JS Adams imagines a dystopian future for Portsmouth and its iconic landmarks, which may not be as far off as we might have hoped…
“…In a decaying society, art if it is truthful,
Must also reflect decay…”
What is the appeal of urban decay? Perhaps we secretly look forward to a science fictional scenario in which our indomitable human empire will finally fall prey to the ravages of time and nature. On many occasions in history, mankind’s technologies, his architectural achievements, his various methods of global dominance have been destroyed by the power of nature.
Let us look at it this way, by putting the scenario on our front doorstep: could Portsmouth fall foul of natural imperatives? If our economy collapsed, then it’s possible. If our workforces were lured away, our tourism dried up and those without skills, like the unemployed, fled elsewhere, we would become a ghost town. Our buildings would fall into ruin, foliage would creep into the cracks and weeds would colonise the streets.
Climate change could also contribute to our Fall. Rising tides could erode the sea shore if, in this future Portsmouth, there is no money left to build proper sea walls. Hampshire County Council’s Climate Change Commission stated in 2007: ‘without improvements to the city’s flood defences, climate change will undoubtedly significantly impact on the economic well-being of Portsmouth.’
Whether or not we are doomed boils down to good or bad management; communication or lack thereof. It’s about priorities: education, the availability of goods and other services, skilled work and what attracts humans to or repels them from cities like ours. If there are no jobs in the future, the population will move on or turn to crime. Ghettoes and slums will spring up.
A bad economy cannot be blamed on any one person, any more than climate change can. If the economy is poorly structured in the first place, and if we fail to work cooperatively with the forces of nature around us, then we deny reality. It is a simple fact that we significantly affect the composition of our atmosphere by the amount of pollution pumped into it by our industries, vehicles and technologies of mass destruction.
On all fronts – architecturally, environmentally and economically – our present methods are unsustainable in the twenty-first century. It is not inevitable that all human activities on Earth will oppose nature, even if currently we are seriously abusing our environment. What is the common factor in the failure of past societies I alluded to above? Call it greed, call it stupidity, call it capitalism, or another wasteful and exploitative economic system.
But has it always been the case that we are unable to respect and meet the needs of everyone in society while causing tremendous harm to our natural habitat? When we invented agriculture, we began to work the land about us, cutting back the forests and farming large stretches of the countryside. Then industrialization drew millions of people to the new cities only for them to become alienated from both their own labour and from nature itself.
There have of course been laudable attempts to oppose the status quo. The Luddites, a nineteenth century worker’s movement, rebelled against the excesses of the industrial revolution. Today, in our “concrete jungles”, citizens are still estranged from nature and forced to toil away for an inefficient and rapacious socio-economic system. Rather than work together on the Earth for the good of all, we humans are in competition and conflict, and the results for us and the Earth will be catastrophic. We fight over a corner on a pale blue dot that hangs in the void.
But humans are just one part of the great organism we call the Earth. If we treat nature badly then nature may decide we are surplus to requirement, as James Lovelock argues in his Gaia thesis. The vines won’t creep in, they’ll race in and engulf mankind and all he has constructed. For this reason, I have often thought that sustaining our civilization is really about keeping up with the gardening…
Built in 1861, Clarence Pier has been extended and renovated a great deal since then. It was severely damaged by a Luftwaffe air raid during the Second World War, but not refurbished until 1961. South Parade Pier, once the seaside’s mainstay attraction, has now closed after a steady decline over decades.
The future of Clarence Pier isn’t bright either and, if the economy worsens, may lose custom and become too costly to run. This may prompt an exodus of workers and consumers. According to climate change experts, over the next ten years the Pier will suffer from severe storm damage and high tides will sweep shingle into the lower levels. The excess of water could damage property and even drown people. Another, less devastating consequence might be the production of a new biosphere and rare forms of flora…
The Kings Theatre Auditorium
Albert Road, Portsmouth
In a Portsmouth crippled by economic mismanagement, even such grand edifices as the Kings Theatre would crumble from the elements. Wood beams would rot with termites and water damage. Root systems would appear in the substructure, causing roofing to collapse and exposing it to the hard weather. Alcoves and balconies that once seated patrons now become nests for various new plants and animals…
View From Albert Road, Southsea, Portsmouth
Can we find our sense and change our ways in time, lest the gardening becomes too much for us to cope with?
As Portsmouth’s arterial road to London, the A3 endures thousands of vehicles crossing over it every day. Bridges like the above are particularly susceptible to inclement weather. Rainwater has the knack of getting into everything, including cracks formed in brittle concrete, in a process known as imbibition. Water molecules seep into a porous material causing it to swell and prompting plant life to sneak into the joints and supports that form the backbones of such bridges. Water molecules within the root system expand, eventually breaking the concrete apart because concrete has no room for further enlargement. Due to their arched design, bridges such as this may stand more chance of surviving than bridges of different shapes.
The roads beneath them will not be so lucky. Our twentieth century highways were never designed with the onslaught of twenty-first century traffic in mind. Our roads cannot be maintained forever and there are enough unrepaired pot holes in our system already. Motorway maintenance costs on average £3000 per mile per year. The M1 alone is 200 miles long and costs £600,000 per year to maintain.
If some future post-Thatcherite government privatises our roads, we may experience the same problem of profit-over-efficiency that accompanied the selling off of trains, utilities and the rest. There could be more gridlock and therefore more pollution. Fatalities may rise if maintenance is sloppy.
What if, further down the line, we run so low on cash and that finite natural resource, oil, that we can no longer run our vehicles at all? Capitalist economies have always been based on debt, but what happens when that debt gets unmanageable and we taxpayers can no longer underwrite it? Businesses will borrow money but fail to keep up with the repayments and interest, then be forced to either borrow more money or default and collapse. This is another way our buildings slide into a state of disuse.
After the US Gold Rushes two centuries ago, when towns had been depleted of gold and the diggers and panners had moved on, they left behind empty mines, saloons, hotels ands schoolhouses.
The Spinnaker Tower
Gunwharf Quays and Spinnaker Tower as viewed from Gosport
The Spinnaker Tower’s iconic shape was chosen by local residents due to its association with Portsmouth’s maritime history. The Tower’s own history, though, has been marred by incompetent planning and inefficiencies of all kinds. Originally named the Millennium Tower, its construction suffered from extensive delays, changes in contractors and budget overruns, which meant that it could not be completed in time for the millennium celebrations. Even its eventual height (170 metres) had to be shorter than originally planned.
At last the Tower opened to the public in 2005, having cost a cool £36 million (£11 million of which was footed by the taxpayer). Everyone remembers the farcical opening ceremony: due to a malfunction with the glass elevator, a number of dignitaries got stuck forty feet up the tower. Amongst them were representatives from both Mowlem, the company that had built the structure, and Maspero, the Italian firm that had supplied the lift. By 2012, the lift still wasn’t working properly. It was removed altogether earlier this year.
The Spinnaker Tower’s heritage of mismanagement doesn’t bode well for its survival in a Portsmouth that hasn’t kept up with its gardening. For obvious reasons, it is extremely susceptible to the elements and must be painted regularly with weatherproof paint (each coating costs approximately £300,000). Without such regular maintenance, the high salt content of the surrounding atmosphere will eventually peel away the Tower’s protective paint, exposing the concrete beams beneath. Cracks will form in the super structure, allowing water to seep in and corrode vital metal supports, some of which could loosen and fall down to the concourse beneath.
If funding for the Spinnaker Tower’s maintenance dwindles, it could go the same way as the Tricorn shopping centre. The Spinnaker Tower will become structurally unsafe and have to close to the public. Uncontrolled weeds will sweep across Gunwharf, into the café at the base of the Tower and work their way up through the insides of what had once been Portsmouth’s defining landmark. The Tower’s ribbed structure will become a kind of trestle, encouraging vines and other flora to skulk up the walls until they engulf the derelict café at the top. Further down the line, the area may become a site of ornithological interest, as sea gulls, starlings and other coastal birds begin to reside within the various stairwells, lattice supports and other parts of the abandoned edifice…
Our economic system promotes war, conflict and a twisted collective morality. Guildhall Square was heavily bombed during World War II by Nazi planes running on petrol additives sold by American conglomerates. Money is always the problem, for corporations have no allegiance to any flag. What happened to the Square then makes me think that now we humans should pool our resources together rationally and fairly, rather than fight to the death over them. If our civilization cannot learn this lesson – and soon – then we will palpably fail to keep up with the gardening.
Look at our present paradigm: when hit a downturn in our boom-and-bust economy, businesses and public services recede or close, people lose their jobs and communities fracture or flee. This is how ghost towns are made.
…and unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”
We urgently need to learn from past gardening catastrophes. We need to work together locally, nationally and globally. All peoples of the world must unite under one banner rather than continue to live divided, in petty and arbitrary nation states. Much like gardening, we can shape our economies to suit our true human needs; we can trim them and we can help them to flourish… but we must also keep them in check.
As long as we keep up with the gardening we have a chance. So please – trim your hedges, mow your lawns, prune your rose bushes. Before it is too late…
Images by JS Adams.