TrustNews August 1987

 

The Trust’s Comments on the Brooks Exhibition

 

The Trust’s Comments on the Brooks Exhibition (as submitted to Winchester City Council)

 

Introduction

 

There is nothing that the Trust would like to do more than praise the outcome of this competition. We shrink from the task of criticism after so much evident hard work and ingenuity has been expended, not only by the three finalists and nine runners-up, but by all the City officers, members and consultants involved. But the suitability of the scheme for the centre of Winchester will not be judged by posterity on the basis of good intent and effort, and it is the Trust's responsibility to try and make this judgment in advance.

 

We are especially qualified to do so, having spent, as a body, the last 30 years concentrating on Winchester's environmental problems. The Trust grows and changes, but its principles and experience develop, and the diversity of skills contributing to Trust opinion removes the risks both of vested interest and lack of realism. The following comments are a consensus view contributed in earnest debate by people ranging across the spectrum of commercial, artistic, historical, professional and, not least, plain but well-informed citizen and user opinion.

 

The fact that it has been comparatively easy to reach a consensus view in the circumstances is in itself significant. We earnestly beg members of Winchester City Council to heed what we say, and not proceed on the basis of expediency - the familiar cry of the pragmatist "we must get on with it". The heritage that we have from the past is of such unparalleled importance to Winchester that we must see to it that the heritage we give to the future is not based on such philistine values. Even in ten years' time another year or two at this stage will be of little consequence, but a mistake on so large a scale would mar Winchester's character forever.

 

The Exhibition

 

Although it is a pity that the City did not provide a take-away synopsis of each scheme, we have no difficulty in praising the quality of the exhibition and the wealth of information provided; that the models produced for scheme C seemed poor, for example, is only because the others were superb. But it is a sad, sad reflection on the City's past record of public participation that this vitally important exhibition was only fully on display for one week in July and that there were rarely sufficient experts to discuss the schemes with the public (as has always been the case before), and that the forms supplied for opinion-gathering should have been so superficial.

 

We find it hard not to sympathise with those who feel that the authorities are not seriously interested in public opinion on this occasion, and that the decision has already been settled behind closed doors - probably on purely financial grounds, of which no information has been provided for public debate. Even other City Councillors, we learn, were discouraged from sitting-in on the official working party's sessions, and when the Trust made attempts, firstly to give its opinion on Winchester's character to competitors, and later made tentative enquiries of them to the possibility of an exhibition of die losers, we were officially criticised for interfering in "the Council's competition" and threatened with an end to our "special relationship".

 

The Schemes

 

(a) Character. In general the feeling about all three schemes is that they lack any sense of identity with Winchester. There is great lip service to "Winchester vernacular" but none of the schemes reflects the City's familiar streets. There is no extension of the townscape of central Winchester, which is particularly serious because the physical relationship is so close.

 

We looked in vain for that sense of outdoor closure which characterises the High street area and which should be a fundamental element of any large-scale central redevelopment here. Do the people of Winchester really want a closed-in block, however trimmed with gables and turrets? Is this universal, Home-Counties, artificial, hypermarket-type ambience what visitors to a historic city will be drawn to see? Frankly, the architectural quality displayed would hardly be acceptable in any other town of character; the inevitable Juggling with form and materials to satisfy the conflicting requirements of the brief is a sure recipe for disaster.

 

(b) Commercial Content. Basically the schemes are equally dominated by car parking and shop floor space, and all three schemes have shoe-horned these requirements of the official brief into the space available. Much ingenuity has been spent on trying to make the results attractive, but the market, the housing, the restaurants and landscaping seem like sops to the brief rather than fundamental elements of the schemes. Everyone's desire to see this area remain alive at night would seem to have little chance of fulfilment on the basis of these proposals. There is no knowing how the shop area would be used.

 

This is a background problem for all city centres, of course, where planners now have even less control than before over privately owned sites. Here, for once, there was a unique opportunity for the City to use its powers as owner to dictate or influence shop types, but the brief ensured solutions over which there is no control.

 

For example, there is mounting popular complaint over the increasing proportion of multiples in the city centre; the brief could have responded to this, whereas these schemes would probably result in a further increase in the number and size of the multiples in Winchester. We have already made a strong plea for an area restricted to small shops, but find no lasting hope for the small shopkeeper in any of the schemes. The City made a brave but hopeless (and potentially expensive) stand over the reduction in number of small shops on someone else's land; why, oh why would the authors of the brief not make small shops an element of development on this publicly-owned land?

 

(c) Housing. There was no requirement for housing in the brief, only a suggestion, and it is to the credit of two schemes that any housing was included at all. However, the lack of importance inferred from the brief is evident in both solutions. Scheme B has a few miserable houses on a sliver of land used to hide a lorry service ramp, and scheme C gave no details of its roof-top suburban bungalows, access to which ensures that they would play no part in the life of the scheme.

 

(d) Parking etc. The Trust has explained at length its view that any provision for public parking on this site is a mistake, primarily because it will perpetuate the present traffic congestion on central area roads which lead to and from the car park - roads which should have pedestrian priority. This congestion is not, of course, apparent on models dotted with one or two polite little cars, but the present level of pedestrian/vehicle conflict, exacerbated by the proposed 30 per cent or so increase in central area shopping space, should not be beyond imagination. And once imagined, is there anyone who could claim that the development would improve the centre of Winchester?

 

The other reasons why the Trust is opposed to the parking provision are more apparent. With these schemes there would certainly be an improvement in the ambience of Middle Brook Street and the lower end of St. George's Street (though little advantage seems to have been taken to improve St. George's Street, except in the case of the pentice in scheme B), but the Friarsgate extension and Upper Brook Street would be extremely unpleasant places for pedestrians, not only in terms of traffic, but because of the traffic-dictated character of the new buildings facing on to these streets and the inevitable engineers' "improvement" of corners.

 

Eye level judgment of the models is difficult because of the surrounding buildings, but it is one of the most important tests which responsible judges should undertake, with the aid of a simple periscope.

 

However, the greatest influence of the parking provision is its effect on the structure of the whole development, which we atempt to investigate under the next heading.

 

(e) Economics. It has been very difficult to comment properly on any aspect of the exhibition in the time available, but it is almost impossible to make a rounded judgement because the financial factors have not been made available to the public at any time. However, whilst we were only able to guess at our predictions of disaster when studying the brief, we are now able to draw some conclusions from the outcome of the brief as displayed in the three selected schemes.

 

It can only be the conditions of the brief which has resulted in three schemes so similar in their solutions. Given a specific shopping area and a specific number of car parking spaces, it seems that as we feared, this type of development was inevitable. For Winchester it is a gross overloading of the site which could not result in anything but an alien intrusion.

 

Despite, or perhaps because of, the common solution of two-tier underground parking, the site has been treated as a single building pierced by corridors and halls in order to maximise the use of every square inch of space. We are told that the underground car park is a practicable solution, but we are not told how much it would cost. We suspect that to overcome the ground conditions and high water table the cost must be enormous, and it is this which governs what happens above ground level in all three schemes.

 

The competitors have shown great ingenuity in meeting the challenge presented to them, and we cannot fault their decision to put all the cars below ground faced with the conditions of the brief. But we contend that they have solved a difficult and irrelevant problem.

 

In general terms the Trust does not believe that the ratepayers would put financial return as their first priority for the development of this site, and historically there is no need for it either because the land was acquired for us by the City for a very small outlay some 35 years ago. But we are no more able to be certain of what the citizens want than is the Council, which is why we advocated public participation in the preparation of the brief.

 

On the other hand, we do not think that financial considerations should be taken lightly. alternatives to the present solution are not necessarily financial losers. There is, for example, good commercial reason to believe that a scheme with half the parking provision, or none at all, could be just as profitable to the City. But circumscribed by the brief, the real ingenuity of developers could not be tested by this competition.

 

Conclusion

 

The Trust is unable to support any of the three schemes as an appropriate solution for the redevelopment of the Brooks, and is therefore reluctant to draw careful comparisons between them in this commentary, knowing the tendency for quotations out of context. There are good and bad features in each which we shall assess separately out of respect for the architects and for future reference. But on the central question, we can only responsibly ask the City Council to think again before committing Winchester to a solution which at best is banal and at worst could be disastrous.