Into the year 2000 with a bang

Should we dynamite the worst of British buildings? Nicholas Roe thinks so, and eight architects tell him what would head their list of the country's greatest eyesores
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Hands up all those who favour a gigantic ferris wheel opposite the House of Commons as a sensible way of marking the millennium. How about an enormous tower block bigger than any other in Europe? Or maybe that dustbin-lid-like device that Lord Rogers wants to build at Greenwich, the purpose of which has yet to be decided, but look at the size.

I have just outlined three of the most "exciting" proposals for commemorating the turn of 2,000 years of civilisation - but I don't suppose more than a handful of punters have signalled their approval.

Here is a suggestion. Rather than thrashing around for some great construction with which to summarise the elusive spirit of the age, we should turn this quest on its head ... and knock down something instead. There is nothing like a bit of rubble for summarising the angst of an era. Pass the dynamite, strike up a Swan Vesta. Boom!

There are many reasons for destroying eyesore buildings, not least the removal of blots that we had presumed more or less indelible, but my main concern is a regard for space itself. Each year, England loses 11,000 hectares of rural landscape to urban development. That means a slab of land about the size of Bristol going up the Swanee. Between now and the millennium, we will see three new Bristols. By the year 2016 this will amount to an area the size of Greater London.

According to a study by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, over the past 30 years this roaring onrush of development has cut the amount of space where you can find peace and quiet by almost 19,000 sq kms. We're running out.

Meanwhile our cities, in which more than 80 per cent of the population lives, are clearly not satisfying their inhabitants. In the past 20 years, an average of 300 people a day have quit city life to swell the edges of towns and villages, thus negating the resource they are seeking.

We must put a fresh value on space. Not as a useable asset, but as a necessity and, in this case, a symbol. We have to deny the usual supremacy of material values ... by bashing up a great big building. Just take away ... and leave a space. It would be a shake, a shock. An opening up - literally and metaphorically - of new views.

I put the idea to eight senior architects in some of our major cities and they lapped it up. In fact, they supplied a mouthwatering parade of candidate buildings for the commemorative chop.

Rod Hackney, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and sometime adviser to the Prince of Wales, opted instantly for the battered Arndale Centre in Manchester. "When the IRA bombed it," he said, "the only solace for a lot of people was that they had chosen the ugliest building in the city. Everyone thought it would be demolished because it was beyond repair. But having now spent more on repair than on building it in the Sixties, that clearly won't happen."

Its sin? "It is an out-of-town shopping centre in the middle of a city. A city is not just about shopping, it is also a civic statement where people come together to advance civilisation. To ignore quality and manners in urban style is rude. The Arndale Centre does all that."

So to Bath, where Richard Feilden of Feilden Clegg Associates also had no doubts, selecting the Hilton Hotel on the edge of the city centre: "It is," he judged, "a totally unadorned slab from the early Sixties with a complete lack of proportions. If you look down on the city, the single most noticeable feature after the Abbey is this wretched hotel built in cast stone. It isn't even proper stone."

Owen Luder, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, selected for London the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which sits pinkly on the Elephant roundabout. "It never did work and it's an eyesore."

In Birmingham, Tony Lloyd of Peter Hing and Jones chose the Copthorne Hotel at the bottom of Centenary Square. "A glass box," he sneered. "It could have been a sparkling jewel, but it's a bit of a black hole. If there was some open space there it would make a nice green lung around the library."

In Coventry, Michael Partridge of Michael Partridge Partnership chose a 10-year-old shop and office development in Broadgate that crassly obstructs a view of the ancient cathedral tower from the pedestrian precinct.

In Newcastle, Warren Barnett of Ian Darby Partnerships picked two early Seventies office blocks at the bottom of the city's Bigg Market which hog the site of the old town hall (a fine Georgian building, they say). "You would think `I could be in any horrible down-town business area'," says Barnett. "It's smoked glass, steps, brick and glass at ground level, brick panelling above that. If the buildings were not there, you would be looking at St Nicholas Cathedral and part of the old castle and part of Gateshead. There's no civic centre, it was never designed, so this could become the piazza."

Stephen Hodder, the Manchester-based winner of this year's pounds 20,000 Stirling Prize for architecture, was at first waspishly specific - he chose the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield - but then raised his sights. "All out of town shopping centres," he added. "Meadowhall, Gateshead Metro, Lakeside on the M25 ... the problem is that they are such huge retail units, surrounded by seas of cars. The architectural expression is inevitably a veneer, and that veneer is whatever is fashionable at the time. What we should be thinking about is the 24-hour city." Out-of-town centres contribute specifically to the decay of cities, revving up the exodus that gobbles up more prized space.

Finally, the Sussex and London architect Michael Hymas chose Churchill Square, another Sixties development in the centre of Brighton: "It's a complete and utter disaster," he raged. "You could have had a wonderful terraced space on that site, possibly with open vistas of the sea. Instead, they built a windswept, bleak place that is ugly and unexciting. In fact they are redeveloping it, but I'm sure it will just be a classic Nineties shopping mall - a mini-Arndale on a potentially brilliant site."

The links between all these buildings glare from the detail. Every one is modern. Most are shop or leisure developments. The choices say something about an agreement of taste, and something else about the links between materialism and modern culture.

If readers agree that our urban and rural space could be improved by the elimination of old eyesores rather than the construction of new ones, I am sure The Independent's Letters Editor would be happy to hear their suggestions.