To anyone around my age who grew up in Portsmouth, the Tricorn Centre is likely to be remembered a bit more fondly than most of our parents latter-day opinions on it. By the mid-nineties it had become a kind of concrete dystopia in which graffiti, happy hardcore and skateboarders reigned. It was something to explore in those long summers of adolescence, and was as large and mysterious as adulthood itself seemed. I remember in the first year of secondary school a few of us explored an odd staircase on one of its upper floors that lead down to darkness, oil drums and a corridor to a large locked door. Of course, we were convinced the door held darks secrets behind it. A bit later a mate of mine, like probably hundreds of others over the years, used the site for an art project. He climbed one of its inverted ‘L’ shaped towers to find a mattress and a canpipe, darkness of a type but probably more prosaic than what our younger selves had it mind.
As young metallers, we were regular visitors to the Laser Quest in the west side of the building. It was straight out of the visual world of Tsukamoto films and Blade Runner; KLF and Strapping Young Lad videos. Taken as a whole, it must been a compelling symbol of the narrative of national decline that defined in the Major years for those of a certain age and persuasion, certainly growing up in Portsmouth in the early nineties even as a young teenager the rave scene was still very much evident. Like the Tricorn that subculture seemed something sinister if exciting – a rather unsettling proposition of hedonistic impulse and unpleasant aftermath; growing up in Portsmouth you were never short of pill-ruined fucknuts to talk bollocks with over a spliff.
Portsmouth City Museum is currently marking ten years since the Tricorn’s demolition with the small but information-packed exhibition Controversy in Concrete. Laying out the buildings genesis as a ‘Shopcentre’, a neologism that signified its Brutalist attempt at a new kind of social environment. There was trouble almost from its opening in 1966. The site never found the brand name tenant for the large retail unit that was partly the premise of the development. The pub, The Bell, in short order became notorious for its violent clientele. The nightclub was more successful, and became a well known south coast venue for a time in the 1970s, but the general atmosphere of the greater site, especially the floors of car park space, was generally seen as cold, isolated and with a latent potential for danger.
The nine flats that were part of the development rather quickly acquired damp and ventilation issues. Like the previously demolished Portsdown Park housing estate at the other end of the city they would later be condemned as unfit for habitation. When the market traders were moved off the high street into the ground floor of the complex complaints of an unpleasant working environment, lack of trade due to customers voting with their feet and theft from stalls in the dingy surroundings were common.
Rather oddly, for something so absolutely based around the idea of a future way of building, there was another problem in its design. Its marvellous spiral roads that led to the upper floors proved to be too small as lorries became bigger, making deliveries to premises problematic. Even if the designers thought the future would be as social as the hopes they had for their creation suggested a large part of the building was given over to car parking facilities. It seems a bizarre lapse, as if the small goods vehicles of the mid-sixties would be the standard forever.
But the Tricorn was a genuinely beautiful building. The exhibitions makes clear that it had always had its partisans, both from an architectural background and from the community more generally. One of the best bits of the exhibition was a video by two guys who had, a bit like my mates and me, found inspiration in its as young people growing up. They explained what they liked about it, how it had distinct affinities with the electronic music they made and their sadness at the demise of one of the few genuinely different spaces in the town. Portsmouth is filled with both terraced housing and the historical architecture you’d expect in a town that for hundreds of years was a predominant military port. It is a town, like most perhaps, in which the mundane greets you at every corner, where the rush of the different seldom comes to chase away alienation like you might expect when something engages and excites you aesthetically and physiologically with hair-raising adrenaline.
The Tricorn, like all wild ideas that straddle the utopian and dystopian, had that effect. If there was latent danger, there was also that latent potential that all those who loved the building must have perceived: that social space could be different, exciting and point away from the past to a new future. Point to a future that is rid of banal homeliness, suffocating conformity and the lifetime of alienated labour we all knew was coming.
The failure of the Tricorn is the fate of such projects under capitalism. It could not work as a commercial enterprise because it needed the love and labour of those that consciously delighted in its environment.Its fall from favour with the majority of the town could only have been avoided by the democratisation of the space for public purpose. Without that love nobody wanted to be there for the drudgery of work and purblind consumption. Interesting and awe-inspiring public spaces that aren’t picture postcards but set alight the mind and have potential for collectivity perhaps should not all look like the Tricorn but in a society whose only limit was the limits of human labour surely some would.
Tricorn – Controversy in Concrete runs until 29th June 2014 at Portsmouth City Museum.