Friday 1 October 2010

How wrong can you be?

Gateshead car park: in praise of Brutalism
The Gateshead car park is being demolished this week. It's a tragedy, and not just for its architect

Owen Hatherley
Tuesday 27 July 2010

Owen Luder, twice president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, is Britain's unluckiest architect. In the 60s his firm designed several once-celebrated, subsequently reviled Brutalist buildings – all now either demolished, defaced or derelict.

The latest casualty is Trinity Square in Gateshead, a combined car park and shopping centre most famous for its malevolent, melodramatic presence in Mike Hodges' Get Carter. It's one of a series of commissions that bankrupted their developer, E Alec Colman Investments – along with the (mutilated, clad in white plastic) Eros House in Catford and the (demolished, replaced by a surface car park) Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth.

Though Luder's name was on the contracts and blueprints, the lead designer was Rodney Gordon, a former social architect with the London county council seduced into shopping centres. Trinity Square promised the realisation of his dreams – a metropolis architecture of dramatic skylines, multiple levels and striking forms, on a parsimonious budget. He died last year, entirely unrepentant.

And why should he have been? These are – or rather, were – wrenchingly powerful, physical buildings, in a tradition of dark, looming, twisted architecture that stretches from Newcastle Cathedral to John Vanbrugh. Unfortunately, we have collectively decided that architecture must be either Heritage – only Baroque is allowed to be bulging and overwhelming, only Gothic can be freakish and discordant – or Regeneration, in which case all must be glassy, shiny and colourful. Luder and Gordon's generation were too modern for the former, not patronising enough for the latter.Luder didn't descend from Hampstead to foist his gigantic concrete buildings on the benighted proletariat, but from the Old Kent Road. "Growing up as I did in rented rooms in tightly built Victorian terrace houses with no inside loo," he said, "I went along with Le Corbusier's vision of beautifully appointed multistorey houses set in big landscaped open spaces." Yet Eros House, the Tricorn and Trinity Square were cranky, strange things, doomed to commercial failure because of their architectural caprices. The Tricorn never had enough retail space to entice an "anchor", was not sufficiently freeze-dried and air-conditioned. Proles for Modernism, a mysterious south-coast group who picketed the Tricorn's redevelopers, praised it for exactly this reason.

The Tricorn's demolition inspired protests, artworks and graffiti ("WARNING – THIS BUILDING MAY PROVOKE INTEREST"). As if to neuter this, Gateshead council has sponsored both Trinity Square's demolition and its commemoration in various art events.

When he was Riba president, Luder famously hailed Richard Rogers' Lloyd's building – essentially a more expensive Tricorn in steel – as "sod you" architecture. But at the same time, he is rare in architectural circles for actually trying to explain his buildings – when Trinity Square popped up on Channel 4's Zhdanovite Demolition, Luder managed to sway some of its haters.

Trinity Square failed to be sufficiently boring. That's not the case with its mooted replacement – a Tesco store with student flats on top, clad in as many materials as possible so as not to offend, concrete-framed but avoiding the dreaded faux pas of showing the material. Rodney Gordon claimed "architecture should appeal to the emotions. It should give you that feeling from your balls to your throat". With this demolition, we're exchanging architecture as a physical experience for buildings as a mute, grinning, lobotomised accompaniment to consumerism. We should lament it, not cheer it on.


  1. I liked it too, unfortunately it had many detractors amongst the Gateshead illuminati...

  2. I hated it. No attempt to fit its envirnoment and it physically dominated a run-down town, representing the council's appalling neglect.

  3. An now it is no more.