the ferries coming and going and see the massive, and I mean MASSIVE cruise liners at the heavily fortified terminals to both the west and the east. They are quite a sight. The vast inaccessible container port recedes into the distance, lacking drama.
The Walls have it
Walk the Walls
The inner ring road severs Town Quay from the Old Town where the remnants of Watergate mark the start of High Street, now the QE2 Mile. Behind the walls to the east is Winkle Street with the originally C12th God’s House Hospital, its gardens now surrounded by good new residential development. Here with the extensive medieval survivals you could be in York or Conwy. However along High Street the new apartment blocks, some incorporating ground floor retailing, are overpowering like the standard issue for southern European inner cities, not all bad but there are some shockers. The central section of High Street retains something of the grand street before the blitz, including the fine C18th Dolphin Hotel and grand C19th and early C20th banks and commercial buildings. Towards Bargate however wartime destruction meant the street was rebuilt with mean shops and has a rather desolate feel.
A pattern worth repeating - Bugle St
The Old Town, essentially to the west of High Street, has surprisingly not been branded a Quarter although actually it is one. Within the extensive remains of the walls the old street pattern is largely intact and there are many ancient survivals including the very fine Tudor House, now a museum. Only on Bugle Street do you really get consistently good townscape but the feel and scale of the post war residential redevelopment , much of it of the Civic Trust school, is appropriate and convincing. The bare square in front of the ‘austere and impressive’ façade of St Michaels (the only intact medieval church) is memorable and quite un-English. A wonderful contrast with this small scale is the 14 storey Castle House of 1963 by Eric Lyons, providing the punctuation that the lost castle should. Southampton deserves credit for its restoration work and largely well judged residential developments over many decades. However the Old Town remains a bit forlorn and lacking vitality. It is crying out for a more creative and dynamic approach to the use of buildings and spaces – possibly something the universities could be leading.
There was such a thing as Society
The ruins of the bombed Holy Rood church on High Street were restored as a memorial to merchant seamen by the City Architect, L. Berger, in 1957. After Southampton’s timid start to reconstruction, Berger was responsible for a much more ambitious approach, as can be seen nearby in the pleasing Holy Rood estate completed in 1962, by Lyons, Israel and Ellis. The blocks of flats are well proportioned and with better maintenance this would be a really good residential environment, right next to Debenhams.
Good design: abused and neglected by the free market
The extent of public housing in the city centre is remarkable, especially towards St Mary’s which dominates the area with its massive steeple designed by Street. St Mary St looks like a mix of Lymington High Street and Brick Lane, all very run down but lively with a small street market. Up Northam Road is the Millbank Estate which Pevsner calls ‘an outstanding piece of urban development’, and he was spot on. The centre piece is the 14 storey Millbank Tower around which are 3 and 4 storey blocks ‘laid out with unusual sensitivity’ and a colonnaded shopping centre sensibly related to Northam Road. Heartbreakingly all but one of the shops are closed. The tower has been clad in some crap shiny stuff. The pathways are strewn with litter - the binmen are striking against Council cuts – the shape of things to come. The place sums up the social and architectural vandalism of our dismal age and the disappointment of the social democratic dream. But it did not have to be like this – it was not inevitable but the result of cynical political choices.
Above Bar below par
Ignorance and belligerence
Above Bar was pretty much flattened by the Luftwaffe and by common consent the subsequent rebuilding was dismal. David Lloyd in Pevsner says it ‘has the look of a Mid Western town in the early 30s if there had been planning control and Portland stone’. Much more ambitious plans had been draw up by Adshead, one of the foremost planners of the time appointed to advise on the redevelopment. He imagined a grand new street parallel and east of Above Bar with a monumental circus, a sort of cross between St Peter’s Square in Rome and Chester’s Rows, on an axis with the Guildhall. It was to have two levels of shops and bridges at upper levels. This was scuppered by the timidity of the Council and the various Ministries. With the hindsight of more than 50 years the decision to rebuild largely on the old street pattern may be applauded.
Proportion, respect and elegance: everything West Quay is not
The post war shopping streets of Southampton are fairly dismal but in comparison with the subsequent tsunami of retail detritus in Britain, mostly post-Ridley, they no longer seem quite so naff. At least they could still do curves to follow the street line and despite the preoccupation with uniformity, so expressive of the welfare state paradigm, there are touches of individuality. There were two good new buildings on Above Bar. Marland House has excellent proportions, with 3 storey colonnaded shops and balconies above and a subtle curve to the Civic Centre. A modest tower rises 5 more stories sitting excellently into the townscape – 1963 at its best.
An old planner’s dream
Trying the new cantilevered benches out for size
However the 1958 Tyrrell and Green department store which was opposite Guildhall Square has recently been demolished. John Lewis decamped for West Quay in 2000 and plans for a new arts complex designed by CZWG, which were widely panned, have stalled. So the Council has cleared the site for a temporary landscaped events space which in a crude way fulfils Adshead’s vision for a grand Guildhall axis, and confirms it was a duff idea. After West Quay, which is essentially responsible for the disaster, this sad episode must represent the nadir of planning in Southampton.
Guildhall Square, the concession to Adshead’s grand plan, is an austere place but does provide a good view of the severely classical and rather under scaled Guildhall. Despite recent repaving, which includes cantilevered benches in the form of waves with inset text invoking memories of the site (OMG), it lacks activity and is certainly not helped by the destruction of the city’s emblematic department store leaving a gaping void opposite. On a sunny Saturday morning there was literally no one there.
Sea Civic Centre
Grandiose ambition from the Morbid Age
The Civic Centre built 1929-39 is nothing if not ambitious. A huge complex in a ‘Free Classical’ style all faced in Portland stone it incorporates the Guildhall, council offices, law courts, art gallery and library. Each of its four frontages was until recently symmetrical with a grand entrance and flanking wings. The seemingly immensely tall and tapering asymmetrically placed tower is the iconic landmark of the city. It certainly makes a statement about the city’s self-confidence at that time, now so sadly lacking. The art gallery is delightful and has an excellent collection of modern works. However it is difficult to appreciate the complex fully at present as much of it is behind hoardings. The abandoned courts and police station are being converted and extended by Wilkinson Eyre for the ‘Sea City Museum’ which will celebrate Soton’s maritime history majoring on that albatross - the Titanic (see OH’s very amusing blog).
Expansion and poise
This seems like a very odd decision. You might have expected a maritime museum to have some relation with the sea. Despite its virtues, the Civic Centre lacks this. Surely the new museum should be the centrepiece of an ambitious strategy to re-imagine and re-invent the waterfront as attractive and accessible public spaces. These it singularly fails to provide today. Surely this would begin to realise the Core Strategy ambition for a ‘maritime city with a world wide reputation’. Next to the drama of the cruise liners and next to the medieval walled town you have a viable tourism product as well as a source of local pride. I could swallow the Titanic for that but Sea City without the sea doesn’t make any sense.
When is a Quay not a quay? When it is a shopping mall
Our aggressive and destructive consumer economy
And so we are drawn inexorably to the West Quay shopping centre. No doubt there is meant to be some architectural reference to a moored liner here with the random outlying car parks as tugs. Actually the massive structure is lumpen, lacking the sleekness and dynamism of a liner – it is more like a bloated leech. At either end John Lewis and Marks and Spencer proudly announce their shameful tenancy. Because it is built on reclaimed land the ground level is several floors below Bargate, so the shops sit on layers of car parking which of course is where you will arrive.
Apparently this is "Western Esplanade"
But let us pretend that you approach from the real city centre. It is just a stone’s throw from Bargate, right next to the town walls but you are immediately sucked into another ersatz universe. One tentacle extends to Above Bar by decking over Portland Terrace, which has to duck right under it. The centre completely obliterates the central part of Western Esplanade, making a street which should be a key part of the town’s legibility completely incomprehensible.
The City Council have recently moved into new offices
Internally there are absolutely no distinguishing features. You can however promenade around the exterior of the blank shopping mall high up above the ‘street’, from whence to better survey the deadening tat of retail parks, budget hotels, KFCs, etc which actually occupies the great bulk of this huge redeveloped area. A gargantuan IKEA dominates the horizon – the Swedes have a lot to answer for. The hotels are just the most depressing thing. The De Vere Hotel, wonderfully described in Bad British Architecture as ‘a shit-brown postmodern Brunswick Centre with a big glass pyramid fucked into it’ comes into the ‘it’s so bad its good’ category. For the rest, they are the usual dismal chain house styles all grouped together around TGI Friday. Welcome to Southampton.
There are people here trying to find their car parks all strung out along the ludicrously named Harbour Parade - there is no harbour and there is no parade - it is completely hostile territory for pedestrians. This is right in the heart of the city centre - unbelievable. Surreally a plaque is let into the tarmac saying: ‘Legible City - coming soon'. I don't think so.
The tragedy of Southampton is the paucity of the City’s vision in aspiring to such banality. 'The Experian retail rankings tempted me and I did eat'. But in promoting the overweening West Quay it has devalued and debased the real city centre which can now look forward to a pound shop, charity shop, empty shop, Wetherspoon’s future. How long can the quite elegant Debenham’s survive, stranded on the wrong side of town?
Debenhams and the coherent city: under threat from previous image
The shopping mall, hotels etc are not really worse than those up and down the country (that is Britain’s tragedy) but usually they are contained or restrained within a recognisably urban structure. Here the retail parks have come to town, and so at West Quay there is no such structure.
The return of the oligarchic spa town (sort of)
Ironically the cruise liners are putting Southampton back on the map – a new terminal is being commissioned. It should be reinventing itself as a tourism destination, re-discovering its Regency roots. But what on earth can visitors think of the mess that is the city centre now, especially if you arrive at a West Quay hotel (although all the new hotels are just as bad).
Let’s make a masterplan
Following a plan: detail from the Southampton mosaic
What can be done? Given the scale of the gratuitous damage done so recently I don’t have the answer. The City has recently appointed a consortium led by David Lock and including the excellent Gehl Architects to advise on a new masterplan. Good, with two caveats – firstly that Gehl Architects are not just there for window dressing and their approach is central to the conclusions. Secondly that the City actually acts upon the recommendations.
Three things seem obvious. Southampton must capitalise on its unique assets – the medieval walls, the water and the drama of the big boats and link the two. It must create a ‘world class’ environment around Town Quay, Mayflower Park and Queen’s Park, presently dominated by traffic and damned car parks. Secondly it must have a decent station with a proper street axis to the Civic Centre. It already has the start of the new street with wonderful 1966 Wyndham Court commissioned at a time when the City actually had some vision. And then the City must dramatically reduce the overwhelming dominance of traffic - make Legible City a reality.
Bargate detail - the walls are an asset not a hindrance
Southampton is a frustrating place. As my friend Nick says 'Its rich in many things but is just a fucking mess.' It does not seem to value its unique identity or its great achievements, especially its fine post war housing. Its aspirations for the built environment are 3rd Division and as we see at West Quay this lead inexorably to Subtopia. This was defined by Ian Nairn as ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’, which I think fits the bill.
The City of Disappointed Dreams.
Fish & Chips and a Gales Seafarers Ale were enjoyed at the busy Platform Tavern
N. Pevsner and D. Lloyd: Buildings of England - Hampshire
O. Hatherley: Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain
O. Hatherley: http://nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com (too many to list!)
Jonathan Glancey on Ian Nairn: Guardian 15 May 2010
Ellis Woodman: Building Design 25 March 2011
C. Buchanan: South Hampshire Study
J. Hasegawa: Replanning the Blitzed City Centre
A. Temple Patterson: Southampton – A Biography