A Great deal of Building
John Betjemen, poet, broadcaster and journalist, wrote of there being ‘very little architecture in Swindon and a great deal of building’ before going on to say that ‘Swindon, instead of being a West Country town, looked on its outskirts at any rate, like any industrial town anywhere.’
Well. Yes. Quite. Forgive me, I’m no expert here, but surely that’s rather the point? Swindon’s Old Town aside, it is a town born and reborn many times over from a rich variety of industry. Any industrial town anywhere is exactly what it is. On the surface at any rate. Scratch the surface and it’s actually a very interesting place but the surface is what we are talking about here. So let’s return to it.
“Let’s go to Swindon for a spa break” said no-one. “Let’s go to Swindon for jobs, homes and some economic prosperity” said thousands.
Ergo, the place is hardly likely to have Regency Arcades and grand Georgian crescents now is it? So frankly I’ve had enough of that particular criticism so often spewed at Swindon. Comparing Swindon’s architecture to that of Bristol, Bath and Cheltenham and finding it wanting is simply an exercise in futility. Time to move on methinks.
Betjemen was a fan of Victorian architecture. As it says on this website: ‘…he opened people’s eyes to the value of the buildings and landscape around them and became Britain’s grand champion of its heritage.’ Indeed he he campaigned with vigour to save St Pancras – amongst others – from the wrecker’s ball.
So we should at this point note that he was complimentary about Villett’s House in Old Town – which he apparently described as “the finest house in Swindon“. As this Swindonia Blogspot points out it bears a plaque stating this fact. The blog has some interesting photos of the house so is worth a peep.
From Industrial to Modernist
All of the above accepted Swindon is nevertheless home to a smattering of buildings that are, at the very least interesting, and in some cases significant. They may not be to your taste – but that doesn’t make them any the less valuable.
The town can boast buildings created by the great and the good of the architecture world and it’s my intention to look at some of them in more detail in further posts but they include:
- The Wyvern Theatre – Sir Hugh Casson
- The Renault Building/Spectrum Building – Norman Foster
- The Art Deco diving board at Coate Water – okay not strictly a building but it’s on the listed register
- The David Murray John Tower – Douglas Stephen
- The Link Centre at West Swindon – Installed by the then (1983) Thamesdown Council the design was undertaken in-house under the chief architect K P Sherry. This one is not necessarily of any particular significance (though someone might be able to enlighten me on that) but I do really rather like it.
The David Murray John Tower is a particular favourite of mine – I was as struck by that as I was by the public art when I came to Swindon. I absolutely love it. It’s like a giant exclamation mark standing proudly above the landscape from every direction. It’s the master of all it surveys.
See the DMJ tower in Brian Carter’s Flickr collection: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cartercollectables/8416944142/in/album-72157632555650730/
Jonathan Meades, a well-known writer, food journalist, essayist and film-maker has placed this building with its Modernist lines on his list of five extraordinary buildings.
So, for all these reasons, that will be the first building that I’ll explore in greater depth in later articles.
It was I think the late broadcaster Ray Gosling who said something about, when visiting a new place, to be sure and look up. Because that’s where the interesting things are to be seen.
And he was right. It is. And even here, in industrial Swindon, make the effort to look up and there’s many points of interest to discover.
NB: Photo of Coate Water diving platform by Maureen Illes and the photo of the Wyvern Theatre comes from the theatre itself. So thanks to them. The Flickr collection is owned by Brian Carter of Carter Collectables.