After Covid disrupted the demolition of Nottingham’s loathed Broadmarsh Shopping Centre, the city could do worse than look to the 1960s radical architecture group for a steer on the way forward, writes Harry Tindale, commended in RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition
In 1962, Archigram’s Peter Cook and David Greene proposed, in quintessential Archigram style, the Nottingham Shopping Viaduct – a satirical solution to Nottingham’s shift towards mass consumption. Archigram needs no introduction, but for the few that aren’t familiar with the group, they were the radical postmodernist paper architects of the 60s and 70s, looking to disrupt the stifling discourse of modernist architecture.
The Nottingham Shopping Viaduct is a brilliantly overambitious example of architecture viewed through the temporal lens – an oscillating space frame capable of anticipating the evolving needs of its users and adapting itself in order to meet them. The onsite cranes facilitate the rapid reconfiguration of u-shaped shopping units (in fact, the transportation of ‘anything from grand pianos to general goods’) within the viaduct, allowing for continual supply and maintenance, assisted by an underground service tunnel.
What relevance does Archigram’s napkin scheme have to Covid or Nottingham in 2021?
In a sombre turn of events, the pandemic caused shopping centre developer Intu to go into administration midway through demolishing Nottingham’s most loathed building, the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. The fall of the shopping giant has left a half-demolished 70s beige featureless block on the city’s most pivotal site. As someone who has always used the complex as a cut-through (as everyone does to get between the south and the north of the city), I was mildly elated at the prospect of a much-needed facelift, but now Nottingham endures more anguish. As the pernicious stagnation of the project continues its incessant saga, I see Archigram’s trope of temporary ad-hoc architecture to be the impetus for positive change at this contentious site.
Unsuccessful plans to demolish the Broadmarsh in 2002 and 2007 led to shopping centre giant Westfield’s £500 million revival scheme in 2011, but it withdrew the project to focus on ‘major iconic regeneration schemes’, leaving Nottingham with the highest percentage of vacant shops of any UK city at 30.6 per cent. CSC (later renamed Intu) came to the rescue in 2013, buying Westfield’s stake, but was immediately taken to court over the monopolising of Nottingham’s shopping since it already owned the city's Victoria Centre. The severity of the situation was highlighted when CSC put forward a revamp of the Victoria Centre, which Nottingham City Council held up in favour of action on Broadmarsh, insisting nothing could be done until it saw ‘bulldozers going into the Broadmarsh Centre’. But here we are in 2021, and the blood-sucking incongruous leech of Nottingham is too stubborn to let go.
For too long, cities like Nottingham have been viewed as products to be sold to consumers. Through Broadmarsh, Nottingham now has the potential to regain its civic identity
Intu has now handed ownership of the site back to the city council. So, what now?
It’s the power of Broadmarsh that has left me brimming with excitement. Though not a blank site, it’s a clean slate for Nottingham’s community. For too long, cities like Nottingham have been viewed as products to be sold to consumers through the clout of real estate trusts, scattering communities and causing wasteful cities. Through Broadmarsh, Nottingham now has the potential to regain its civic identity and be a pioneer of what UK cities can become.
The council began by opening discussions with the public. ‘The Big Conversation’ invited people to propose a solution to the Broadmarsh site. Nottingham Wildlife Trust’s headline-catching submission envisaged an urban oasis of wetlands and wildflower meadows. That scheme is a step in the right direction but has come too early. I believe a longing for Nottingham to be a bucolic utopia does not protect or enrich Nottingham's affected communities. We need to learn from the past in order to enhance the future.
The current open concrete frame is enticing benign bottom-up interventions through adaptive reuse, which in true Jane Jacobs fashion make it a microcosm for community engagement – a city within a city. In the way Archigram’s u-shaped units did not formalise the space with permanent shops, Nottingham’s thriving independent businesses could evolve the space at will, plugging into the existing structure but with far less garish technical hurdles. The space can then autonomously unfold for the users, devoid of an architect’s sweeping interjections where cultural, social and spatial networks overlap. It's obvious that previously rationalising Broadmarsh's space paradoxically created more chaos for Nottingham, so allowing an open unfettered terrain to signify Nottingham's identity.
I suggest it can be achieved through planning acts such as the Community Right to Build, allowing local people to put forward small site-specific interventions like the kiosks used in Gillet Square in Dalston, east London, and thus acquire the financial benefits resulting from trade to then be filtered back into Nottingham’s community. Inevitably as part of this planning regulation, a corporate body is needed as a legal entity. Step forward The Nottingham Project, which is a new board looking to rejuvenate the city in this state of flux. Its goal is to make Nottingham ‘THE city for creativity for the 2020s and beyond’. With a community-led body driving the Broadmarsh’s future it will ensure the present resources are better used and we are not waiting on the city council's arbitrary decision-making.
So it seems as if Archigram has had the last laugh, smugly sailing its familiar flag of ‘I told you so'. Although its scheme is not buildable, it never asked you to learn from the abnormal shop forms but from how we should approach the way architecture interlaces with time. The variability of the shopping viaduct promotes a resistance to change, and counters the static forms of modernity that have suffocated Nottingham’s growth. Hence, Broadmarsh's interventions should be ephemeral, in similar vein to Archigram, so as not to leave permanent marks on the already deeply scarred landscape; to give provisional function to the obsolete site through minimal means.
As of August 2020, D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership has loaned £8 million to the city council for the recommencement of demolition. Why not pause, allow time for the community to inhabit the space, and, when there is a defined plan, embark on what will be the happily ever after of Broadmarsh?
Harry Tindale is a Part 1 at Hugh Broughton Architects
This competition was run in collaboration with RIBA Future Architects Network
Read more of the best entries from the RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition