Sharon Haward’s installation at Southampton’s Bargate Monument Gallery gives an indication of the city that might have been.

Owen Hatherley

23 April 2010

Southampton is one of the British cities that town planning forgot. Once, it might have seemed like it was on the verge of municipal greatness in the 1910s it became Britain’s major commercial port after Liverpool’s decline, and planned itself around a still-impressive series of municipal parks. After devastation in the Blitz, its reconstruction was led by a talented city architect, Leon Berger, with fine work from the likes of Basil Spence, Eric Lyons and Ryder & Yates.

But ever since the 1980s, when containerisation and de-industrialisation hit, the town has staked everything on a huge, unplanned retail district, a series of decorated sheds spilling out from the medieval walls to the container port. Architecturally, it’s now a confused and miserable place.
Sharon Haward’s An Experiment in Town Planning, an installation in an art gallery in the attic of the city’s medieval Bargate, is a striking, moving reminder that Southampton could have been so much more than a giant retail park, and could still be. It resembles the sort of film set Fritz Lang might have assembled at the UFA film studios in Potsdam — cardboard cut-outs are dramatically lit to create a vivid cityscape, casting the shadowy outline of an expressionist skyline onto the walls.

As someone born and brought up in the city, I was ecstatic to see familiar landmarks GE Street’s St Mary’s Tower, the funnels of the cruise ships, the container cranes, the clocktower of E Berry Webber’s Civic Centre, the outlines of new brutalist schemes by Lyons Israel Ellis, or the chimney and dome of the Marchwood incinerator turned into something out of Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, except on a tiny scale that makes the visitor into a giant, surveying a fragmented city that could be rearranged into something coherent. Familiar landmarks are turned into something out of Metropolis.

It’s a simple idea, done with the minimum of fuss or conceptual baggage. The cut-out cardboard shapes are lit by normal domestic lamps, and on their backs you can still see their past as part of cardboard boxes something very apt, adjacent to a massive container port. These are painstakingly assembled into a convincing cityscape, and projected onto them are fragments of film footage, depicting the surfaces of the buildings around the rubble stone of the city walls or the concrete of the Brutalist estates, the signs for Toys “R” Us, Asda and the WestQuay megamall with the noise of trains and seagulls breaking the silence.

The thinness of the shadows, the lines of broken forms on the walls, immediately evoke the Luftwaffe attacks that hit this city more than most, while the clear silhouettes of the sixties buildings, rising out of the ruins, imply the false dawn of the city’s post-war recovery. But it’s all done through implication, it’s never didactic.

What is intriguing about Haward’s installation is that she has managed to make a very mundane part of the country exciting. Walking through inner Southampton, especially the dispiriting Big Box wasteland south of the Central Station, reveals a landscape which has tried very hard to make itself as boring as possible, and anything unusual the cancelled Richard Rogers scheme for the Vosper shipyards, say seems not to be for the likes of us.

It is, like many provincial English cities, afraid of itself, afraid of planning and afraid of urbanism instead it settles for banal dreams of American malls or mock-continental piazzas. An Experiment in Town Planning, without ever offering direct concrete proposals, suggests that Southampton could instead accentuate the weird and jarring elements of its own cityscape in order to truly fulfil its dormant potential.
23 April 2010