City of churches searches for its soul

THE GOOD CITY CENTRE GUIDE 4: NORWICH; East Anglia's capital has carved out a modern role for itself without resorting to simplistic historical packaging. Peter Dormer explains
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The Independent Culture
Norwich boasts the largest medieval walled city in England, 32 pre-Reformation churches in the city centre, two cathedrals and a Norman Castle. Below ground, there are riches galore that testify to the complexities of the city's Saxon, Norman, medieval, Renaissance and industrial past. In fact, there is clearly an embarrassment of historic riches: 16 of the medieval churches are redundant, some of them living a twilight existence as antiques markets or, in one case, a martial arts centre.

Norwich has hidden assets, such as a low crime rate, but like other agreeable, middle-sized English cities, it is searching for a role at the end of the 20th century. Without a manufacturing base, should it follow York's example and become a living museum, selling itself as a package of walled history?

Norwich is anxious to hold on to its key historic role as the capital of East Anglia. The symbol of this assertiveness is the city's magnificent, austere and triumphalist City Hall, which was completed in 1938 and designed by CH James and S Rowland Pierce.

This forceful, Scandinavian-inspired civic palace faces the city with the simplest form imaginable, a horizontal block of brick offices and meeting rooms, topped with a vertiginous brick tower at one end that recalls the great modern town halls of Sweden and Denmark. Although Scandinavian Modern in form, this great building also evokes the spirit of East Anglia's lofty medieval churches, so many of which, from Ely cathedral to the parish churches of the Fens, appear to float ethereally and magisterially above their surroundings.

The entrance is guarded by a pair of heraldic lions, one of which was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in 1936. Both beasts have a paw outstretched so that they look like political sparring partners, one trying to silence the other with points and clauses of order.

In an attempt to lionise East Anglian retailing - the motor of post-Thatcher cities - Norwich has built the Castle Mall shopping centre. The complex was designed by Michael Innes, of Lambert, Scott & Innes, and opened in 1993.

Castle Mall has been shoe-horned between the city's medieval core and its castle by being built into a hole that was dug on the site of the old cattle market. Shoppers may not realise it, but they are stepping on Saxon ground. That this has not been taken as an opportunity to present a themed history of Norwich to shoppers shows an almost saintly restraint on the part of the developers.

The view from the outside of the mall is mainly of flint and brick walls surrounding a low mound topped by a landscaped park. And so, by being built underground, this huge building (a million square feet of shops, offices, storage and service space) almost disappears into the cityscape. Only the Ministry of Defence, with its nuclear bomb-proof seat of regional government, has hidden so much from so many.

Inside Castle Mall there is a lot of daylight in an atrium that opens out into a Kew Gardens- style glass and steel gallery. Although the decor is sanitised, bland and even genteel, it has a clever plan which allows the multi-level mall to slot into the existing medieval street layout. Shoppers exit straight into a real street and are never left floundering in an urban vacuum of the kind that usually surrounds inner-city shopping centres.

Planning in Norwich has not always been so careful. The car and the developer, as in most British cities, were allowed to drive an aggressive path through the city in the Sixties. It was soon after the widening and obliteration of parts of St Stephen's Street, a medieval thoroughfare, that pressure grew in the city to conserve and enhance, rather than prise open and destroy. The city began to encourage people to live in the centre, and many still do.

Most commercial buildings of the past 30 years here take the form of dull, pension-funded lumps. The inventive architecture of the period is largely confined to the edge-of-town campus of the University of East Anglia, a zoological garden of post-war styles. Here you can gawp at Sir Denys Lasdun's lakeside halls of residence in the guise of ziggurats brought into the age of concrete, at Sir Norman Foster's vast aircraft hangar- style Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, and at Rick Mather's incomparably elegant new student housing close by.

Lasdun's architecture seems more radical with each passing year. It is brave, expressionistic and full of intellectual optimism, although age has not proved kind to the concrete details. Foster's shed remains magical: as anonymous as a contemporary aircraft fuselage on the outside, a design of great visual delicacy and infinite striations of light inside.

Culture, education, research and the media are making major contributions to Norwich's economy. Aside from the university, the city features television studios, including Anglia TV, newspapers and publishing. Derelict land around the handsome Victorian railway station and close to the centre has been targeted for information-based industries. The idea is to link this development by walkways, allowing the city to expand without losing the comfortable feeling of compactness that makes Norwich particularly attractive.

The oddest new development proposal is the city's Millennium bid, Technopolis. Technopolis is not one building or place, but several, each with a nerdish name. Who will ever be able to keep a straight face when arranging to meet at the Megabyte Cafe? Where? Oh, you know, next to Digital City. Hmmm.

Technopolis has three elements, the Millennium Library, Digital City and the National Exploratory of the Past and Future City. Digital City will inform, teach and train people in information technology and act as a resource centre for commerce. The library will offer multimedia access to information worldwide, and the Exploratory will package Norwich's history, attempt to predict its future and generally explore the culture of cities. For example, the Time Capsule will give what are described as "privileged views" of Norwich a thousand years ago via flight simulators. In the City Exposition Hall, there will be a "virtual city"; visitors will be able to tap into its "pulsating blood". Enough said.

Charles Handy, the Norfolk futurologist and management expert, a man quite at home with upside-down thinking, personal reframing, electronic shamrocks, inverted doughnuts and horizontal fast-tracking, has endorsed Technopolis. "This imaginative and pioneering project is exactly what we need to introduce our people and our business to the Information Age and the Networked Society ... Norfolk is ready for this." Erm, just so.

Naturally, the architecture that houses Technopolis will be important because the right buildings will be needed to give this nebulous bundle of Post-Modern concepts a concrete identity. After all, that is precisely what the City Hall does so powerfully for Norwich's local government.

But we ought not to be carried away by fashionable jargon. The "Networked Society" already exists in more human form. Less than a tomato's throw from the steps of City Hall remains the decidedly pre-Modern "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" square of densely packed market stalls. Here you plunge into an urban undergrowth of wet fish, video cassettes, budget clothing, kitchen hardware, vegetables, flowers and hot dogs. No heritage packing or futuristic jargon here, just the warm fug and jostle of ordinary, independent trading and people dealing one against the other.

This old market is a model of the kind of networking most people like. It is not shaped or regulated by designers and cultural packaging experts, nor themed or contextualised. It is not even marketed. It is a hugger- mugger of people about their daily business. It provides a real, rather than a virtual, answer to the question of this compact and good-looking old trading city's purpose at the end of the 20th century.