29 Apr 2012

Oi Southampton masterplanners! Read our blog

Distinctive Southampton #1 Medieval & Georgian

Last year we blogged about Southampton, the soon to be Premier City of the South and pointed out the yawning gap between the grand rhetoric of the Council’s corporate aspiration for the city centre and the desperate poverty of what is actually being delivered. You read the Core Strategy and it is apparently written in some arcane ceremonial language that is not meant to be taken seriously. The incantations of sustainability, high quality design etc absolve both the developers and the City from actually doing these things. In this Southampton is only too typical but the scale of the damage to its city centre in the last 10-20 years is truly shocking. It has been denounced by native son Owen Hatherley as ‘a compendium of everything that is evil and wrong in this septic isle’.

Distinctive Southampton #2 Regency 

Owen added ‘it didn’t and doesn’t have to be like this’ and that is the point. It is not inevitable that Southampton should showcase the lowest common denominator of architecture and the built environment. There are lots of good things about the city –Southampton Water, the Old Town, the medieval walls, the parks, a legacy of post war rebuilding and especially of social housing that needs to be much better appreciated. Southampton has lots of qualities and better economic prospects than most but its recent new buildings eloquently express its loss of confidence and civic pride.

Distinctive Southampton #3 Victoriana 

The announcement last year that a new masterplan for the city centre was being commissioned gave some cause for optimism, suggesting the prospect of a new approach to planning and urban design. But on reading the recently published public consultation report abandon any such hopes. It says all the standard laudable things but could be written for Southampton, Northampton, Nottingham, Newcastle, Reykjavik. Richard Rogers said it all a lot better in 1998. But we know the reality is that these Urban Renaissance mantras have been translated crudely, crassly and utterly cynically by the market. Planning has been timid and supine, lacking leadership and at best hopelessly naïve in seeing development per se as a solution. The result is the New Ruins of Great Britain. Surely we know by now that general design principles, good though they might be, are not enough – there needs to be a clear and honest assessment of the quality of the environment that will be created in specific places and the actual experience of the new public realm; the fine words in the Core Strategy and the masterplan actually need to mean something. Consultants are past masters of skating over all this with their sketches of smiling, happy people sipping cappuccinos. This is just dishonest – the exact parallel of what has been happening in the financial markets.

Distinctive Southampton #4 post-war modernism  

The new Southampton masterplan is plausible but anodyne – it dares you to disagree with its generalities. But the fundamental problem is that it does not start with an honest assessment of Southampton city centre as a place and so has no real insight into its potential. This is because it is intended to ‘guide investment’ and to ‘act as vehicle to raise the profile of the city centre’. It is a cheerleader for promoting new development and this is the focus throughout. Fairly typically of the genre, it assumes development is synonymous with making the city centre a better place for citizens and visitors, solving environmental problems and making the place greener and more sustainable. But it is really short-changing Southampton by imagining the future largely on the developers’ terms. The result is a vision for Anyplace – any place in England anyway.

St Mary's Market: More important than 'guiding investment'

This is not to say that there are no good ideas in the masterplan. There are lots of them but none are convincingly thought through. For example, plans for a new market hall are good in principle and could make amends for the wanton destruction of the covered market at St Marys. But the proposed location makes little sense for shoppers or market traders and the loss of the St Marys open market would further impoverish that local high street for which there appear to be no ideas for regeneration - not very Mary Portas. Most of the time the masterplan is just going through the motions – themes, quarters, big balls projects. You get no sense that the fundamental issues of the city centre are being tackled.

The horror: global capitalism

 In our ‘Southampton Dreams’ blog we said:

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.

Town centre shopping - destroyed by previous image 

The masterplan also identifies these themes amongst others but obviously the authors have not read Owen Hatherley's extensive analysis of the place or indeed our blog.. The ‘Royal Pier Waterfront’ is a VIP (meaning a very important project) and is seen as a major opportunity for leisure based development. In fact the landowners already have a development plan in progress. Far from reconnecting the Old Town and its fabulous walls with the sea at Town Quay, what the future apparently holds is a massive new development blocking the QE2 Mile from the water. The ferries which animate the place are shifted out and the Royal Pier is literally swallowed into new development, so not exactly a pier any more.

Interesting! Demolished.

However in masterplan world ‘Royal Pier is the international face of the city and requires outstanding international quality design. The proposals should include innovative, dynamic and striking designs which contribute to a strong new image for the city’. Naturally ‘a tall point feature is appropriate as a flagship marker.’ Mixed use, active frontages etc, etc – makes you want to weep. Is it inconceivable that this – the only place where citizens have access to Southampton Water – should be shaped around public uses and that the existing character be given a chance to flourish? Why build on Mayflower Park which is part of real Southampton and replace it with an anywhere scheme – could be Baltimore. Just to illustrate the indifference the City has to its special character the interesting shelter at Mayflower Park pictured in our blog last summer has subsequently been demolished. Not iconic enough.

Fancy a walk to the sea... er nope

The masterplan says it is all about connectivity – the frontispiece proclaims ‘the key to the centre’s legibility is the attractiveness of connected routes and a sense that each leads to a clearly recognisable destination and holds the promise of rich and rewarding experiences.’ This is good and provides the central threme of the masterplan but of course this is not easy in practice. One of the biggest problem any city centre faces is how to deal with the severance caused by traffic. Like most cities Southampton has approached this by largely pedestrianising the historic core (around the QE2 Mile) pushing traffic to an inner ring road which itself then becomes a major obstacle to regeneration of more peripheral areas. In Soton’s case it has positively invited cars to its new retail honeypots at West Quay, creating an urban desert and fundamentally unbalancing the retail structure. The masterplan does at least analyse the extent of the problem of too much car parking in the city centre which is a start, but it does not have any convincing solutions.

Opportunity knocks

It is simply not good enough to wish away reality by re-designating the inner ring road as green ‘City Streets’ which in the consultant imagination will be attractive tree lined boulevards. Of course it is possible to make dramatic improvements to traffic dominated city streets – I know, I’ve won awards for it – but it is a long game, depends on an ambitious integrated transport strategy, hard political decisions, large scale funding and most importantly the resolution of practical details. The masterplan rightly identifies Town Quay as a ‘main gateway’ and crossing of the inner ring road. The relationship between Town Quay and the Old Town is so important to the special character of Southampton that a radical re-imagination of this space is required. A few blobs on a plan do not do this. For such a fundamental and far reaching improvement I would expect a detailed proposal as a demonstration of the wider ‘City Street’ concept. When you have Gehl Architects on board, who definitely know how to do it, why on earth not?

Ocean Village is a sea of cars (cue sarcastic laughter)

Because there is no real understanding of Southampton, the place, the importance of the strong working class communities in the city centre is not reflected in the masterplan. It implies disappointment, for example, that the Holy Rood estate is popular with residents, so only longer term possibilities of redevelopment can be held out. The same goes for industry. Obviously it should be cleansed from the city centre to make room for more vibrant mixed use …. insert your own marketing hyperbole. But hang on – even if there were a market for all this homogenous developer dross, and of that there no realistic prospect, why is it desirable? Aren’t we supposed to be nurturing our manufacturing capacity? Surely it might be a good idea to retain skills in local industries like boatbuilding on the riverside rather than plan yet more Ocean Villages which people can no longer afford anyway. This report seems to have no recognition of post 2007 realities. It is wishful thinking but wishing for the wrong thing.

Social housing masterpiece beside the station. Ignored.

The most radical thing in the masterplan is the proposals for a new Station Quarter. The wrongly named Central Station desperately needs connecting with the city centre and the plan is for a grand new south entrance facing onto a new city square which would be the focus of a new office quarter. This is a big idea and a big intervention, requiring shifting a dual carriageway and redeveloping some of the wilderness of retail sheds and budget hotels that blight the area. It is exactly the sort of plan which should have guided the recent development of the whole West Quay area which instead exhibits the unrestrained anarchy and ugliness of consumerism and corporate greed, red in tooth and claw.

Here's a plan: get rid of this.

It is bizarre that the opening section on ‘major issues within the city centre today’ does not even mention the execrable West Quay retail parks which are such a disgrace to the city centre. Only recently constructed, they raise two fingers to every tenet of the Urban Renaissance. The urban design and sustainability impacts of the retail parks are considered in later sections and the masterplan concludes they are incompatible with its vision but any solutions are pushed way back into the sometime, never category. This may be realism but it is hardly vision or leadership. Creating some coherent urban framework between a new Station Square and the West Quay shopping centre would provide the opportunity for Southampton to radically rethink itself as a city of quality and ambition. Foolishly (in my view) the masterplan comes up with a alternative diversion – the Western Gateway. This would extend the imagined new office quarter from the new City Square to the iconic Waterfront knocking out port-side industries and encircling retail park land. Not very real and not very sensible. Why not focus on the big issue?

Work with what makes you unique, don't abuse it! Jeez.

The masterplan is a guide for developers and boy, there is a lot of development planned. As well as an extension of the gargantuan West Quay shopping centre and the redevelopment of the Bargate and East Street shopping centres, the key diagram appears to show that both sides of Above Bar will be completely redeveloped. This is extraordinary - a new blitz; bonkers really if you read retail trends in the financial pages. What sort of amnesia makes such a plan possible? Well, Southampton is treated as just Anytown, a commodity with no character, no memory and no choice. The masterplan actually says that Soton has no distinctive architectural style, unlike Manchester, Bristol or (strangely) Northampton. This of course is nonsense. Look at the Old Town, the quite extensive Regency survivals, the outstanding legacy of the City Architect, Berger, in the 50s and 60s. The early post war rebuilding of Above Bar may have been a disappointment but compares pretty favourably with West Quay. It would have been a lot better if the Tyrell and Green store had not been gratuitously knocked down. Now Marland House, an excellent example of 60s townscape featured in our last blog, is due for the wreckers’ ball. Meanwhile illustrations of Cardiff Bay are held up as models for the new Southampton. You can not be serious.

University bus station & kiosk (more of this please)

The recent winner of Masterchef created ‘sunshine on a plate’ according to the judges. This masterplan seeks to create an illusion of a sunshine future in 178 pages but it is tired, predictable and unsustaining fare. Can anyone really believe in this future? Sadly, the regeneration industry still peddles it and planners still buy it.

Southampton City Centre: A Master Plan for Renaissance


Anonymous said...

Oh dear - you extol the completely impractical bus shelter at the University - it offers NO protection against rain (there is about 12 inches of dry ground in a downpour and the north wind blows cold across that space. The previous little shelter across the road which had a corrugated iron roof was at least a shelter!!

JMM said...

I've only just been tipped off about this excellent blog by a planner friend. I read Southampton Dreams and agreed with everything except the easy ride given to the postwar planners. Far more survived, I found when I started researching the area around the Civic Centre, than I had possibly imagined. While many of the postwar planners had only social good at heart (Holy Rood estate, the extraordinary blocks by the station) others were merely vandals. You mention the handsome Tudor House, now carefully restored but also now charging admittance - so watch visitor figures fall off and then, oh dear, we can't afford to keep this open - but not the nearby Mediaeval House, with its undercroft. Neighbouring houses have gone, with a low-rise but mediocre estate built literally on a huge concrete slab over other such undercrofts. Truly remarkable.

I hoped for this update you might cover more of Sea City and the faintly prow-like box that is the new gallery besmirching the grade II* civic centre and destroying its symmetry. Designed by Wilkinson Eyre, who should have known better. Its sole discernible purpose was to allow Southampton City Council to charge admittance to the fabulous art gallery which, in the terms of its founding bequest, is to be free of charge. The refurb and reuse of the old magistrates' courts, to which it is not quite attached (an intended link could not be built), is on the other hand very well done.

The result of all this a few years ago was to land the council with a £15m bill, only £5m of which was funded by the Lottery. And the result of that, in turn, combined with vicious government cuts, is that the opening hours of the gallery proper are so limited I have barely set foot in the place since. So I can't say what the New Arts Centre, or whatever it's called now, looks like, opposite, qexcept that it isn't the CZWG plan referred to in Southampton Dreams, not because it wasn't a good design (Southampton probably wouldn't recognise that) but because the developers pulled out. It was rescued by Grosvenor, I think, and that's probably there now. It was supposed to contain a theatre connected with the very good campus Nuffield, but it hasn't featured in the Nuffield programme so far.

On which topic, there used to be an exciting but scruffy black box theatre called The Gantry, behind the Mayflower Theatre near the station. It went at least 15 years ago, apparently on the grounds of health and safety - structurally unsafe - and was much missed. Now there is a Gantry development on the site of - you guessed - faceless accountancy architecture flats.

Oh poor Southampton. Just when it got a council that might have had a little vision, it got clobbered by austerity. And it has the disadvantage of being in the prosperous south east, which is assumed to have no problems.

Unknown said...

You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I'm looking forward for your next post, I'll try to get the hang of it! gmail log in