by Peter Franklin
Monday, 7
December 2020

Nottingham and the fall of civilisation

by Peter Franklin
A half-finished Broadmarsh Centre, Nottingham.

What do you do with a modernist building when it isn’t modern anymore?

They don’t age well. They’re hard to adapt to new uses. And, as I argue here, the very idea of conserving this kind of architecture is hypocritical.

One option remains: replacement. But what with?

That’s a question that the burghers of Nottingham have been wrestling with. The Broadmarsh shopping centre is a derelict 1970s eyesore. The Guardian reports on a radical proposal for the site’s redevelopment:

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has come up with a new model of inner city regeneration: urban rewilding. The trust wants to bulldoze the already half-demolished Broadmarsh building and turn it into 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of scruffy green space at an estimated cost of £3-4m.
- The Guardian

Key features would include “ponds surrounded by reeds, crocus meadows and wet grasslands”.

Normally, an old shopping centre would be replaced by a new shopping centre. But with the big high street names falling like nine-pins right now, that doesn’t seem to be an option. Indeed, the retail operator that was redeveloping the site has gone into administration.

New habitats for wildlife are great, but there’s a hint of fall-of-civilisation here. Our cities have grown up over centuries, if not millennia. Farmers tamed the wilderness and built their barns and cottages. Hamlets turned into villages, which grew into towns. Eventually, the biggest towns became cities. Buildings would have been torn down and rebuilt many times: wood replaced by brick replaced by stone. Yet there would have been continuity too – organic development on a human scale within a familiar pattern of streets.

But, then, after countless generations of evolution, came the revolution. Traditional townscapes were erased, and modernity imposed like an alien monolith.

Now we can see that this brave new world was a dead end. When the walkable, mixed-use, gentle density of a living city is crushed beneath tonnes of concrete, there’s nowhere left to go when it crumbles. One might as well return it to the wilderness. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

I’m far from the first to point this out, but the Bible begins in a garden (Eden) and ends in a city (the heavenly city in the Book of Revelations). Modernism, on the other hand, begins with a city and ends in a wilderness.

Join the discussion

  • For Nottingham read Leicester, at least as it was through the 1970s.
    I used to visit my parents there every few months, and each time another bit of handsome old Leicester had been bulldozed.
    The apogee of hideosity was a shiny red-tile fish market, glowering down from its hulking seven-stories directly onto a fine 1500s half-timbered shop. I believe it was the oldest commercial property in the city.
    But things change at last ““ that ugly fish market has been demolished!

  • There is (to my mind at least) a noticable parallel between urban planning and social engineering. Both start from a position of distrust, distaste and even contempt for tradition and both wish to impose intellectually devised systems on the population with as little input as they can get away with from those whose lives will be most affected by the creation of this “new and improved” world.

  • “Modernism, on the other hand, begins with a city and ends in a wilderness”
    A great metaphor for post modernism?

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