Nottingham and the fall of civilisation
When a city is crushed by concrete, there’s nowhere left to go when it crumbles
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.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
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:
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.
Nottingham city centre is reasonably well served with older buildings. It is instructive to note the Trip to Jerusalem and others carved into the rock are still serviceable after hundreds of years but the Broad Marsh lasted 40ish. A city centre park would be a good idea. Certainly more worthwhile than more shops.
The answer is so clear, build shiny new ‘Khrushchyovka’.You know, the Stalinist housing apartment complexes so incompatible with healthy human society, but will cheaply house large amounts of low income folk and still look the same no matter how neglected or graffiti covered, gotta warehouse those economically inactive people somewhere.
Mate, I don’t think they were ever shiny, they picked up the nickname “khrushchyoba” more or less straight away because they were worse quality than the nice Stalinist apartment complexes (classy external architecture, high ceilings, no piss in the stairwells) you seem not to like. I lived in a khrushchyovka for a couple of years: it was fine. I was on the top floor and there was no lift, but it’s good for your fitness and I still run up the stairs at work 20 years later.
They’ve more or less wiped them out in Moscow, not because they were incompatible with healthy human society, but because they, as 5 storey buildings, were taking up space that could be filled by a 30 storey building. Many people were unhappy that their small scale khrushchyovka was being demolished for more faceless dehumanising towerblocks and they’d get dumped in a new flat somewhere on the outskirts..
“Modernism, on the other hand, begins with a city and ends in a wilderness”
A great metaphor for post modernism?
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.
And both seem to have a habit of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath-water’. Or, at least, not caring what happened to the baby.
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!
So…just the rest of Leicester to go, then?
Lets be honest, it was an eyesore when it was first built – the anchor tenant was the Co-op! There were never enough retailers to fill both it and the Victoria Centre, of which it was always the ugly cousin. Bear in mind though, the buildings it replaced were yet more horrible (basicly, slums).
Oi! Modernism isn’t the same as modernity. Try Harder.
A return to nature seems preferable to another round of expansive, top-down central planning which only seems to sap our spirit further. We’ve been failing to transfuse lifeblood into our culture for 70 years now, we can’t prolong the fall forever.
Maybe the wetlands will do us some good and will raise a generation who aren’t pathologised into thinking the state can cure all ills. Perhaps they’ll even take it upon themselves to drain the swamp of their own volition!
Nah, what am I thinking? This time we’ll do it better, right? How hard can it be to get right? This time, less concrete and more solar panels! That’s sure to spark the dynamism we so desperately need…
How about a tastefully executed new housing project?
We’re always being told about the great need for affordable housing.
The retail-and-dining focused development that was due to open in Southampton recently, in similar circumstances after a derelict shopping centre has been knocked down, has been changed to a more housing-focused plan in light of changing economic conditions.
Could work in Notts too.
I suppose it would always provide somewhere for the street drinkers to congregate. Always supposing they didn’t end up in the ponds. They’ll likely go with housing in the end which is ironic as that was what was there before as the slums of Narrow Marsh. I can’t feel much investment in it as likely we’ll leave before long and we never visit the town centre much anyway, it feels somewhat soulless these days.
And cancel Christmas! Oh wait, right city but wrong century…
Ahh yes, Rewilding. Part of UN Agenda 21 https://onlinelibrary.wiley…
Good modern buildings will last. Bad ones won’t. The trick is to know which is which before they are built.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe