Monday, September 24, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : Even The Queen Was Invited

Regeneration is inextricably linked to the past. If we ignore history we are doomed to repeat it, so goes the saying.

In a feature for Swindonweb (for the original piece, click here), I took a look back at the masterplan for Theatre Square...

The artist's impression of the view from Princes Street of the unbuilt Civic Hall. Copyright Swindon Collection.

You have to go all the way back to a rainy day in 1971 to pick apart the story of Swindon’s last major regeneration project in the town centre.

The confidence of the new plan for the Civic Centre development was so that the main phase to be completed, the Wyvern Theatre, was officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Philip on 5th November 1971.In driving rain, the ceremony was conducted with the dignitaries sheltering under the pavilion in Theatre Square. If ever a symbol for the difficulties of a major regeneration project is needed, a downpour on opening day (Guy Fawkes Night indeed!) fits quite well. 

The scale model of the intended development, which included a new Central Library, which was eventually built. Copyright Swindon Collection.

The Civic Centre project first arrived in the vision of Swindon’s planners in 1965, with architects Casson, Condor and Partners being asked by the local authority to produce a detailed brief for the works. They presented a document and a proposed development that was very much in the thinking of the sixties, strict segregation of traffic and pedestrians, overwhelming use of reinforced concrete and steel to create large spaces and a multi-storey carpark. 

The project aimed to create a hub of all the council-provided facilities in one area. The location was key, between the Town Hall to the south, the main shopping district, Regent Street to the west and a new dual carriageway to the east (Princes Street) forming the main transport route as part of a new ring road.

The space that was to be occupied by the new Civic Hall was left vacant and still exists as the Wyvern Car Park. Copyright Swindon Collection.
The original plan called for a theatre (originally designated an arts centre), library, post office, shopping arcade and civic hall. The access to all these was by large pedestrianised spaces and links east towards Spring Gardens and west to Regent Street with walkways raised above the traffic and streets below.
Theatre Square was completed, with shops and cafes on the ground floor, and offices above. Unless you were around to see the building works, you might not know a network of underground corridors and sub-basements exists beneath Theatre Square. These act as emergency exits and most importantly link to a loading dock underneath the main doors of the Wyvern Theatre for deliveries by road.

The pride on display with the opening of the theatre could also be interpreted as relief, as for several years up to 1971, Swindon was without a professional theatre.The previous facility large enough to accommodate full-scale productions was the Empire Theatre on the corner of Groundwell Road and Clarence Street, now where La Dolce Vita restaurant is.The confidence of the grand opening was to be undermined in the following years as the plan for the Civic Hall was dropped as the money ran out. 

By the mid 1970s, attention on regeneration had moved to the Brunel shopping Centre, with its railway station-inspired architecture of vaulted trainshed roofs and brushed steel supports.The Civic Hall would have been on the land now occupied by the Princes Street carpark. On the same level as the Wyvern Theatre, the building would have contained two halls, the larger with a capacity of up to 2000 people and smaller for a maximum of 300. Both spaces would have been fully-serviced, with bars, kitchens, cloakrooms and offices, depending on whether a wedding reception, orchestra performance, or conference was taking place. The larger hall was specifically designed for the accommodation of an orchestra, but was adaptable, with a dancefloor able to be laid down if Swindon decided to put it's dancing shoes on! 

The Theatre Square and Wyvern Theatre were completed as expected in the initial plan. The Wyvern carpark would have extended across Regent Close and into Regent Place, with the elevated walkway carrying on to Regent Street. 

Swindon came tantalisingly close to a full regeneration project being designed, commissioned, constructed and completed, but that one piece of the jigsaw, the Civic Hall, was not to be. The library did still happen, but we had to wait until 2008 to browse its shelves.

Time to get it right....

With the demolition of the former Swindon College, groundworks on the massive Union Square project and contracts signed for the Oasis Leisure Centre rebuild and expansion, Swindon has a platter of regeneration to get its teeth into over the next decade.

Only time, the uncomfortable bedfellow of regeneration, will tell if they are finished with all the pieces we hope for - and these two boys below, perhaps, who sat and watched the demolition of the former College building this week, can look back and finally say....

"It took a while.... but they got it right."

To see more images from the Central Library's fascinating photo collection, visit the Swindon Collection's Flickr here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The New Look For Retail... In Swindon?

Consumers are remaining cautious when it comes to shopping and for the retail giants innovation and marketing has become more important than ever. We've seen the growth of 'click and collect' at lots of retailers, but will a combination of the comforts of online shopping at the personal touch of great customer service drive the creation of a new type of store? That's what Marks & Spencer's thinking is.

Could new or redeveloped stores in the middle of Swindon be built around these principles?

While trialling new ideas in retail, could it drive regeneration too?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : The Empty College And The Lost Artist of Swindon College

Here's the booty I salvaged from a small empty office in the old Swindon College demolition back in May. Previously hanging on the wall, it was propped up behind the door against the wall, either from falling off, or maybe someone else had spotted it and was preparing to take it to another home?  

My question is, who painted it and who was it who liked it enough to have it framed and displayed on the wall?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : The Lost Treasures of Swindon

The science, mathematics and technology-themed artwork.

Sitting quietly amongst the wreckage of the old Swindon College, unnoticed, undamaged, were a few pieces of treasure. 

As briefly blogged about back in May, the stairwells of the main building had a piece of artwork on each half-landing. I don't know how long they'd been there, but I remember passing them on the stairs in 1999.

The music-based artwork can just be seen at the top of the stairs.
Sitting on pieces of plyboard, around 5 feet in height, the majority were in the main stairwell of the main block. A large landscape of Swindon was especially striking, with another being a collage of mathematic equations, chemistry symbols and scientific drawings.

Another was music-based, with musical notes on sheet music and portraits.

Does anyone remember the artwork?

I had intended to try and save them and possibly find a home for the pieces, but they were taken down in the stripping-out of the college.

However, all was not lost.

One piece, an abstract work created by a student was deemed good enough for a staff member to have it on the wall in an office on the 3rd floor. While on a site visit, I carefully carried it across the glass walkway between the main block and tower and edged down the crumbling stairs, passed the pieces that were not to be saved. In a large clip-frame, I carried it through town and took it home. 

It sits safe and saved. An often-asked question is, what would you save in a fire? What single, or handful of items would you drag out to safety. 

Maybe the question for some should be, what will you save from the regeneration? On demolition and construction sites workers often have the pick of items left behind or the few highlights poking from a skip due to go nowhere but landfill. 

The landscape artwork.

So amongst the faceless and everyday pieces of administration stuck behind empty filing cabinets and yellowing memos pined to noticeboards, the kings of these forgotten artefacts hung proudly on the walls, giving flashes of colour, creativity and the legacy of the college that will long outlive these pieces we lost in the rubble.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : Culture With Confidence

The Kentwood Show Choir in rehearsals at the Wyvern Theatre in May this year.

One of the 'shop window' areas covered in the draft Swindon Masterplan is culture. How does a town not popularly known for it's culture get that message out?

The answer is simple, put as much of it on display as possible and make sure everyone sees it.

Art Gallery : Section 4.2 (pages 56 and 57) makes the case for a new art gallery in the centre of town, to house the modern art collection, raising the profile of the collection, transforming the town centre through a big cultural anchor. It suggests exploring of possible sites, fundraising and getting it done quickly to win local support and involvement in art.

Theatre : The same section recommends the redevelopment of the Wyvern Theatre as a new performing arts centre, with a bigger capacity of 1,200 seat theatre/concert hall. It would also be the home of Swindon Dance.

Science and Engineering Museum : Investigate a Science and Engineering Museum to be in the town centre, in association with the Science Museum and the items they have in storage at Wroughton airfield. This would be heavily influenced by Swindon's own links to engineering achievements.

I'd also say a Science and Engineering Museum would be even more effective if it has a strong link to manufacturers (Honda and BMW), so that it's a living museum showcasing new items, ensuring that it is not simply covering a fixed period in history.

Let's get all our good stuff out of the loft and put it on display!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : Frozen In Time

You know a place is special when it gives off an atmosphere, a feeling that you can't quite put your finger on. These combine to convey the importance, effectiveness and the weight of a place.

With the crane still and the clock frozen at 11 minutes past 5.

 I had that feeling the instant I stepped into the Long Shop, the last remaining building on the old rail works site in Swindon without a use. The air had a thick smell of engine oil, no doubt the smell has seeped into the structure since it's opening in 1847. The thick walls and floor gave the place that cathedral-like peacefulness, there was no sound of traffic, or of passersby. A couple of times a train ran past and the calm was briefly interrupted.

The sunlight was streaming through the south-facing windows, giving a regular pattern on the dust-covered floor. The Long Shop originally closed for business in 1986 and is frozen in time. Stopped clocks are complimented by the locker-rooms which still have rail workers names on them.

26 years since Davies and Jones used these lockers in the former British Rail Long Shop

The owners of the Long Shop and the majority of the former Works site are Henderson Global Investors (who own the management company for the Outlet, McArthurGlen) and at the end of the month their plans for a £35 million extension of the centre into the Long Shop will be decided.

After so long, this place that hangs heavy with the memories of the past, will be visited by millions of people into the future.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Swindon's Regeneration : The Plan We've Been Waiting For

At it's core, regeneration is one person building something new out of nothing. A lone contractor at Swindon's Union Square.
One of the criticisms of Swindon's development has been it's lack of joined-up-thinking, this applies very much to our town centre. With the publication of the Swindon Masterplan Draft, a document is finally worthy of consideration for fixing that problem.

At 203 pages, it covers a vast number of areas, with detailed plans for each.

On first glance, it seems to do two things of immense importance that have historically been seen as only repelling each other. It recognises the historic details of areas (continuing streets on that have previously been obliterated) and how best buildings can be located or adapted for future focus and relevance (the recladding of the Signal Point building is a realistic prospect, unless money becomes forthcoming to replace one landmark with another that's of greater aesthetic value).

I'll look at the masterplan in greater detail soon. But the public exhibitions for the consultation on it (everyone's feedback will shape how the finalised masterplan turns out) start on Tuesday at the Central Library, details here.

Swindon's Regeneration : Cluttered By Space

An Artist's impression of Fleming Way after the Union Square development. With a vast increase in the amount of usable public space, The Parade underpass has gone with a wide 'shared space' crossing in it's place.

Urban regeneration is not just about what you build, but the space you create. In many ways, the space a building gives outside it's walls is more important than the space it has for use within.

The majority of Swindon's streets and it's retail core is strictly stuck in the 1970s pedestrianisation era in regard to it's use of space. Regent Street, Bridge Street and Canal Walk were made into spaces for people to walk safely in whilst shopping than dodging cars, vans and buses. The majority of UK towns and cities have main shopping centres based on this principle, but a policy of gradual improvement stopped for Swindon in the mid nineties and has only recently restarted.

Pedestrianisation is the simple principle of allowing people walking to take priority over all other transport methods. But like motor vehicles, routes need to be correctly paved, uncluttered, of the correct capacity and with street furniture and building design that allows a degree of wayfinding.

If you take a simple journey from The Parade to the bus station you can witness the historic stagnation of our public realm. The wide space of The Parade outside Debenhams allows people to spread out, but then you are funnelled into the subway beneath Fleming Way, whilst dodging people coming down the slopes from above and the shops either side of the subway entrance. From being in a space that was 40 feet wide, to a low subway, with barely 10 feet of width within just a few steps. Reaching the other side of the subway, the steep approach ramp is not wide enough, the funnelling effect in evidence, with pedestrians dodging those coming the opposite way and from the two slopes and steps from Fleming Way. The wayfinding is not in evidence for the bus station, there's little to intuitively give the feel a bus station is behind one of the Zurich TriCentre buildings. Taking the most direct route, at the back of Carfax Close, the path is narrow and obstructing the view are the pillars of the TriCentre, the route is then squeezed between the TriCentre and the bus station, until the walkway opens out into the narrow space of the bus station which has no waiting space for passengers. No visual warning is given that the bus station is immediately around the corner, the build quality, with no glass, windows or breaks in the dark coloured brick structure gives any cue. As a result of all these pedestrianisation issues, this short journey is aggressive, uncomfortable and unforgiving for the pedestrian.

The basic part of this journey, across Fleming Way, will be radically altered with the regrading of the road, putting the entire street on the same level, with pedestrians walking across the road in a far wider space. With the Union Square development, the improvement in the quality of the spaces around new and existing buildings is a main part of the design.

Good design can make the pedestrian experience in Swindon so much better.