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Plymouth Architectural Review

Plymouth Welcome Flowers

What the flowers say..
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Ah, Plymouth. The brochure writes itself:

  • Perfectly positioned on the border of Devon and Cornwall!
  • Within easy reach of more beaches and tourist attractions that you could shake the proverbial stick at!
  • Tranquil weather conditions mean you can walk amongst palm plants (OK this is an exaggeration)!
  • Rich in naval history, and long home to a big chunk of our naval fleet!
  • The starting point for many of man's greatest adventures of exploration, from Drake, to Cook, to the Pilgrim Fathers!
  • Birthplace of the stars! Such as Dawn French, Sharon Davies, Trevor Francis and Wayne Sleep! Oh, and that diving kid.

It begs the question: 'Surely such a place should be a Mecca for tourism, a bustling regional hub, the first stop on anyone's tour of the Westcountry?'

It's not though. Ask around. For anyone who doesn't actually think it is Portsmouth, it ia a place to be passed through on your way to somewhere nicer, a run down, dangerous backwater full of maurauding squaddies, deranged locals and facilities which belong in the 1970's.

That's before you get started on what the place looks like. Grey, depressing, dull, horrendous. Might I add, a dive. These aren't my words. Well, they are now. It is rarely denied that Plymouth lacks a certain architectural something.

But... is this fair?
Is it really so ugly?
Is Plymouth's lack of success in sensitive planning really a big part of the reason why it remains an economic backwater?

Well, that is what this review aims to find out.

Each building has been given a Carbuncle Factor out of 7, the least worst being 1 (St Paul's Cathedral) and the most worst being 7 (John Prescott's Arse).


St Andrew's Church

I'm going to be kind to start with. You can't argue with a nice church. After the Luftwaffe levelled the city of Plymouth, the stock response of the authorities was to raze the whole city and start again. However, the combined efforts of Jerry's finest actually caused less destruction than the council bulldozers that followed them. You'll see.

St Andrews is a rare beacon of hope, having been lovingly restored to its former glory. A rare win, this.

Carbuncle factor: 2/7

Smeaton's Tower

The world's most useless lighthouse.
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The Hoe (Smeaton's Tower)

Now, to most people Hoe is gangsta speak for a lady of loose morals, or more often anyone female. Plymouth Hoe, however, is the jewel in the crown of the city. A natural grass ampitheatre overlooking one of the most picturesque and spectacular natural harbours in the whole world. I'm being kind again, by including this at all.

The centerpiece of this wonderful vista is Smeaton's Tower, an 18th century lighthouse that used to stand on a rock 9 miles off the coast. After standing for 100 years subsidence led to it being replaced, and thus it was moved brick by brick to stand as a monument to its architect.

God the Victorians were great, weren't they?

As a landmark it's more or less unique, and you can climb it on the rare occasions that it's actually open (I remember one day in about 1983). It's actually an interesting story about how the lighthouse has evolved over the years and an example of Plymouth's rich heritage.


Wouldn't it be nice if anywhere near the lighthouse there was a billboard, or even a small exhibit, with the information I just linked to on it? Why does Plymouth insist on ignoring its heritage? Gah.

Carbuncle factor: 2/7

Plymouth Dome

Majestic, isn't it?
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Plymouth Dome (yes, really!)

Plymouth has always innovated, and whilst the Milennium Dome was still a twinkle in John Major's eye the city pioneered the whole Dome concept.

The Dome is in fact a rare example of an interesting tourist attraction in the city, and provides some entertainment. Clearly less ambitious than its big city cousin, nevertheless it gives an overview of Plymouth's history with a few nice touches to boot.

Within the city it has long been derided for being a waste of money and a puss filled boil on the supposedly flawless face of Plymouth Hoe. I think that, although undoubtedly ugly, it's alright. Quite apart from being exactly what any City SHOULD be doing (ie self promotion) it has way, way outlasted its London counterpart.

There's only one Dome, and it's not in Greenwich.

Carbuncle factor: 4/7

Plymouth Civic Centre

Let's play spot the listed building.
Yup, really.
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Plymouth Civic Centre

Now this will make you laugh. This building, you see, is Plymouth's tallest structure. I know, you can jump higher than that... that's not the point though.

Plymouth Civic centre, on the face of it, is like any other provincial civic centre built in the 50's. It's fit for purpose, sure, but it's also a hideous eyesore. What's more, it's becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. Dangerous, even. Of late lumps of cladding have been hurling themselves off the side of the building, in a desperate attempt to disassociate themselves with it.

I'd imagine even a council as myopic as Plymouth would be delighted to send in the dynamite and the demolition balls. They can't though, because in 2007 it was grade II listed. Instead they're having to invest untold sums in patching it up. It would be funny if it wasn't public money.

I guess we'll have to either hope for a major earthquake, or wait until World War III - can't be that far away....

Carbuncle factor: 5/7

Armada Way

Chinese students beware
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Armada Way

Armada Way is the main North/South thoroughfare in the city, and the victim of a horrible planning oversight. When the modern Plymouth was being planned, the idea was that if you looked one way up this road, you would see the sea, and if you looked the other way the granite splendour of Dartmoor. Unfortunately it was overlooked that Plymouth's centre sat in a depression, and that as a result all you can see in either direction is sky, and acre upon acre of pavement.

In the 80's some measures were taken to improve matters. Shrubberies were planted up and down it, and the subway which led towards the seafront was decorated with a brilliant mosaic detailing Plymouth's maritime history.

Astoundingly, in recent years, the subway has been filled in and the shrubbery removed, in an attept to get rid of undesirable types from... erm... well... hiding, I think. Suppose it beats formulating sensible social policy.

Now we are left with this bleak image. At least it will be easier to get the tanks in if there is ever some kind of uprising. Maybe that was the idea.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is further evidence that local concillors should never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be involved in any aspect of town planning. The funny thing is there was probably an actual professional town planner involved in this. I hope they're deeply ashamed.

Carbuncle factor: 6/7

Plymouth Sundial

You got the time, mate?
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The Sundial

When the city was pedestrianised in the 1980s, it was recognised that it needed a centerpiece, a monument, something that would be modern and different and mark Plymouth out as one of the great cities. This is what they came up with. They being they... whoever was individually responsible has certainly kept a low profile.

Controversially, I like it. I love the way it's impossible to use it to tell the time, and always has been. I love the way it's festooned with kids and tourists using it as meeting point. I love the way it's almost always surrouded and obscured by the lamest funfair on earth. I especially love it when someone hilariously pours washing up liquid into the fountain bit. Oh, how I laugh.

What else can you say about a giant city centre aluminium sundial? Does any other city have one? No. Is there a reason for that? Well, that's for you to decide.

Carbuncle factor: 5/7


Come on, pass the Duplo set,
I'll knock up another one.
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Belive it or not, when this building was constructed, it was a bit of an opportunity. This area had always been known for its horrible achitecture (see the woeful bus station in the foreground), and the idea was to lift the tone. Unfortunately, whoever approved the planning application left their specs at home.

This building always makes me feel pyhsically sick. I used to make more imaginitive things out of Lego when I was six. And most of my design ideas involved boxes of some sort. I don't blame Staples, not really. It must have been tremendously cheap to lash a few breeze blocks together and paint them beige.

So who let this happen? Why is it that each new building erected in Plymouth City Centre raises the bar of mediocrity to a dizzying new level? Actually scrub that, it's not mediocrity. This is almost wilfully horrible.

Carbuncle factor: 6/7

Drake Circus

Now be honest with me.
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There's more

The New Drake Circus

Ah, the optimism. It was 1997 when I worked at Tesco in the old Drake Circus. I got the summer job because they were relocating to another store at the other end of town. Drake Circus, you see, was being knocked down and re-built! How exciting.

Ok, let's move forward ten years. Let's look at the pictures above. OK stop laughing. STOP LAUGHING!

All I thought when I first saw this was 'what the?'. I laughed. Then thought 'bugger'. This isn't just a bungled attempt to make something interesting. It's not even just about the idiotic facade, completely overshadowing the sombre beauty of the bombed out Charles Cross church.

This was supposed to be the future of the City. The one big development project that it would get right at all costs. It's tragic really, that what resuted was a shopping centre very much resembling the one in Luton and an architectural design that makes you laugh out loud.

Before, of course, you leave Plymouth, never to return, and tell all your mates what a dive the place is whenever the subject comes up.

You see what I'm saying here? The words 'on', 'the' and 'cheap' come to mind. If there was ANY doubt of its awfulness, check out this award

Carbuncle factor: 7/7