Sunday, November 15, 2020


Liminality is a concept associated with thresholds and rites of passage. As I understand it, a “liminal space” is a kind of transitional space: you have left one area, and you have not reached your destination, and you don’t know how to feel about where you are – even more, the destination may itself be unknown. Others may feel safe there, and you may come to feel safe with time, but until then, something feels a bit “off” about your experience.

I usually try to avoid places where I may feel unwelcome, but I have come to realise that one place I often walked through was, before it was demolished, almost a textbook definition of a liminal space, if not by design, then definitely in execution.

The Tricorn Centre was a shopping and entertainment complex opened in Portsmouth in 1965. It stood as a prime example of Brutalist architecture, and one of the first privately-built examples of its type built in Europe. Driving into Portsmouth city centre, it always came across as a grey carnival of living concrete, but its imposition on the landscape was not what prevented you from ultimately looking inside.

Looking closer exposed decades of neglect and missed chances, caused by missed opportunities that could have made it Portsmouth’s ultimate destination, and by unintentional difficulty to actually get to the place. The centre was ultimately demolished in 2005, the culmination of a city’s reckoning with itself over whether to keep and renovate a part of its landscape, or push away what had been left to become one of the ugliest buildings in Britain.

Designed by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon - they of Trinity Square, Gateshead and Eros House, Catford - the Tricorn, standing on its triangular plot of land, was intended to incorporate a department store, a supermarket, a bazaar of smaller shops incorporated into a market square, a pub, a nightclub, warehouse units, and eight luxury apartments with views across Portsmouth.

HOWEVER – and this is a very large “however” – the department store, most likely Marks & Spencer, chose not to move in, leading to the space being used as a covered market for smaller vendors, and other big names choosing not to move to the other shops; the existing Charlotte Street market largely stayed outside; the apartments leaked and whistled with the wind, ultimately boarded up by 1980; some warehouse units were never leased, although lorries would have found navigating the spiral road to the rooftop car park extremely difficult; lack of revenue led to decay in the concrete, from rusted metal struts to the formation of stalactites; and the bazaar-type layout proving ideal for muggers.

Most of all, the road layout had not been changed to provide easy entrance to the Tricorn, and no thoroughfare was made to the centre from Commercial Road, the traditional shopping street in Portsmouth – even if it was a location for an early Virgin Megastore, you had to go out of your way to get there. When a thoroughfare finally appeared, in 1989, it was through the Cascades, a more modern, more traditionally-designed shopping centre built alongside one already deemed to have failed.

Most of the memories I have of the Tricorn were from its perimeter – “Charlotte’s Superstore,” the name given to the indoor market; Mr Clive, a suede and leatherware shop; a very large Laser Quest; and a covered area that I walked through as it was the quickest way to get from a nearby Sainsbury’s back to Commercial Road. Some of this last section still survives, as it forms a shop’s fire escape, but before the Tricorn was demolished in 2005, it was much darker and foreboding, flanked by a spiral car park ramp and a petrol station, creating a literal threshold between one area of Portsmouth and the other. If I ever walked through the centre of the complex, it must have been quickly, and with someone.

The Tricorn was demolished in 2005, by which time the liminality of the boarded-up, neglected but still (because of the car park) fully accessible centre was unfortunately associated with suicide. To this day, the levelled triangle plot has remained a car park while successive attempts to regenerate the area have been announced, reformulated, postponed, and thrown out, while Commercial Road is in danger of becoming a liminal space itself through the loss of retail – the only decision already made is to change the road layout.

However, nothing could be bolder than what stood there before, and perhaps, like the new Elephant & Castle development, what may be built in its place will not generate as strong an opinion – although the intent of avoiding offence may cause its own alienation.

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