Once upon a time, as Britain began rebuilding after the war, it had all seemed such a good idea.
Tear down the slum housing and build high in a bid to create communities hundreds of feet up. Decades later, various examples litter the Portsmouth skyline. No-one has ever liked them, and no-one ever will. Today, the likes of Buckland and Somers Town remain architecturally scarred by the social experiments of those who promised a modern-day New Jerusalem.
Back in the swinging ’60s, with concrete still in vogue, up went the Tricorn centre. And, after being deprived of TLC for the last years of its life – routinely and savagely criticised, nationally as well as locally – down it came in 2004. It was, its critics crowed, hideous and deserved to be knocked down.
Fast forward to January 2019, and the other day I parked in Matalan car park, right by Portsmouth & Southsea railway station. Philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote instantly struck me – ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.
In front of me, as I craned my neck to take in the full, grim view, was Greetham Street Halls – a dismal 24-storey (the same height as Grenfell Tower), bulky grey tower block lacking any visual attraction whatsoever. To make matters worse, it’s topped by some occasional yellow tiling in a ‘splattered paint’ effect which is, quite frankly, disgusting. And people tell me the Tricorn was ugly! Disgusting and dispiriting, as this is one of the first views any visitor to Portsmouth getting off at the railway station will sadly see. And first impressions DO count ...
Behind me, the 23-storey Crown Place block – with some lively splashes of red to give it a more jaunty appearance – is marginally better to look at. And Catherine House, to my left, is a further improvement – though it still looks as if it belongs somewhere like London or another metropolis rather than downtown Portsmouth. In this city it should be slightly incongruous, but it isn’t because it’s by no means the tallest structure in its locality.
Opposite Catherine House lies a building site, as another 19-storey tower slowly rises to block out even more of the sky. And when that is finished, this area of Portsmouth will resemble a mini Manhattan. Why, if you look hard enough – if you’re tall enough in the first place – you will even see (just) the top of what should be this city’s crown jewel ... the Guildhall.
It shouldn’t be like that.
Yet there is one major difference to New York’s Manhattan, for the desultory children’s building block look of Greetham Street and all the other projects mentioned above are not designed as office space, or as flats for young professional workers.
No, Portsmouth City Council has handed, and continues to hand, over a vast chunk of its centre to students. Where once we housed working class communities high in the sky and kept our fingers crossed it would all work out – it didn’t – now we build tacky tombstones just as tall, if not taller, to house this country’s future, those brainy (and rich enough) to afford today’s university prices.
Now we build incredibly vulgar structures that achieve what was once considered almost impossible – to make the likes of Horatio House and Leamington House in Somers Town look fairly attractive.
The student hall numbers are staggering. Back in July 2017, a Portsmouth City Council planning document stated that in the five years to March 21, 2016, only 280 bespoke units for students were delivered. In the following five years, to March 21, 2021, a further 3,600 units are expected to be built. There are more than 1,000 at Catherine House, and more than 800 at Greetham Street. Crown Place will deliver almost 600.
That is a lot of bedrooms, but then there are a lot of students – more than 23,500 at the University of Portsmouth in 2016/17, for example. And they all need somewhere to sleep at night.
Many readers of The News have been critical of the increasing numbers of projects being given planning permission. But, in truth, no-one should be surprised.
Such purpose-built student accommodation is a lucrative business worth about £45bn – developers can cram multiple units on to one site with no need to provide parking spaces, councils are generally happy to give such blocks the green light as they (supposedly) take pressure off local housing stock – city councillor Rob New said he ‘loathed’ the Greetham Street Halls’ colour scheme, and called it a ‘poor design for Portsmouth’, but he still voted for it in 2014 – and universities don’t have to splash their own cash on building accommodation to house their students.
Simples, as a well known meercat might say, but at the expense of architectural aesthetics.
Listen, I’m not against the provision of more student housing. In 2017, Portsmouth Council believed the 3,600 units expected to be built by March 2021 would free up about 900 city properties. But how many of those will be used to house the homeless and those currently on the council house waiting list? That is a big question, but who knows the answer?
Just because more students might be living in shiny new towers rather than in terraced houses in Southsea, it does not automatically mean all those now empty rooms will be filled by those who need them most. Life isn’t that simplistic, even if we’d like it to be.
Don’t believe me? How about these words: ‘Anyone who thinks these changes will start to solve the problems of the single, the vulnerable or the homeless just does not understand the economics of the letting business.’ So said an editorial on the Portsmouth & District Private Landlords’ Association website in 2016.
Do not for one second think Portsmouth is the only city whose skyline is being routinely eroded either. Been to Southampton recently? Also, new student halls are rising up at various points across Exeter city centre, including one on the site of an historic pub that was bulldozed despite numerous objections from residents.
There is one major difference, though; in Exeter the developments are dotted over a radius of several miles, here in Portsmouth they are all in the same area. Is it better to slightly blight a few parts of a city, a la Exeter, or radically alter the skyline in just one, a la Portsmouth?
We know the council’s view on that one. Back in the summer of 2016, Portsmouth councillor Luke Stubbs said: ‘The view of the cabinet is that concentrating student development in the central area around the station square is a good thing for the layout of the city.’
Personally, I think Cllr Stubbs is right. But I also believe there should be an element of skilled design in the towers, some attempt at architectural pizazz, rather than the current infatuation with straight lines that looks like a 21st century version of the worst social housing in former Iron Curtain countries. As one letter writer to The News put it this week, ‘students come and go, but we have to live here forever.’ Too true. We have to look at Greetham Street Halls forever.
But we know why it looks like it does, because it’s cheaper to build straight lines. Keep costs down, stack the towers high, and who cares what the hell they look like from the outside. Well, Portsmouth city councillors for a start.
The ‘Fag Butt’, as Greetham Street has been unfavourably nicknamed by locals, was on the six-strong shortlist for the 2017 Carbuncle Cup, the annual award handed out by magazine British Design to the ‘ugliest building completed in the UK in the last 12 months’. Amazingly, it didn’t win but it remains the only Portsmouth building ever to make the shortlist since the competition was inaugurated in 2006.
In fact, only two Hampshire structures have ever made the shortlist. Almost inevitably, the other one – City Gateway, visible from the M27 near the Eastleigh junction – is also a student halls tower featuring, also inevitably, two-tone cladding.
Perhaps it’s karma for failing to preserve the Brutalist masterpeice which was once the Tricorn. You knocked that down, so now you have to look at Greetham Halls and its revolting colour scheme for the rest of your life.
Architecturally it’s not a fair swap, and deep down you know it ...