Save our eyesores!

Another icon of New Brutalism faces destruction after the Government refused to protect the unloved Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth. But, says Jay Merrick, some of these concrete monsters are important classics
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The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, a grim 48-shop commercial development built in 1966 which followed the architectural precepts of so-called New Brutalism, is to be razed because of the Government's refusal to give it a protective listed status.

The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, a grim 48-shop commercial development built in 1966 which followed the architectural precepts of so-called New Brutalism, is to be razed because of the Government's refusal to give it a protective listed status.

The end of the Tricorn has been looming since 1995, when an earlier attempt to sanctify it failed. Since then English Heritage took issue with the development, claiming it was not a significant example of commercial architecture. A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport noted that "external appearance is also a key consideration in listing proposals, although buildings important for their technological innovation or their social or economic history may also have little external visual quality".

But with its passing, the Tricorn should not signal an end to the new brutalist experiment and signal a free reign for the demolisher's wrecking ball to obliterate Britain's controversial post-war heritage of urban "eyesores". Designed by Owen Luder, a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and one of a posse of postwar architects who fervently championed New Brutalism, The Tricorn is a wilfully fractured form of modernism which produced buildings and developments often looking like clumsy agglomerations of First World War pill-boxes, or concrete battleships after heavy shelling.

But the style can work. The London South Bank centre is often cited as the acceptable and interesting face of this style. Its architectural merits were underscored by the fact that it was designed by Denys Lasdun, a "posh" architect who was delivering buildings for the arts. Erno Goldfinger, the architect responsible for the Trellick Tower high-rise in Notting Hill and the listed Alexander Fleming House at Elephant and Castle in south London, was equally respected for buildings that those unfamiliar with the history and physical language of architecture might consider crude.

Luder was a respected architect who became known for commercial buildings that seemed messianic in their desire to promote the urban vision of an Ugly New World. The Trident Shopping Centre and car park in Gateshead - used in the filming of Britain's greatest postwar film noir, Get Carter - remains his other most memorable creation. Today, the burghers of Gateshead rub along at Marks & Spencers's swish new Life store, designed by the super-minimalist architect, John Pawson.

Shopping centres are below the architectural salt, though some have made telling architectural statements. Ikea's first British outlet, which opened in 1987, helped to turn glorified industrial shed-design buildings into desirable venues for millions of shoppers.

But can such visually challenged architecture always be dismissed out of hand? The Tricorn Centre possesses a worthy raison d'être beyond its prosaic need to generate profits through thousands of square feet of rent slabs. New Brutalism had a point: it objected to signs of a return to classically inflected architecture that began to surface in the 1950s. In protest, its acolytes sought a return to rigorous and experimental thinking about building design.

That particular brand of architectural rigour is no longer fashionable. And, as if to taunt the remnants of New Brutalism, there has been a discreet return to the classical and the cosily vernacular architecture in some places. Obvious examples include Leon Krier's Poundbury, the neo-vernacular town in Dorset, the Paternoster Square development in the City of London and the riverside development by Quinlan Terry at Richmond.

Poundbury, encouraged and underwritten by Prince Charles's Duchy of Cornwall estate, is a series of diverse architectural styles, put together so seamlessly that the effect is perfectly eerie. In Poundbury, one instinctively awaits the arrival of Patrick McGoohan, the legendary prisoner No 7, pursued by a big white balloon. Paternoster Square turns classical motifs into bland corporate signifiers, and the Richmond development is anodyne.

New Brutalism was anything but bland. It produced more turkeys than swans yet there are beastly buildings and developments that deserve preservation because they are important way-markers in the narrative of British architectural history. The Robin Hood Gardens housing development in Poplar, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson - key intellectual figures in the new brutalist movement - remains unlisted because its interior arrangements are clumsy. But few developments illustrate the new brutalist doctrine with such ruthless zeal. Equally ugly are the Birmingham Rotunda and the modernist Park Hill estate in Sheffield, the latter designed by Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn. Both are listed. London's rather svelte South Bank centre is not, although English Heritage has twice lobbied for its listing. Centre Point, the brazen architectural exclamation-mark at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road in London is a suitable case for preservative treatment and is listed, though it represents an obvious failure in terms of scale and urban planning. However, the building, designed by Richard Seifert, was one of the first spikes on the modern London skyline and remains an interesting anomaly - an example of how-not-to-do-it architecture, par excellence.

Some post-war architecture will, fortunately, escape listing forever. No 1 Piccadilly, in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, is a commercial megastructure whose looming and surly presence could remain for a long time. The cost of knocking it down would be vast, and only possible as part of a root-and-branch makeover of that part of the city. Dozens of similar blights, though usually on a much smaller scale, can be found in most larger towns and cities. Bad architecture requires complicit architects and culpable local authority planners. There are evidently too many of both.

The bulldozers will go to work on Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre in the next two weeks. The shoppers of Portsmouth may not mourn its passing; support was thin on the ground. The listing was turned down after comments received from the public against protecting the building out-numbered those in favour by five to one. The Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, said: "I am delighted that common sense has prevailed in this matter and that we can move as swiftly as possible now on to demolition."

The Heritage minister, Andrew McIntosh, said it was not a matter of taste. He said: "I know that the Tricorn Centre is the subject of strong local feeling but, while an interesting building, I have decided that it does not possess the degree of special significance required for listing. My decision not to list is no comment on whether or not the building itself should be retained. It merely indicates that I do not believe the Tricorn to meet the clear national criteria for listing."

Portsmouth City Council said that the Government's decision clears the way for the site to be demolished, with a new shopping complex planned. But all the Tricorn's critics will do well to note the breezily portentous words of John Laker, a director of the site's developers, Centros Miller: "With this [English Heritage] decision we can now get on with the real work of designing a scheme of which Portsmouth can be really proud."

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