Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Blot on the Landscape - Theatre Severn

Look at it, I mean just look at it. This is the Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury. It has to be one of the most unattractive modern buildings you’ve ever seen.

Architectural Mediocrity by the River
Every time I go there (and I go there quite a bit) I drive out of the car park mentally scribbling away at a piece for my blog, ranting about just how boring and ugly the place is. I must have written the piece in my head about a dozen times over the last year, but finally, I’m sitting down to put “pen to paper”, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s just the outside that upsets me. What goes on inside is really good. I am a great fan of live theatre. If ever the marketeers who look at these things tried to home in on the typical potential customer for such a venture then, Yep, I’m Yer Man. Over the couple of years since the new theatre has been open, the shows they have put on have given me a serious amount of pleasure. Alan Ayckbourn plays, concerts, several Ballets, a couple of brilliant Pantomimes, singers like Elkie Brooks – even Giles Brandreth rabbiting on for an evening – all have entertained me extremely. 

But that’s on the inside. It’s when you get outside it that your (or at least my) head drops. Who on earth designed the thing? Shrewsbury is a really attractive town which sits on Britain’s longest river, the Severn, as it flows around the Town Walls in a beautiful sweep. So you’ve got a Heaven-sent, once in a lifetime site for it all, sitting alongside a lovely stretch of the Severn that most towns would give at least their eye teeth for. As a backdrop to the theatre, there is a lovely graceful bridge which elegantly arcs over the river. So what then do “they” do? They erect a showpiece building, using MY money I might point out, which looks for all the world as if their design inspiration was a dilapidated and unloved 1960s Secondary School.

Yes, Yes I know Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder and all that, but apart from the Architect’s mother (and, having thought about it, I wouldn’t even put a huge bet on that actually) and possibly the wretched individual on the Council who had responsibility for its final approval, I refuse to believe that there is a single person in the town who can look on it with anything other than varying degrees of loathing.

Go on then, find one. And when you’ve got past the sheer uninspired blandness, unconnectedness and nothingness of its shape, then look at the detailing on it. It seems to have been constructed from nasty beige Breeze Blocks, old lavatory bricks and some reclaimed bits of fencing nicked from one of the local Council’s allotments. Even the naming on it, which should proudly proclaim such an important undertaking seems to have been a total afterthought, designed to be unreadable and invisible from anywhere it might be viewed.

This is what it looks like after about 2 years - very, very depressing

This is the entrance - a structure for which the word
"unprepossessing" was coined 
Now I am absolutely and utterly NOT a “Prince Charles” Luddite as far as modern architecture is concerned. Some of it is fabulous, and, done properly, can change for ever the way a town or city is perceived.

As an example, go to Birmingham and marvel at the Selfridges building. It’s only a department store, but what a terrific looking building.

Wander around the City of London, and you will still be astonished at Richard Rogers’ incredible Lloyds Building, so fresh after 20 years.

Further afield, think how Geary’s fabulous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has completely transformed that city into a major visitor attraction.

Look with unprejudiced eyes at London’s Millenium Dome. See it at sunset from across the river, and it’s a remarkable sight.

Think about how a building like Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, once derided for looking more like a Nun’s Scrum, became an icon for new Australia. 

Be amazed at the daring of the Pyramid outside the Louvre.

The common factor in all these buildings is Bravery. Having the vision, and the balls to do something out of the ordinary. Not taking the safe option. Yes, occasionally it goes wrong, but so often, over the years, the leap into the unknown turns into something great.

Yes, I know that Shrewsbury is not Paris or London or Birmingham, and it has far less resources at its disposal than these other large cities. But the fact is that the new Theatre Severn cost around £28 million, and, however you look at it, that’s a lot of money. Enough, you’d think, to buy you a design you can be proud of – if that’s what you want and set out to achieve. This building is going to be around for many decades, and there are enough examples around where inspirational design does not cost the earth. All you need is the person with the inspiration.

Architecture is the only art form I know where the general public are exposed to it, whether they like it or not. If you don’t want to go to a concert, or a play or visit a museum, then the answer’s simple – Don’t Go. Which fact, on its own, is a good enough reason for those responsible to try harder when they are building something new and important with public money. I don’t know whose fault it all is. Architect or Client? Or conceivably “person or persons unknown” as the police like to call it, but I can’t for the life of me think who they might be.

So on the one hand, there’s the Client, who I suppose is, or was the Shrewsbury and Atcham Council, and on the other there’s the Architect – Austin-Smith:Lord. To my simple mind, if the fault in it is the design brief from the Council, then any self-respecting architect should be prepared to decline the work, or make such a fuss that the client realises the error of his ways, and gets them to pull their socks up and improve the brief. You'd like to think of them as the conscience of the observer.

If it’s the Architect who isn’t coming up to scratch, then the Council should tap them firmly on the shoulder and get them to put someone on the job who can fulfil their (and our) expectations. No doubt, if you ever tried to get to the bottom of it, all you’d get is a gaggle of mutually pointing fingers. ‘Twas ever thus. My only wish is that someone had asked my opinion before signing it off! That would have been one fence on which I would not have sat.

If you look around it all now, it’s all a bit sad. The Architects Austin-Smith:Lord are in the process of filing for Insolvency and the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council disappeared in 2009 as one of the consequences of this country’s permanent process of local government rearrangements, so any thought of actually finding anyone to shout at has probably disappeared as a result. The outside of the building looks in desperate need of a bit of TLC, with the recycled allotment fencing crying out for a lick of something to stop it rotting in front of us, making an unattractive building even worse.

So I will continue to be disappointed and a bit depressed whenever I look at it on my visits there. The only good thing resulting from the current financial squeeze is that the Council don’t seem to want to spend any money on lighting it at night, so for the most part, it’s shrouded in darkness whenever I go.

It’s an Ill Wind …….

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