If people don't notice it, it's not architecture…

I’ve just caught up on my Dreamspaces and been confronted with a conundrum. In a piece about brutalist architecture, they featured the Tricorn centre in Portsmouth. Here’s a picture of the building in question:

Now, this building hasn’t had the most illustrious of histories. It was built in 1966, given an award in 1967 and voted Britain’s fourth ugliest building in 1968. It is generally reviled by the public and will not be protected by government by being listed. But when the architect – Rodney Gordon – is asked about the general distaste towards his building, he replies:

“Well I’m very surprised. A lot of people liked the building. One thing I do find is that any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved. If people don’t notice it, it’s not architecture.”

That last phrase seems extraordinary to me – stunning in its arrogance and audacity and completely in opposition to most of the understandings of design and architecture that I’ve accumulated over the last ten years. That kind of ostentatious statement of impact above function was given up within the first ten years of web design. What Gordon is talking about is the construction of follies – buildings with little or no function but to inspire and awe. Unworkable spaces, unusable spaces. We have them on the web too – sometimes even intentionally – either as art or design showcases or as image-based impactful press prelease or advertising spaces. But this is different. This is a site – a space – designed for shopping and socialising that wants desperately to be innovative and impressive – the architect all the while dismissing the subtle and less overt arts of flows and usability, building things that are not scaled for humans or comprehensible to them. All the things that allow a place to be understood by people are dismissed as unworthy of the name of architecture. And why – because the building must be noticed… It’s stunning. It’s terrible. And I’m fairly sure it’s wrong.

If you’re interested in the Tricorn:

30 replies on “If people don't notice it, it's not architecture…”

I think Owen Luder and partners was the company that designed the building, and that Rodney Gordon was the specific architect behind it. Does anyone have any more information around this?

“That kind of ostentatious statement of impact above function was given upwithin the first ten years of web design” – Now that’s a fascinating observation. What’s the difference that made the difference between architecture and web design? I would suggest it is the ease with which success can be measured in web design. Architects, by contrast, are not in the habit of measuring the usage their buildings get once they have been completed, and even if they did they have no valid standard for comparison because large buildings in particular enjoy a local monopoly of function.

“That kind of ostentatious statement of impact above function was given upwithin the first ten years of web design” – That’s the phrase that got my attention too.
While it’s true there’s a resurgent movement under way that puts function over form, one has merely to browse through such style-over-substance breeding grounds as K10k, DiK, PixelSurgeon or the like to see that the guys at the top of the food chain still aren’t on board. Don’t get me wrong, the work there is truly the best of the best; in that pretty, shiny, useless sort of way that fueled the career of many a pop idol chanteuse with implants.
Oh, and URLs of course. http://www.k10k.nethttp://www.designiskinky.com

I like the building on the picture; and in a way I think what the architect says is true, and your comparison to web design an oversimplification. Because we *do* value good design; and good design needs not to be plain (“forgettable”). Design should, however, not impair usability, and this is where many web designers got it wrong and are still getting it wrong. The question to ask, therefore, is this: Does the design of the building make it unsuitable for “shopping and socialising”? If it can achieve both — be a work of art *and* usable, more power to the architect.

I think your description of good design as ‘not plain’ is completely wrong. Is a Post-It flashy? Is a well-designed toothbrush necessarily glamourous? That they be attractive is at most a third of the aspirations of good design/

Tom, your comment about a late corporate modernists being indifferent to the people flows and sociability is spot on.
That is about lived context and sensitivity to life on the street. Both were not a modernist strongpoint since their emphasis was on the built form. On pure form and honesty to materials?

Rodney was just trying to be polite to all those stupid people who don’t understand great architecture.
I am stupefied by your comments. Have you ever been to the tricorn? I have, i live 5 minutes away from it. I also got a first in architecture. So Iím pretty well informed to talk about it. The design was based around a cas-bah. Meaning that there was variation and choice with movement and appearance.
It is a very intelligent piece of architecture. As for the aesthetics. Well it
is in a long tradition of brutalist architecture. The British weather hasn’t been that kind. Cobraís buildings in chandagarh have faired better. Mainly because they are much more respected but India than in England. But that is no surprise considering the crap that is built here. We produce the worldís best architects and the world most mundane crap architecture. Go figure!!!!

I’m afraid – unlike with art or product design or websites or whatever – I’m less tolerant of architecture that can only be appreciated by other architects. As far as I’m concerned it’s the height of arrogance to place your personal aesthetic vision over that of a whole community who are going to be forced to live with, in and around the structures you have made. Most websites, most art, most products have readily available alternatives – so if they’re not what people want to use, then they’ll choose something else. But I’m afraid they don’t have that choice with the Tricorn. If people dislike the environment, if it encourages crime, littering, if it seems to generate urban decay, if people desperately want it ripped down, then there are a lot of arguments you can make for why they are wrong, but if you’re relying on the “I’m an architect and I know best” approach, then I have no sympathy with your position whatsoever.

I have the public art commision for a section of the Tricorn hoardings. I am currently compiling quotes, opinions and memories of the building for inclusion in the artwork. The artwork comprises of four sections, love/hate (opinions on the building, Flashback- memories of Grannies/ basins- The Tricorn Club, also memories of rading/shopping experiences, and Bright ideas- fantasy or realistic for the existing building/ redevelopment of the site itself. This has been publisised on TV and radio and I have dooe several walk abouts and targeted specific groups for comments. I would like to make contact with people responding/ author of the site. i am unable to lift commnets fromt the site due to copyright and intellectual property rights. Please contact me direst by emailing me.

The Tricorn debate lives on. Tom Dyckhoff has an article in The Times. 2oth January 2004

“As far as I’m concerned it’s the height of arrogance to place your personal aesthetic vision over that of a whole community who are going to be forced to live with.”
Fine! Go live in your introspective plastic malls with no decay and no life. I think i’ll opt out of that one though if you don’t mind.
I’d rather live in the tricorn.
I don’t disagree that architects can sometimes have strong opinions and visions.But this is a case of the portsmouth council, mike hancock and the developers not having any of their own opinions about the spaces. Just the wish to create a highly profitable shed formed on the opinions of millions of questionaires.
Buildings should be heroic and powerful. Not just a collage of a million conflicting opinions and agendas.

That a building should be heroic and powerful is certainly a worthy aspiration. That it should be heroic and powerful while being hated by the hundreds of thousands of people who end up using it is clearly NOT a worthy aspiration. Now I’m not going to argue with you about the possibilities of architecture – although I could quibble with the idea that all architecture should be there to be noticed (should all plumbing / wiring / sewering etc be there to be noticed as well? should that all be ‘heroic’ or is there another aspiration, that they should work perfectly and effortlessly around people elegantly and beaufully – whether visibly or not). But even if I go along with you and say that the aspiration really is to create buildings that are heroic and powerful – that are products of innovation and vision – still you have to agree that these buildings should also be comprehensible human spaces that people enjoy operating within? That’s my only point.

come on stop it, give your self a slap. What building that was never completed, never moved into and new used and that has been left to rot for 35 years is every going to be admired by the majority. Have you ever been to the tricorn?
In the places where it hasn’t been boarded up, there are glimses of the wonderful spaces it creates. For instance it take whole streets and lifts they up so that people can wander and shop while getting lots of daylight and having full and amazing views over the island
Not just inward looking shopping precints that focus people on just to become a rat shopping for crap. It created vistas that
lead people suggestivly around the huge tray and ramps which resemble swans kissing. It gives the shopper a new world in which to
shop. It is breathtaking.
Stop being argumentative for the sake of it, your arguments do not hold water. If the building had been allowed to function then
you could post rationalise over its problems. This is not the vision that
should be for the tricorn.
The building will be knocked down without ever having fulfilled its potential. We are talking about architecture on a world scale. There is so little to boast about in england and yet what we have through innovative decisions in the 60’s will now be replaced by banal economics. We really should do something!!

I don’t respond well to being told that my honestly held beliefs are just trolling for arguments, so be grateful you’re getting a reply at all.
As far as I’m concerned my argument completely holds water. For god’s sake, we’re not talking about a building that has just been left to rot that people have come to dislike over time, we’re talking about a building that was voted the fourth ugliest building in the UK two years after its creation! You might love it, but that view was NOT SHARED by the vast majority of people who had to use it!
But I’m getting off the point, since my piece was arguing against his position that spectacle isn’t the primary point of architecture. My position instead was that architecture that doesn’t provide a workable space for people to operate within and that people are forced to inhabit regardless isn’t architecture – or at least is bad architecture. I honestly consider it scandalous that an architect can operate on the assumption that the thing they’re creating is a visual / aesthetic experience first and a functioning one secondarily. And that’s what he said – that architecture is about spectacle, not pragmatism.

i am a photographer specializing in disused urban buildings such as Whitecroft mental Asylum on the isle of wight, i have visited the Tricorn a few times and i agree that where the structure is not boarded-up coverd in graffiti and dirt you can see that it is actually a wonderfull design, the structure lifts the user into the air and the bold rough boarded concrete gives a definate boundary between the designed space and the open space, having visited the interior of the building several times during the past 3 years i agree that at present it is not exactly the taj mahal. in the 60s and 70s taste in buildings changed very quickly and i believe that if the Tricorn was refurbished today it could be a sucess, once the space was clearly defined as a usefull structure and not a canvass for graffiti peoples attitudes to the building would change.

well put. i have to admit, firends that aren’t inot architecture find it very difficult to look pass the hoardings.dirt decay and grafitti. But when you do it is pretty heady stuff.
We don’t build like that any more. Even the so called trendy architects like future systems are intent on removing the aging process from buildings. Lords cricket ground is hygiene gone crazy and as for the selfriges in brum!! looks like a big arse!!
I’ll keep the site informed asto the goings with the tricorn. Hopefully it will get spot listed and then people will look seriously at making it work finally! visit for architecture in the southcoast ( shameless plug, sorry!)

just to say i visited the tricorn on tuesday & spent four hours wandering around inside(yes i know the hoardings are there for a reason but its not enough to keep me out of such a interesting building)apart from almost killing myself in the process of getting to the top carpark it was very enjoyable. when it is empty and quiet it is easy to see the beauty in the maze of concrete. and some of the interiors of the flats (i think, it was inside the two story block on the first car deck away from the other decks)it seemed to be a entrance to the flats or something with a beautifull alloy staircase looked really nice (i will put some photos on the web soon)
does anyone know the actual date of the demolition?

The problem with the Tricorn was that it was not an intelligent piece of architecture, but that it was a piece of architecture for architectural fashion followers.
This type of neo-brutalisim just doesn’t work and while it may have been inspired in some distant way by a casbah, it wasn’t created to function like one. For God’s sake the few flats that were incorporated in it were uninhabitable. Designing something that doesn’t fulfill its function does not come within my category of intelligent.
I fully agree that most shopping places are unthought through pieces of po-mo trash. The alternative that we should be arguing for is not the preservation of past mistakes and disfunctional blind allies but things that are beautiful and work.

Firstly, It was Rodney Gordon who designed the Tricorn, but he was employed by Owen Luder Partnership to do so. He only designed a small handful of buildings during his brief employment there, including the Gateshead carpark. Owen Luder’s job was to negotiaite the brief with the client and the planners.
Secondly, i hope everyone has seen the proposals for what will soon replace the Tricorn. Get ready to cast your votes for the new ugliest building in Britain. At least the Tricorn was brave enough to point the way towards new architecture (Lloyds Building and High Tech etc). No other shopping centre in britain has, for better or worse, made any contribution to architectural debate.

on sunday the 3rd april i and a student at portsmouth uni managed to get inside the flats and department store (all 4 levels of it) the flats were amazing and VERY dated the department store was interesting and even contained escalators, we explored nearly all of the site including the roofs of the flats/office block and the interiors of the warehouses and shops, i have some of the photos i took on my site at: dv video will be uploaded soon along with many more photos. the demolition team are demolishing the tricorn from the centre outwards and have removed all the trees from the square and demolished the stairway and lift shaft that went from the square up to the nightclub building. if your interested in the tricorn or like my site let me know by signing my guest book at http;// or emailing me

some interesting comments. what i would like to bring to the table is the south bank along the themes. The hayward Gallery is a perfect example of how a brutalist building can be updated and brought into the 21st centrury. While the concrete still remains stained, the general vibe of the place is looking good. a new glass foyer makes a huge impact on the place and probably shares more in common to Le corbusier’s archtiecture in France than with the ghetto’s!!! With the tricorn and many of the brutalist buidings in Britain is that they are underfunded from the start of construction with many area’s (such as gardens and leisure facilities) being left out or not completed. For a building such as the Tricorn to take off then there is a huge amount of pressure for businesses and communities to accept the building. with the tricorn, this never happened due to it location of being to far from the high street. many businesses like the chain stores marks and sparks did not see the building as a sound investment, hence them not moving in. a knock on effect to other businesses was sure to happen!!!

Sadly have only just found this site.Is there any thing of the Tricorn left to see as I believe demolition is well underway.Having grown up in Jersey with thankfully much concrete, courtesy of the Todt organisation, available to discuss, I feel that Portsmouth and the country as a whole are sadly robbed of an oustanding example of this type of building.A pity that ignorance and philistinism are cannot so easily be bulldozed to the ground.

I loved the tricorn even though i only seen picturs of it i think it was a classic pieace of arcetecture. the werd thing is it was demolished by my favorate demolition company

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