The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Tricorn, Portsmouth

In February Claire Barrett left her post as the Society’s full-time caseworker. In her final report she writes about Portsmouth ‘s Tricorn centre which, as Claire feared, and despite the Society’s best efforts, was soon after turned down for listing. At the time of going to press the Tricorn was awaiting demolition.

I’m putting pen to paper for a final time in my role as caseworker and am writing about a building close to my heart. It lays bare my passion for concrete! Ahh, the Tricorn.

I was hoping that by the time I was gone there would be a decision on the application to list the brute. And it is a brute, no arguing with that. It’s been wearing a millstone round its neck probably since before I was born—much hated, much lambasted and already once stamped with the seal of death, having been turned down for listing in 1995. So I went there, to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Was this concrete beast so dripping and covered in stalactites that it should be condemned? Or was it a gutsy building whose turrets, towers and car ramps pierce an otherwise dull skyline.

You can guess which way I swung. It’s a powerful building that glitters. It’s sculptural, it’s interesting and, yes, it is a megastructure, sited defiantly next to the dual-carriage ring road, stuck onto the end of the shopping run, The Cascades (the name says it all).

It’s going to come down. That’s certain, unless a last minute listing attempt made by the Portsmouth Society, and supported by us, is successful. I’m not holding my breath. By the time you read this, it may be an almighty pile of rubble after what will surely be an almighty battle between it and the wrecker’s ball. It’s been a joke in the C20 Society office that, just like the bottle of champagne that persistently refuses to smash on the ship’s hull to mark its maiden voyage, the demolition ball might just come bouncing back. Let’s hope so, as the situation doesn’t look rosy.

Opened in 1966, the Tricorn is a shopping centre designed by the Owen Luder Partnership (Luder was twice RIBA president), under the architect direction of Rodney Gordon. It received wide acclaim at the time—it was a key building in Reyner Banham’s influential Megastructures , and was the subject of a wonderful article by Ian Nairn. ‘At last there is something to shout about in Portsmouth ‘, he wrote.

Praise indeed. And praise was also forthcoming on the last occasion it was considered for listing. The building is of ‘undoubted architectural interest’ states the advice note, but the fact that ‘it was never a success commercially, call[s] into question its appropriateness for its purpose.’ It was, therefore, turned down, although Architectural Design (November 1966) maintained that the building had proved more successful: ‘They [the Council] even had doubts that it would work. It is now built, and on their own admission it works well’.

But the Tricorn has a dogged history. The problem was with its brief, something recognised by Gordon but over which he had no control. The shopping centre was never connected to the main shopping street. M & S got cold feet and the rest of the big boys followed. The budget stores moved in, and it was the beginning of the end already. There was simply no cash for a building in need of careful maintenance.

Now it looks run down and it’s easy for everyone to have a go. But let’s face it, you’d look a bit mucky yourself if you’d been deprived of a wash or any TLC for over thirty years. It’s an easy picking and has become a fashionable political football; parties of all colours stated their intent to bring it down at the last election. It’s socked to the public that this is a building they hate—‘Tricorn down, Portsmouth up!’ is the message on the hoardings. Artist Jeannie Kerswell has just finished a project which involved writing slogans collected from the public onto these corporate hoardings (with the developers’ blessing—one can only think they weren’t expecting rallying cries in favour of the building). The local paper wants it down. People aren’t allowed to think for themselves anymore.

But there’s a new crowd emerging. These are people who like Brutalism; who might not know exactly what it was trying to do, but who are intrigued by it and want the best examples to stay. Brutalism is having its renaissance. This is only a beginning, but there’s now an increasingly concerted call to re-assess these buildings. Not least, they look interesting, as though they have a story to tell.

And they do. While interesting in their own right, they’ve also been influential. The Tricorn was surely inspiration for buildings such as the Pompidou and Lloyds in which people from the Luder practice (for example, Laurie Abbott) were later involved. Here architects used the same ideas for expressing a building’s structure and services, and with it fostered the origins of the High-Tech movement.

And it need not be the end for the Tricorn. Rodney Gordon himself has worked on a scheme to change the centre to make it financially viable, as has the Portsmouth Society. They have been inspirational from the outset, not just talking but doing real groundwork. So, it may be possible to change opinion if there’s sufficient will among those who care. I predicted earlier that, come publication, the centre’s demolition will have taken place or be imminent. I’m ready to eat my words, though still far from optimistic. But if the Tricorn’s not for saving, then what of future cases?

An essay by Rodney Gordon on the Owen Luder Partneship and the origins of the Tricorn Centre appears in the C20 Society’s latest journal, The Sixties (2002)

Claire Barrett