Places without history now have their own story to tellby Owen Hatherley / May 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Recently, Historic England listed a tranche of post-war office blocks. Most of them were in London, or in big cities like Leeds and Birmingham, but one of the largest—and the one that was usually used to illustrate the articles—was Gateway House (now Mountbatten House), built for the paper merchants Wiggins Teape and designed by Peter Foggo of Arup Associates in 1974. It is better known as the “hanging gardens of Basingstoke,” because of the way it integrates quite luxuriously crafted modern architecture—all black glass and travertine—with cascading gardens on its stepped roofs and balconies, creating an oddly post-apocalyptic sense of nature overtaking modernity. In the freak heatwave of mid-April, I set out to have a look at it, and got myself sunburnt in the process, which seemed apt. After all, this is the southern sunbelt, the town once called the “Dallas of Hampshire,” all sharp suits, big business, fast cars and smoked glass.
Basingstoke sits roughly equidistant between London, where I’ve lived all my adult life, and Southampton, where I grew up. On the frequent train journey between the two, Southampton would barely ever change, but Basingstoke constantly threw up new office complexes and blocks of luxury flats, seemingly enjoying a permanent boom while Southampton declined. I’d never get off the train to look at the town, having been alarmed by it on a visit as a teenager, by the way there seemed to be “no there there”—just an enclosed mall, ringed by motorways, with Barratt Homes suburbia around it and nothing much more. This, I melodramatically thought to myself, is what they want for all of us, lives lived around shopping, property and nothing else, in towns stripped of anything distinct.
But what if that lack of all the obvious signifiers of urban uniqueness—the historic buildings, the art galleries, museums and concert halls, the “vibrant street life”—is itself an identity? That’s what the recent listings of modern buildings in places like Basingstoke—and similarly novel places in the south like Harlow, Basildon, Bracknell, Reading, Stevenage suggest: that these places without history now have their own story to tell.
Basingstoke has been around for a while, but the bulk of what is there now is the result of it being designated a “London Overspill” area in the 1960s. This is an ugly…