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Thursday24 July 2014

Farewell to brutalism

The Tricorn Centre: replaced by another dreary surface car park.
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The tricorn: The life and death of a sixties icon
Celia Clark & Robert Cook
Tricorn Books, 283pp, PB
£19.99

3/5 stars

A new book on the Tricorn Centre raises some difficult issues about conservation

It is hard to believe that it is five years since Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre (1962-7) was demolished, to the sound of the 1812 Overture. Nothing has happened to the site, but the building’s busy campaigners have produced this affectionate celebration.

The book is no masterpiece. It is rough, rambling, amateur and full of typos. It dips from architecture to reminiscence, polemics to puppet shows. Yet this feels appropriate to the nature of the beast.

The development’s name, the Tricorn Centre, reflected its shape and had naval overtones. The tricorn was also a mythical monster and the architecture had an animal-like quality or casbah mystique. Such large-scale, multi-functional megastructures combined the seemingly incompatible needs of the car and the pedestrian by placing one above the other. The deep shops set back from a pedestrian walkway or square, and the multi-storey car park are everyday occurrences now but they were still novel in 1962.

Portsmouth wanted a new wholesale market and car park, and a shopping centre. The architect Owen Luder, already working with developer Alec Colman on offices in the city, suggested that they be combined on a single site in Charlotte Street. He pushed the wholesale market on to the first floor, which freed the ground floor for a shopping arcade of 48 shops, a supermarket, two pubs and a department store. Above were eight flats, a nightclub and parking for 500 cars.

The need to get heavy lorries and servicing for the market on to the first floor, informed the concrete structure. “Form follows function”, Luder believes, and this justified the heavy coffers, introduced to ease the weight of the ceilings, and the spiral access ramps. But it suited his desire to take commercial architecture away from the banal, and played into his taste for heavy modelling. The difficulty was that commercial work was always constrained by cost, and it had to be done fast. The detailing suffered. Yet the result was actually far more deserving of the term “brutalist” than the stolid schools and houses with their truth to materials that the Smithsons had first written about a decade earlier.

Will the general public only appreciate ‘high brutalism’ once it has all gone?

Luder had the rare quality for an architect of being able to estimate the return on a development; he made the site visits and also did the initial designs. These were then worked up by a team led by Rodney Gordon, who in the 1990s claimed credit for many of the designs for himself. This book seeks to rectify the balance.

The Tricorn was only partially successful. The developers held out for higher rents, and were caught by the “credit squeeze” of late 1966, blamed on the Vietnam War. The department store never moved in and, being on the edge of the city centre, the souk-like alleys led nowhere. The market, pubs and clubs prospered intermittently, and the Tricorn had a half life as a centre of small and alternative businesses.

In a recent lecture in Newcastle, Luder described first seeing the site of Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre when it was “a dreary surface car park”, and how miserable it was to see it again, only some 40 years later, as “a dreary surface car park”.

Fans of this “high brutalism” are slowly emerging. But with Luder’s earlier Eros House compromised, and Gateshead’s Treaty Centre now also being demolished, will the general public only appreciate it once it has all gone?

Much of the book centres on Portsmouth Council’s campaign to remove the building as an “eyesore” and on English Heritage’s refusal to list it. The argument for conserving the best of sixties’ commercial architecture still has to be won.

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