Thursday, 29 September 2011

Portsmouth and Woking: High-rises and Public Space

A comparison of two urban spaces, one  very successful and one less so.

Colin Rowe’s theoretical studies of urban design issues dealt with many issues, one of which was the relationship of tall buildings to public spaces. The role of the skyscraper can be seen as analogous to that of church spires in previous times: they provide a visual focus for the community and hence the design of public spaces around them must be considered in terms of how the public spaces and high-rise relate to each other.

A good example of this would be the two high-rises at Gunwharf Quarys in Portsmouth, Hampshire. The two towers, the Spinnaker Tower and Tower No. 1 also known as the Lipstick Tower were apparently inspired by the two main sources of power for driving ships: wind power and steam power. More to the point, there is clearly a thought-out relationship between the high-rises and the public spaces around them.

This is more than can be said for the centre of Woking in Surrey. At the Centre of the Town there is a square intended to be the social focus of the town. It contains entrances to the Library, the Civic Offices, the Peacocks Shopping Centre, the Town’s theatres and cinemas and the splendid red-brick Anglican church, ChristChurch. However, looming over the entire space is the presence of a concrete high-rise. The relationship of the high-rise and the square has not been thought out at all.

The centre of Woking is clearly undergoing a transformation. A sort of glass-circus feature is being constructed. It may improve the quality of the square but does not really address the issue of the relationship of the high-rise to the square.


The Peacocks Shopping Centre used to have a tower, on that was demolished to make way for the new development. It was refreshing to see a tower clearly designed in relation to the space it addressed.

 ( Photograph of Woking before alteration © Ron Strutt 2005 )


dirtycowgirl said...

If you were to see that view of Portsmouth (which is where I live!) from another angle there would be two old high rises in the background.

Gunwharf is well thought out though, the low rise flats that face the waterfront are quite in keeping with the older parts of the shoreline.

I guess it's a challenge to make newer buildings blend with older ones, and obviously you can't pull down council flats that house hundreds of people to make way for modern ones that people can't afford.
Well maybe they do.
There are a lot of flats in Gunwharf that are still empty.

Kieran Gallagher said...

Portsmouth is a problematic city, half ugly/ half beautiful.

Parts of it are really fine, along the seafront and further inland, such as the city hall , with it splendid Portland stone structure. I remember seeing Bob Dylan in concert there some years ago.

I suppose it’s rare in a British port city seeing the docklands areas actually part of the city centre. This is not the case in Southampton but is in Liverpool.

If there are flats in Gunwharf still empty then that’s a disgrace. I know some politicians are considering a tax on developers to make it financially worth their while putting them on the market.