“Tricorn – Controversy in Concrete” at the City Museum

There is no controversy in my view.  The Tricorn was a thing of great beauty and enormous potential, and the City Council were bloody idiots to knock it down.  For a long time, that felt like a small-minority view, but as time moves on since its demolition and we are just left with an empty hole in the centre of the city, I think a lot of doubters are prepared to re-appraise our lost Brutalist masterpiece.

This is what is left behind now:Car park at Tricorn site

In the background you have the Cascades Centre, which has hardly been the greatest success in retail development itself (with plenty of empty units lurking behind decorated hoardings).  The black curve of the Zurich building dominates the skyline, although it is reportedly in such bad structural condition that it will be knocked down rather than redeveloped.  And of course there is the Guildhall, blown to pieces by the Luftwaffe and very nearly lost itself (rather than rebuilt) through the stupidity of an earlier regime at the City Council.

There is still a defiant remnant, attached to the back of Argos (once one of the key occupants of the Tricorn “proper”):

Tricorn survivor 1

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The stencil says “Warning: this building may provoke interest”.  I’m sure that was done before the Tricorn was demolished, there were certainly other sarcastic bits of graffiti appearing once its fate was sealed (one said something like “Demolish the Tricorn – keep Pompey boring” but I think PCC painted over it out of shame).

On the other side of that outcrop, someone has cheekily stencilled a notice about the exhibition at the City Museum – I took a photo but as it was ‘into the sun’, it hasn’t come out well enough to post here.

Strong Island carried an enticing preview of the exhibition, which runs until June 29th at the City Museum, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.  The level of detail and scale of work put into it are fantastic.  The thing that immediately caught my eye on walking in was the sign, which I remember hearing had been rescued by someone a few years ago:

Tricorn sign2

But don’t get too drawn to it, because there is some fascinating detail on the origins and construction of the Tricorn and some “what might have been” stuff to either side as you walk into the exhibition.  For instance, I had no idea that the incorporation of a wholesale fruit and veg market on the first floor had been such an important part of the plans for the Tricorn, or about the consideration of putting the Central Library in there.  There is a great audio presentation featuring the architect, Owen Luder, and some of the people involved in the planning and construction process which you can listen to, which explains why in some ways the Tricorn ran into trouble fairly quickly.

The site the Tricorn occupied had been devastated by bombing during the war, and what remained was cleared by the City Council in preparation for building a new access road to take traffic off Commercial Rd, which was then the main road route.  Here’s a map from just before WW2 (courtesy of the newly-uploaded OS 6″ to the mile series on the National Library of Scotland site):

Charlotte St

Modern Marketway arcs round from the point where Alfred Rd meets Unicorn Rd to where Thomas St on this map joins Commercial Rd.  This layout created the roughly three-cornered site that helped give the Tricorn its name.  Anglesey Rd pops up to the west of Victoria Park, and before the war was not the major route it is today – it was widened to continue the new main access on from Marketway and Alfred Rd.  This new route diverted traffic and eventually led to the pedestrianisation of the main shopping part of Commercial Rd.

As Owen Luder explains in the audio presentation, he thought of the development as a “casbah”, like the intricate shopping streets and market squares of an old Middle Eastern town, and that was for a time the “working title” of the project until the Tricorn name (with the added allusion to a naval tricorn hat) was decided on.  Had Luder’s original vision been fully realised, I am sure the Tricorn would still be standing now.

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However, the City Council never made Marketway the bus corridor they suggested originally, and so one key source of footfall was lost.  Another dangerous planning assumption was that the Tricorn would benefit from large number of Dockyard workers making their way through it ever day – but the Tricorn was built at a time when the Navy and employment in the Dockyard were entering a decline.  The late 60s were a time when confidence in the long period of post-war economic growth was evaporating, the Pound was devalued, and unemployment started to rise slowly but steadily.  Rents were set at unrealistically high levels in the assumption that the Tricorn would compete directly with space in Commercial Rd, although it was separated from it with only fairly narrow pedestrian routes through to it.  It was unlucky timing to open, and was followed in the 70s by all sorts of economic chaos.

If you’re read previous rants by me or follow me on Twitter (or indeed figure out which bit of graffiti on the “love/hate” blackboard in the exhibition belongs to me) you will know of my deep scepticism about the Northern Quarter development planned for the Tricorn site.  This has shrunk progressively from being larger than West Quay at Southampton, to something around the size of the present Cascades centre.  The key thing with retail developments is that they have to be big enough to have a “gravitational pull” for shoppers.  It is a risk, but the lesson of major developments all over the country is that “big works”.

The Cascades Centre replicated some of the Tricorn’s failures.  It lacks an “anchor tenant” department store, it lacks enough obvious means of drawing people into it (apart from one big entrance on the site of the old narrow route through to the Tricorn), and it does not create a coherent and modern retail environment with Commercial Rd.  Levels of rent have generally been high enough to drive rapid “churn” with retailers coming in and leaving again.  For a modern development, it was simply not ambitious enough, and the city as a whole has lost out to competition outside.  The Cascades Centre never even got its cascades in the end.  Typical post-war Pompey, let down at every turn!

I was in the Centre earlier looking at some empty retail units upstairs and it occurred to me that where once Cascades at least had dramatic glass-sided lift shafts it now has this:

Cascades stairwell

But back to the exhibition.  It takes in near-contemporary developments in Portsmouth, such as the Central Library, which few think of as Brutalist because most people have been taught to think that Brutalist=ugly and ugly=Brutalist; there is a fabulous “artist’s impression” of it before construction on display.  There is also a nod to the beautiful, graceful curves of Preston Bus Station:

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Preston Bus Station is still not safe from the attentions of another stupid local authority, and you can support the efforts to preserve it on Facebook and Twitter.

To the right-hand side in the first the two rooms are a couple of monitors with fly-throughs in CGI of the Tricorn which are rendered in the most exact and painstaking structural detail.  Among the items in the glass cases which divide the exhibition there are a couple of promotional magazines for the Tricorn, from its first relaunch in 1969.  One of those trumpets the relative superiority of Portsmouth compared to Southampton as a shopping centre, boasting higher revenue per square foot of space, and higher average spend per shopper per visit to the city centre.  Where did it all go wrong?  If we don’t respond to West Quay with a major development, we may as well all just drive down there every weekend.

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Many people associated the Tricorn with drab, grey concrete (which was not at all the vision of the architects), but the exhibition is full of colour, reflecting the gaudiness of the late 60s and early 70s in the displays of fashions and music of the times.  Having been born in 1973, by the time my memories of the Tricorn formed the City Council had run out of ideas, and it was becoming more grimy and dishevelled.  However, chatting to a couple of students in the exhibition who never experienced it, I definitely felt a twinge of pity because they had a real sense of the ambition and scale of the place and wished they’d seen it for themselves.

The title of the exhibition is perfect, because the Tricorn did create controversy.  But it was creative controversy – the stencilled graffiti warning you that “this building may create interest” tells us what we have lost through the demolition.  It made people think about what they want from public buildings, how they could be improved, how they make people relate to their environment.  There is every chance if you visit the exhibition you will find yourself doing that most un-British of things and having a chance conversation with someone you have never met before, because even after its demise, the Tricorn still inspires people to think and communicate. It was never just a shopping centre and it will live on in the collective conscience of Portsmouth.  The second of the two rooms provides the evidence for that with examples of art inspired by the Tricorn in a variety of ways.  The film by Charlie Tweed is worth sitting down and watching, especially if the Tricorn ever evoked for you in its decline a dystopian vision of the future as it did for me.

Jim Earle

You can go to West Quay, Churchill Square at Brighton, the Oracle at Reading (all competing in the same catchment area as Portsmouth), or Bluewater or the Westfields in London.  There you will experience what passes for perfection in a retail environment, and every centre is marketed intensively to convince you of the merits of that centre’s “brand” to induce you to go back to it.  They need the marketing precisely because they are really all the same.  A successful Tricorn would have been the easiest thing in the world to sell because it was unique.  Had it lived on into the era of “iconic”, it would by such a wide margin be the most iconic example of “iconic” that tourists would have been fighting to be first off the train to go and see it.  In terms of representation of a religious inspiration, the Tricorn was iconic in its old meaning anyway – it was a most pure devotional object of architectural faith.

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When the Today programme carried out a poll to find “Britain’s ugliest building” we should have just told them to go away, and got on with the job of rejuvenating it.  With modern materials technology, some clever decoration, thought about how to direct shoppers into the less-obvious walkways, and proper maintenance, it could have been anything.  It could have been conventional retail space, residential (converting Docklands warehouses was no cheaper than pepping up the Tricorn would have been), leisure.  Pompey’s version of 90s-Berlin art communes on the upper floors.  And that is not so far-fetched – look at what is planned now with the Artches project – imaginative re-use of presently-dead space.  We had the opportunity to do that on a vast scale with the Tricorn, and to make the rest of Britain with their illusively-shiny-yet-drab shopping malls and metal-box retail parks feel deeply ashamed at their own lack of ambition.

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But it’s impossible to walk out of the exhibition feeling depressed.   The strength of the presentation, the variety of exhibits, for me certainly picking up the feeling that the Tricorn was actually loved by many of us, and the sense that the cultural responses the Tricorn inspired still inspire now and lead off in other directions are all reasons to feel positive.  Everyone who has contributed to the project has done a superb job.

The Tricorn will probably never disappear completely, it will echo around Portsmouth in the same manner that the Universe is still ringing in barely-perceptible ways to the shock of the Big Bang.  We must just be careful that in future when people or planners tell us that something can’t be saved, or isn’t worth saving, that they can do something for us that improves on it.  The “temporary” car park on the Tricorn site has a horrible feeling of desolate permanence to it at the moment.




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5 Responses to “Tricorn – Controversy in Concrete” at the City Museum

  1. Jack Clements says:

    I went to the exhibition too, thought it was probably one of the best exhibits the city museum has had, I basically drooled over the original drawings and illustrations of the Tricorn, seeing how it was envisioned.
    In regards to the Northern Quarter, rather than build another shopping centre in it’s place, the Tricorn site should fulfil the original plan, have an indoor market, that can allow the current market down Commercial Road to operate more days, and also allow other business to set up stalls. Something like the Covered Market in Oxford, built in a style that harkens back to Portsmouth heyday as a port and thriving market place. Instead a rather generic plan, not so un-similar to those placed all over England is set to be built, if they can get enough stores to commit.

  2. Dan says:


    I am studying the Tricorn among other Brutalist Icons for an architecture paper and found you insight very useful.

    I would like to obtain copies of the Architect’s plans, was your image taken at the exhibition? by chance do you know where I might be able to obtain copies?



    • Stuart Crow says:

      Hi Dan, glad you enjoyed the blog. The architect’s plans were on display at the exhibition but I can’t remember now who they were on loan from. I think your best bet to start with is to ask the Museum Service at PCC, but if that doesn’t get you anywhere, let me know.

      Anybody else know the answer to this question?

    • Stuart Crow says:

      Hi Dan, glad you enjoyed the blog. The architect’s plans were on display at the exhibition but I can’t remember now who they were on loan from. I think your best bet to start with is to ask the Museum Service at PCC, but if that doesn’t get you anywhere, let me know.

      Anybody else know the answer to this question?

  3. Pingback: Not The Northern Quarter | Stuart Crow

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