Monday, October 10, 2011

Architects and Wolverton

Wolverton, for the most part, remains an architect-free zone.

At the beginning, the first Engine Shed was designed by an architect, although Edward Bury, the first Locomotive Superintendent, was not inclined to give the architect a free hand. The first houses, in fact all the streets, were laid out and constructed by builders, mostly by Dunkley of Blisworth. Architcets were not involved as they were with Swindon and Crewe, and you could argue that it showed.

The church and vicarage of St George (1844) was designed by an architect, and architects were called in to design the Church Institute in 1908. I don't know about the first school (now the library) on Creed Street (1841) but I imagine an architect was used. This was certainly the case with the Science and Art Institute, which burned down in 1970. The twentieth century schools, Church Street, Aylesbury Street, Moon Street and The Radcliffe School were all designed by architects.

I don't know if the Victoria Hotel, The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club used architects - they may have done.

In more recent times, the modern flats and high rise tower that replaced the "little street" terraces were designed by architects, as was the Agora and presumably the Tesco development.

I suppose the question I might ask, "Is there any architectural heritage in Wolverton?"

The Aylesbuty Street and Moon Street schools have some visual appeal, and the church - well, it is what it is - a 19th century gothic revival church, but too modest in scale or decoration to be impressive. The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club have some decorative appeal but I suspect they would not win prizes. The Church Institute is functional but quite boring. Some of the houses on the Stratford Road, Church Street, Oxford Street and The Square have some embellishments on their frontages. The general impression of 19th century Wolverton is that of red-brick uniformity. You have to look very carefully to see the imaginative detail.

Which leaves us with the Agora, the Gables Tower and associated flats and the Radcliffe School.

All of those concrete and steel and glass buildings of the 1960s were built with function and cost in mind and not much of a nod to the aesthetic. It seems odd to me in retrospect that we once admired the clean functional lines of 1960s architecture. I doubt if they will be much mourned when the time comes for their demolition.

The Agora had possibilities and I think the designers were genuine in their attempt to provide a central architectural feature for Wolverton. They failed in my view. The huge block divides rather than unites the town's commercial areas, and it closed off Radcliffe Street which was one of Wolverton's arterial streets. Inside, accommodating what appears to me to be a flea market, the atmosphere is gloomy. The exterior, although imposing, is unlovely. There is more than a hint of some clever twentieth century brain trying to patronise the practical Victorians who built Wolverton.

That's my opinion. Here is that of Iqbal Alaam, an architect:
Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without playing second fiddle to anyone.
This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.
To be balanced, the Agora does have (did have?) some potential, but whatever potential it did have was spoiled by the siting of the building. I have discussed this before (here) and had it been built to the west of Radcliffe Street the story might have been a different one. I have not had to live with the Agora but what I gather from Wolverton residents is that it is an unloved building.

My conclusion has to be that Wolverton has been poorly served by architects over 170 years. Will this change?

3 comments:

Andrew said...

Aylesbury Street School (Wyvern):

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-487997-wyvern-first-school-wolverton-and-greenl

Andrew said...

I'll do it as a link:

Aylesbury Street School (Wyvern):

Andrew said...

Here is a bit more information