City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

As the Tricorn Centre is demolished today, it seemed apposite to post the following thoughts – which I ‘scribbled’ down a few months back, after an interesting discussion at plasticbag and a followup by things magazine. I never got round to posting them here, but I’ve just spent 10 minutes brushing them up after today’s news – please forgive me for any hasty conclusions or intellectual cul-de-sacs.

Tom Coates had picked up on this quote from one of the team behind the Tricorn Centre, Owen Luder:

"A lot of people liked the building. One thing I do find is that any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved. If people don’t notice it, it’s not architecture."

Tom’s riposte, in typically well argued fashion – and perhaps principally from the perspective of someone engaged in designing everyday spaces for people to move through online – tackles this mindset head-on:

"This is a site – a space – designed for shopping and socialising that wants desperately to be innovative and impressive – the architect all the while dismissing the subtle and less overt arts of flows and usability, building things that are not scaled for humans or comprehensible to them. All the things that allow a place to be understood by people are dismissed as unworthy of the name of architecture. And why – because the building must be noticed … It’s stunning. It’s terrible. And I’m fairly sure it’s wrong."

Indeed I remember Tom and I discussed this briefly down the pub later that day – I clumsily repeated Peter Cook’s (no, not that one) brilliant phrase:

"When it rains in Oxford Street, the architecture is no more significant than the rain"

Which is not only a wonderfully poetic quote, redolent of Archigram’s new thinking around experiencing architecture, but also makes real sense to me. Then again, rain is a significant experiential effect – pretty noticable. Particularly in Britain [glances out window, up at leaden sky… Sigh…]

However, the case for the Tricorn’s defence is quite interesting too, as picked up by things magazine. It made me re-think my perspective on the Tricorn, reminding me of other modern masterpieces and their fate in this country. And finally, that today’s demolition is actually a loss, and that the memory of the building should at least ‘rest in peace’ (pieces?). Perhaps even to stand as a memory of a more progressive, innovative way of thinking, even if the implementation in this case was eventually flawed. At this point, of course, I’m not replying to Tom – one of the most innovative thinkers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and then working with – but beginning to point the finger at the British relationship with modernism. As does things magazine’s defence, where a focus on spatial, cultural, and historical context helps. For instance:

"In practice, it was the spaces in between the scant few megastructures that were built that diluted the concept; too large to accommodate themselves into the existing fabric of city living, yet not distinct enough to act as attractors.

Also, I think the perceived architectural arrogance on display here can largely be attributing to defensiveness; these buildings were developed at the tail-end of a period of optimism and utopianism, and many of the architects involved feel betrayed by the whims of fashion, which left their masterworks labelled ugly, brutal and inhuman. There’s a whole generation of late modernists wandering around, bewildered and confused, uncomprehending at the way in which the values they felt their work embodied – public spiritedness, civic mindedness, social inclusivity – have been interpreted as being precisely the opposite."

I feel there’s some real value in what things mag (I’m guessing Jonathan Bell) is saying here. Essentially, a spirited defence of modernism, given how the UK’s surrounding socio-cultural context in particular wasn’t at all supportive to these buildings and this thinking. I believe the most useful way forward is actually allowing both the ‘things’ and ‘plasticbag’ views to coexist – a bit like wave particle duality?! I often get castigated for picking the middle route between diametrically opposed views – it doesn’t make strong headlines – but it’s surely a closer approximisation to truth, or reality, or a useful series of tenets.

So if the fervent spirit of progressiveness associated with that generation of late modernists can be rediscovered, nurtured, and grasped by designers at large, perhaps much of contemporary design’s fragmented attention-seeking, lack of intellectual rigour, and general tendency to safety can be checked. Yet if that too can be balanced with the spirit of some ‘recent’ techniques – assessing usefulness via ethnographic user/adapter research, learning from usability, adaptive design, experience design and flow, and human-centred design – how much more powerful would that be? Easily said, but …

I don’t think the issue is whether architecture is noticed or not. Some functional component of architecture is to be noticed: a local favourite of mine, Senate House, does just that – on utterly firm intellectual foundations. In other areas of design, a noticable attractiveness is thought to be relevant as well as usefulness and usability.  See Donald Norman on objects that are "a joy to behold" [Fwiw, to me, the Tricorn looked wonderful]. And remember the ‘holy trinity’ in general: commoditas (commodity, or usefulness), firmitas (stability, robustness and strength) and venustas (delight…) [more here]

And yet Tom’s point about flows and usability is also bang on. Perhaps the way forward is to enable the progressive nature of modernism to be examined holistically – such that a building such as Tricorn would be well-constucted (it wasn’t) and coexist with supportive structures, within a supportive culture. In this case, it’s not necessarily the architect’s fault that modern British culture bailed out on the idea of modernism and progression. A further excellent, link-rich post at things magazine reinforces this point – perhaps the building would ideally have been part of a wider space of flows Tom alludes to.

"The Tricorn’s streetscapes were meant to be used like just another part of the city, a zone of passing, looking and experiencing, engaging with consumption and consumerism, but not, in any way, being overwhelmed by the experience."

The Barbican is interesting reference point, particularly due to this relationship between a building and its surroundings. I’ve written about this before – as a modern project that works, and whose main failings are to do with context. It’s still up there in ‘ugly buildings’ polls of course. But I suspect it won’t be for much longer, as popular press and popular taste play catch-up. Likewise the South Bank complex [see Hayward Gallery] is increasingly being recognised as the architectural masterpiece that it is. In the latter case, the fact that the buildings are just about situated within and contextualised by supportive structures is important.

Therefore, perhaps we should pity the Tricorn – because it tried to raise the bar, but was let down by shoddy implementation and the fact that the rest of British culture didn’t raise its game in return. So, let the Tricorn rest in peace. But let us not let modernism rest quite so easily …


3 responses to “RIP Tricorn Centre”

  1. New Batteries Avatar

    Demolition, Man…

    So yesterday the bulldozers moved in on Portsmouth’s Tricorn centre. From a purely personal point of view, I’d say “good riddance” to it, a dirty, oppressive, psychogeographical nightmare that’s loomed over that part of town for far too long, and


  2. Mags Avatar

    I think one problem modernism, as an architectural movement in Britain, suffered from was the number of half-arsed buildings. Assuming you take modernism back to the turn of the century then you have some wonderful works (is it Southend that has the stunning pavilion?) but then you have cheap MOD buildings where the metal window frames let in too much cold air and the white paint peels or grows mould. That type of modernism needed to be well designed and constructed in order to work in an essentially damp/overcast environment.
    If you’re just looking at the concrete brutalism of the 60s, the last gasps of utopianism, then you get nasty little-hearted affairs which don’t fundementally perform their function. For example, here in Exeter there are three post-war shopping areas in the city centre: the High Street, Princesshay and the Guildhall. The High Street was an immediate post-war construction of redbrick and sandstone. Not terribly exciting or modernist (although there are lovely details). The guildhall is the usual naff 80s brick and metal affair. Princesshay was a washed-out attempt to be modernist. It has some good build details, such as an arcade through to the High Street which is revealed to be a bridge when you actually look behind the buildings, but as a place to shop it never worked. There was little to encourage dawdling or socialising. Had it been dynamic, had it been unashamedly modernist or brutalist, I would have been against its impending demolition. I have my doubts about the usual bland chrome and glass stuff coming in to replace it, but I’m not going to miss the old structure.


  3. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off due to spam):

    » Demolition, Man… from New Batteries
    So yesterday the bulldozers moved in on Portsmouth’s Tricorn centre. From a purely personal point of view, I’d say “good riddance” to it, a dirty, oppressive, psychogeographical nightmare that’s loomed over that part of town for far too long, and [Read More]


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