Oooh, you are brutal

...but for some reason people like you

Jonathan Glancey on the battle to save 'Britain's ugliest building'

(report from The Guardian, 21 July 1997, G2, pages 12-13.)

I was looking forward to Saturday's Freeart Collective Festival at Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre. Normally, the name alone would have been enough to put me off: it sounds a little too dippy-trippy for me, smacking of seventies street theatre and frizzy-haired adults dressed in denim dungarees. As the events of the day were to include circus performers, kite-making and craft workshops, I felt justified in my smug and sweeping judgement.

But when an invitation to the event thumped onto my desk signed Proles for Modernism, how could I refuse? After all, the card bore a striking picture of the Tricorn Centre, one of the most brutal of all Britain's concrete buildings. Opened in 1964 and now awaiting demolition, the Tricorn has often been called Britain's ugliest building; Prince Charles described it as "a mildewed lump of elephant droppings". But I gathered from Proles for Modernism that it has no shortage of fans among Portsmouth's young hipsters.

Sadly, the event was stopped in its tracks, banned by the local police. Laura Heath, a member of the Freeart Collective, was told that if anyone turned up for the festival, as one of the named organisers she would be held accountable for any disturbances. In fact, she could be arrested 48 hours before the event in anticipation, m'lud, of said disturbances. Having been advised by a solicitor, Heath resigned from the Freeart Collective to avoid possible prosecution.

Why on earth did the police behave in such a heavy-handed manner? The Freeart Collective was told that Taylor Woodrow, which owns the Tricorn, was worried that festival-goers would mark the walls with graffiti. Which, aside from being silly and insulting, was a bit odd, given that the company plans to send in the bulldozers in January.

Initially keen on the festival because it would have been a golden opportunity to show people its plans for a glittering new shopping centre, Taylor Woodrow reduced its support over a number of months and finally set its face against it. The company won't say why, but its difficult to resist the conclusion that it wasn't keen on Freeart's Proles for Modernism faction using the event to defend the complex.

If Proles for Modernism could whip up local and, worse, national support for the Tricorn Centre, Taylor Woodrow might find itself involved in a protracted and costly conservation battle. Better to stop the festival in its tracks and get the heap of stained concrete knocked down pronto.

Freeart's first concern wasn't to defend the Tricorn Centre, but, in its words, "to make some human marks and noise in a city saturated with little more than commercial signage and naval and military heritage." The plans was to "instigate an event that would register as a colourful and creative last day of celebration of the Tricorn's chequered past, while looking forward to the cityscape's future development".

Proles for Modernism saw the festival in a different light: its members want to save the Tricorn Centre. But why? Designed by the Owen Luder partnership (Luder has twice been president of the Royal Institute of British Architects), the Tricorn was controversial from the start. Its style mirrored that of the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank and the dramatic high-rise housing blocks designed for the Greater London Council in Bow and Kensington by Erno Goldfinger, the bombastic Hungarian émigré.

In other words, the Tricorn was formed in rough concrete, or béton brut in French. Hence the name brutalism given to the Tricorn-Hayward-Goldfinger style of building by the architects themselves (they knew how to make friends with the public in the Swinging Sixties). It was as craggy as Auden's face, as subtle as Joe Frazier and about as loveable as Saddam Hussein. Naturally, it won a design award the year it was opened. Four year's later it was voted one of Britain's ugliest buildings. Age and weather have not been kind to the Tricorn. Fashion, however, has. Can a new appreciation of brutalism come to its rescue?

A recent issue of the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused featured the work of Lucy Orta, an installation artist who mixes ideas from fashion with architecture. The background to the shoot was Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, a building that has become increasingly fashionable over the past five years, despite its unashamedly brutal exterior. Long standing residents speak warmly of its generous living spaces and magnificent views, which have recently lured many young artists and architects. It is, without doubt, a fascinating building, and the duplex flats inside its sculptural concrete architecture are some of the most luxurious and imaginative offered to poor families in the past 50 years.

Elsewhere, Trellick's sibling in the east of London, a slightly less dramatic tower block casting a muscular shadow over the north entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, is being refurbished, and the former DHSS headquarters designed by Goldfinger at Elephant & Castle in the south of the city are being converted into "luxury" flats.

Meanwhile, the Hayward Gallery, Britain's purest example of brutalism, has been saved from demolition and continues to function as one of the country's most inspiring public art galleries. When the land artist Richard Long created his exhibition Walking in Circles a few years ago and treated the gallery as some sort of urban geological outcrop rather than a conventional building, the Hayward won over many sceptics. It was no longer plain ugly, but a concrete construction as fascinating as the old Mappin Terraces at London Zoo.

Against the odds, brutalism has passed its nadir and its star is rising. But not in Portsmouth.

Given over to artists and imaginative architects, the Tricorn Centre could be made to work, even at this late stage in its 33-year history. But, unlike its ugly sisters in the capital, I can see little hope for the Tricorn and can, all too easily, imagine the slick architecture that will replace it. It seems a shame that the Freeart Collective was stopped in its tracks. Whether or not festival-goers were planning a graffiti spree, the writing already seems to be on the wall for the Tricorn Centre.


Note 1

Proles for Modernism is an independent organisation. Although we disagreed strongly with the Freeart Collective strategy of asking permission from Taylor Woodrow to hold the 'festival', we did not inform Taylor Woodrow of our own plans, nor did we contact the local press.  Taylor Woodrow did not know of the existence of Proles for Modernism when they injuncted Laura Heath. It seemed obvious to us from the start that Taylor Woodrow would be pleased to be informed of the 'festival' well in advance. Asking permission in advance allowed them to take the legal steps necessary to ban the event. We warned the Freeart Collective of the predictable outcome of their strategy. The Freeart Collective were compromised from the start by their ongoing collaboration with reactionaries in Portsmouth City Arts and Portsmouth City Council.  Their strategy failed.  Our spellcasting worked. Bourgeois apologists for the cultural 'elite' such as Jonathon Glancey are irrelevant to the ultimate success of the proletarian international.

Note 2

In fact the 'festival' did take place, at the originally advertised time.  Whilst would-be festival goers entertained Saturday afternoon shoppers in Portsmouth's Commercial Road by deploying their Dope Smoking Display team, Stewart Home provided philosophical insights to nobody in the empty Tricorn Centre. Even the radio-controlled Green Anarchist eco-fascist, who policed the displaced 'festival', failed to detect the presence of Stewart Home, or to prevent him from spilling his textual wealth over the spiritualised concrete.