Friday 22 March 2013

My home town

Evan Davies, prompted by some educational pundit on Radio 4's Today programme the other day, asked peevishly: "Since when did schools get strap lines instead of mottos?" I suppose it all started about the same time that free market management newspeak came to dominate public discourse and public services were sold off to private companies. Change and decay in all around I see.

My school motto was FORTI NIHIL DIFFICILE and although I never knew what it meant at the time I suppose it translates as To the brave nothing is difficult. Or perhaps 'It's easy when you know how'.

The Borough Council in the town where I grew up and went to school had its own motto: PER MARE PER ECCLESIAM (By the sea, by the church), a literal topographical description of the original settlement and, perhaps, a nod to the dominant forces in the community. I remember the smart blue and cream liveried buses in my home town, each of which carried this coat of arms complete with the Latin motto:

Southend Borough Council

These days what's left of the local administration operates under an illiterately punctuated tadpole logo, and without, of course, the Latin tag:

I shan't bang on about this but it's quite horrible, what's happened to my old town, although hardly unique. The elegant Edwardian and Victorian centre, with its shady iron arcades and handsome technical college, was swept away and replaced in the 1980s by the vast and lumpen Hammerson Development, a shopping centre that was never popular and is now semi-derelict. The heart of the town was ripped out, the High Street pedestrianised. The corporation bus services were privatised, to be run by the ghastly Stagecoach. Now I learn that there are plans to close and demolish the only good modern building in Southend, the fine Central Library in Victoria Avenue (below). It's one of the best brutalist buildings in Essex - and perhaps the best brutalist library in the country. It was designed by the borough architect R. Horswell, completed in 1974 and features a wall clad in ceramic tiles, an abstract design by the little-known Fritz Steller.

Between 1969 and 1975, Steller produced some of the most dramatic and innovative postwar architectural ceramics seen in Britain, including ten enormous stoneware panels decorating Huddersfield's Queensgate Market (see below). His work is seriously undervalued and much of what little remains is under threat. I can't find an image of his work in Southend, but it's worth a look if you're passing. The only reference I can find to his work on the internet is here:

Fritz Steller: Huddersfield panels

I spent long hours in the Central Library reference section as a teenager. The building was spacious, airy and calm, and there was a small theatre and a sculpture court, a cafeteria and an exhibition hall. It was a popular place to study and an asset to the community. The very expensive replacement will be something called The Forum, housed in the plug-ugly university at the other end of the town - you know the kind of thing: some brightly clad shed with no books. I hope the old library (which I shall always think of as the new library) is saved. It would make a brilliant gallery/studio space, or what these days is called an arts hub, less than an hour from Liverpool Street (and two hours from Barcelona via the local airport). In fact it's halfway to being just that already, because in recent years the building has been host to the Focal Point Gallery - the most serious (some might say only) cultural achievement in the town's collective memory. It's very hip indeed, an the website is worth a look:

Central Library

One artist who has exhibited at Focal Point happens to be a friend of ours - Milly Thompson. She designed the poster below as a part of an imaginary campaign to save the building. Is there a real campaign? 

Image © Milly Thompson / Focal Point Gallery

There's another good piece of 1970s town planning a few hundred yards to the north - the Civic Centre, complete with a fountain sculpture based on the two figures in the Borough Council's coat of arms. I have no idea who the artist was, and the thing is usually covered in slimy green mould, but it's a reminder of the town when it had some kind of identity which occasionally presented itself through real architecture. 


  1. I and my architect colleague Alan Hardy persuded the council to Commision Willian (Bill) Mitchell to design the civic fountain. He also designed a reworking of the coat of arms which stands over the mayor's chair in the council chamber. We also commisioned the bronzt door to the west face (per mare per ecclesiam)Also a colleagure Tony Miller designed a special wallpaper based on the coa (long gone) See Lady Pat Gibberd's book on outside sculpture in the UK Give me a ring sometime David

  2. I'm glad there are people still interested in preserving and showcasing the beautifully economical, expressive, social and honest architecture of Victoria Avenue.

  3. English Heritage turned down the first application for Listed Status. Very disappointing, as this is the only remaining 1970s building in Southend that is largely unscathed. The Lecture Theatre with yellow seats is also worthy of note (if still existing), as is the concrete car park fencing. The Steller tiled internal core was an inspiration; also serving to scatter incident sound waves thus reducing the interior noise level. (It was always warm, calm and serene.) Later re-carpeting was not acknowledging of the original geometric pattern in charcoal and grey (even if electrostatically charging)!