Architecture: Wolverhampton: a motown with no town: Peter Dormer on efforts to improve a city that has suffered the worst of urban design

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You do not walk in the centre of Wolverhampton. You scuttle and run, across a maze of roads, uncertain if the traffic lights will hold in your favour. Touring the city on foot, you are confronted at every possible turn by the inner ring road, or a road junction that looks as if it might swallow the Isle of Man.

A city shorn of its traditional manufacturing industry and at the geographical heart of England, Wolverhampton is an object lesson in the destructive power of motoring and its architecture of roads, roundabouts, car parks, traffic signals, gantry signs, superstores and lamp standards.

Wolverhampton is at present pursuing a number of civic initiatives aimed at redefining its image and improving its public face. As it stands, however, it is a bench mark of the low standards of design and planning meted to our old manufacturing towns.

In the Sixties, Wolverhampton experienced the most ruthless forms of planning, while in the Nineties it has been 'facelifted' with second-rate civic improvements. There are no good modern buildings in Wolverhampton. A few precious old buildings survive because local citizens have fought for them.

The town has an unfortunate position: nine major traffic routes converge upon it. In 1951 it was decided that Wolverhampton should have a ring road. The first stage began in 1960 and construction of the last section ended only in 1986. With each new stage of the building there came a dubious 'first' for Wolverhampton. In 1973, stage three of the road demanded the biggest and most expensive compulsory order purchase of all time. By 1992 the local newspaper was reporting more roads to 'solve Wolverhampton's chronic traffic congestion'. Now, a four-to-six-lane relief road runs through the middle of the town rather than around it. But since 1988 the council has softened the look of the beast by landscaping its central reservation and has wisely refused to allow office blocks to be built around the ring road.

The impact of the road is great. It has caused a string of car parks to be created within the centre, and it has encouraged some bizarre, car-orientated architecture, including the Sainsbury superstore which opened in 1988.

This must be the only superstore in the country which has an elegant Georgian church, St George's (1828-30), as its pedestrian entrance. The store itself is slate grey, with white-ish ribbing. Much of it looks like the inner tube of some giant tyre. It meets the church in a cruel embrace of ill-proportioned steel and glass canopies that all but obliterate the entrance of its chaste predecessor. This horrid meeting of styles is set in a car park, itself a sea of signs and gantries.

St George's churchyard is held in trust for the public as open space. Nevertheless, the council bought the graveyard and sold it, at a profit, to the developers. Technically, as part of the car park, it remains a public space.

Sainsbury's was praised for having 'saved the original building'. It was even given an 'environmental award' by a 'top panel of businessmen' for turning St George's into a 'pleasing landmark'. What is really needed here is for the merchants to be whipped from the temple.

One of the nicest public spaces in Wolverhampton centres upon another Georgian church, St John's (1755-1775). This powerful Palladian design by William Baker and Roger Eykin has been well restored inside and out with help from English Heritage. In the Fifties St John's had a fragile future, but over the years it has been held intact by the will of its congregation and clergy and the Wolverhampton Civic Trust. Like St Sainsbury's, this church, too, must look to other activities to keep it open. It is hoped that Wolverhampton University will use it for lectures.

Walking east from the church past the few remaining 18th-century terraces in George Street, the brutalising effects of the ring road intrude again. From St John's, you can see a 100ft lamp standard on the road complete with flying saucer-shaped lamp, rising over the delicate terrace and appearing for all the world like a great plunger waiting to be pushed to flush all civic niceties from Wolverhampton. In addition to this eyesore, George Street has become a cul-de-sac cut off by the usual horrible combination of paving and cheap railings.

But there is evidence elsewhere in Wolverhampton that the council is trying to create a better city. It is working, for example, with the innovative and successful Public Arts Commissions Agency in a project that will re-light major public buildings and spaces, including car parks, subways and even the Wolverhampton Wanderers football ground, Molineaux. The trouble is, despite some excellent advice, they are still creating duds.

Take the bus station, for example. The gateway was originally the entrance to the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway station. Built in 1849, this pretty stone and brick Italianate structure, known as the 'Queen's Building', used to house offices and has now been refurbished as a travel centre with a ticket hall and a cafe.

Until quite recently there were some Samsons among the local politicians who wanted to sweep the building to the ground. In 1985, Councillor D Jones is reported by the Wolverhampton Express and Star as saying that the Queen's building was a blot on Wolverhampton's landscape 'which would spoil the look of the bus station'. Had this been an Al Read comic turn it would have been funny: the new bus station is nothing but a collection of brown tinted-glass bus shelters which look like oversized shoe boxes.

Although the Queen's Building was saved, it has been turned into 'Daughter of Network SouthEast', smeared with the same splenetic red paint as the network's unfortunate trains and stations. Indeed, Union Jack red and blue are the dominant colours in most of new Wolverhampton. Such patriotism seems ironic for a city that has been abandoned by successive governments.

A few yards in front of the Queen's Building, there is an object that encapsulates the banality of Nineties British civic design. It is a piece of public art in the form of a steel caricature of an Ionic pillar (one of the classical orders of Greek architecture). I think it is meant to contain a flame of some sort because it has a glass slit in its side which looks as though it is intended to have a gas light flickering away within: I could not see clearly enough through the glass to confirm whether or not this was so. On one side there are the words 'Out of Darkness cometh Light' and on the opposite side it says 'Peace, Hope and Justice for all'. It is pathetic that such noble words, such high ideals, should be grounded in such a wretchedly awful parody of a monument. To complete the dispiriting scene the area around the Queen's Building is bounded by fake Victorian bollards and litter bins.

What can be done? The bad design revealed here in a city struggling to redefine itself is not the result of policy. It arises, to paraphrase C P Snow, out of a thousand small arrangements, bits of give and take. Civic design cannot be created that way. It needs coherent aim.

The underlying problem is the car. The concrete collar of roads must be broken. Like similarly afflicted cities, Wolverhampton needs a coherent, yet flexible, public transport system. Until the superstore beast is slain, park-and-ride buses ought to be able to carry shopping trolleys so that fewer people need drive to edge-of-town stores. The superstores themselves might be encouraged to work out store-to-door delivery systems. Such dependence on the car as witnessed in Wolverhampton encourages the development of an urban monoculture. If popular opinion is happy with this, then Wolverhampton is a city of excellence.

(Photographs omitted)