19th August 2017
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The David Murray John Tower
Modernist lines stand proud on Swindon’s skyline
Back in 1950, in his ‘Studies of Swindon’, John Betjeman wrote, apropos of architecture in Swindon, that there was ‘very little architecture in Swindon and a great deal of building’. He then went on to say that ‘Swindon, instead of being a West Country town, looked on its outskirts at any rate, like any industrial town anywhere.’
Implicit in Betjeman’s observation is, I think, the suggestion that Swindon, by sheer dint of its position rubbing shoulders with Bristol and Bath and Cheltenham, should be architecturally similar. But why should it and why would it?
Those three places grew out of very different circumstances to Swindon. The point that Betjeman appears to miss is that Swindon – well the ‘New Swindon’ at any rate – is an industrial town. It was the great GWR industry that brought it into being and it’s its industry that has breathed life into its lungs ever since. So why would it have sweeping Georgian crescents or Regency arcades? Why do we expect it to?
Betjeman made that observation two decades or more before Swindon gained the modern buildings that qualify, in my entirely non-expert opinion, as ‘architecture’. If nothing else their designers are people I’ve heard of: Sir Norman Foster and Sir Hugh Casson – responsible for the Spectrum Building (still known to many as the Renault Building despite Renault being long gone from it) and the Wyvern Theatre respectively.
Betjeman was a lover of, and passionate advocate for, Victorian architecture. And thank goodness for that. Otherwise the nation and the world would have lost the glory that is St. Pancras station in London.
We also have him to thank for the continued existence of our Railway Village. As this 2017 article from The Swindon Advertiser points out: ‘… by the 1960s there were plans to raze the area. And it was only saved following a campaign by famous poet and architecture buff, Sir John Betjemen.
Yet it’s a moot point whether he would’ve approved of the Wyvern Theatre, the Link Centre and Foster’s Spectrum building. Tension structures such as those were of their time. Nevertheless, all of them are architecturally interesting. But perhaps none more so than my particular favourite: the David Murray John Tower.
The DMJ: Modernist Lines on the Swindon Skyline
Often referred to as the Brunel Tower due to its location in the Brunel Centre, this behemoth of a building is in fact named after David Murray John – Clerk of Swindon Borough Council from 1938-1974. Murray John was an energetic politician and his efforts contributed to the influx of small Industry into Swindon following WWII.
It’s an exuberant exclamation mark of a building that proudly proclaims itself across the Swindon skyline. At 83 metres high, the DMJ (along with Old Swindon’s Christchurch) is the master of all it surveys.
The building struck me when I first moved to Swindon and I love it to this day.
Knowing even less at that time about architecture than I do now (and that’s not to say a great deal) it seemed to me to have something of a futuristic feel to it – though I couldn’t pin it to anything more specific than that. It’s only now, having researched the building a little, I understand what my subconscious was relating to.
The architect responsible for the DMJ tower was Douglas Stephen. Sadly, Stephen is now dead, though his name lives on in the Douglas Stephen Partnership.
If your response to that nugget of information is ‘Douglas who?’ you’d be in good company.
Back in 2004, Jonathan Meades (essayist, broadcaster and architecture writer) published an article on Building.co.uk entitled: ‘Five great architects … you’ve never heard of’ in which he writes about a number of architects, Douglas Stephen included, on why they’re so good – and also so neglected.
On the subject of Stephen, Meades has this to say:
‘Yet there was something about the details … The Mount was the first of Douglas Stephen’s buildings I saw. It was completed in 1965, and was entirely out of step with its time: it was at odds with both the fey Festival style and with the sculptural brutalism that was the conventional reaction to the Festival style (and which Stephen had essayed). But Stephen belonged to no school. That, I suspect, is why he is overlooked. The Mount retains its extraordinary freshness. So does his David Murray John Tower in Swindon, that town’s most (only?) striking building, a mini-skyscraper that has affinities to a design of Frank Hampson’s for Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future.’
I think now that it was the Dan Dare influence that was ringing a very quiet bell in my brain when first my eyes alighted upon the DMJ tower.
Looking to the Future
The David Murray John Tower is on that list. He wrote of it: ‘Designed by Douglas Stephen and built in the Seventies, this tower is a sleek, slick return to the smooth white grace of Twenties and Thirties Modernism. It’s a mixed-use building, incorporating social housing, offices and retail, which is rare in Britain. Stephen was a communist and believed in architecture as a power for social good.’
As to whether Stephen’s building achieved that lofty aim I’m not sure. Its intended mixed-use was innovative in its day. But it’s arguable that it turned not to be so workable.
So, with no knowledge of what it’s like to live and work in that building I base my affection for it on its aesthetics and what is so clearly stood for: the future.
It was the intention of the building’s futuristic look to reflect the forward-looking aspirations of the town at the time.
With its curved corners, the design of the building is sleek and sophisticated. It’s clad in stainless steel – an expensive material even then. It makes historical references with its nods to Art Deco and Modernism. Everything about the building makes a statement – it screams at you to look it. Indeed, you can’t avoid looking at it – it’s visible for miles. At night when lights are on inside it, it’s like a land-locked lighthouse.
Compare and contrast
Think now to the Whalebridge car park at Kimmerfields in the town centre. Every time I look at that building I think of a stockade, a fort, in a western film. It’s all pointy edges and sharp protruding angles. Even the steel decorative panels inserted into the walls remind me of barbed wire.
This is a structure that’s doing the opposite to the DMJ. Where the former stands proud and tall and proclaims itself, the latter is a building on the defensive. Arguably much like society at the time of writing (2017): austerity, Brexit and more. Pathetic fallacy in architecture.
A Wonder of Swindon
Mr Meades isn’t the only one to find favour with the David Murray John Tower. When talking about this building I ought to mention that the author Jasper FForde, famously invented ‘The Seven Wonders of Swindon.’ And taking the top spot on his list is the ‘Tower of Brunel’:
“Give me a tower to touch the sky!” With those words, city elder Mr David Murray John proposed the building of a skyscraper to give Swindon the skyline it had lacked since the destruction of the Cathedral of St Zvlkx almost five centuries before.’
Given that Fforde’s Seven Wonders of Swindon are set in a futuristic/alternative/parallel universe it’s not hard to think that he knew/recognised what niggled at me: the futuristic look of the thing.
Now. Okay. So the real ‘Tower of Brunel’ doesn’t quite reach the vertigo-inducing heights of Mr Fforde’s invention but a skyline it does give. And yes, there’s an argument that the architect’s intentions didn’t quite come to fruition.
But I still feel that there’s much around this edifice we should laud and applaud. There’s Murray John’s energetic exhortation for a tower to touch the sky. There’s the shining optimism it was built to represent and Ffordes T-I-C yet affectionate tribute.
Then there’s the singular fact that Jonathan Meades, a respected authority on architecture, placed the DMJ on his personal list of five extraordinary buildings. In the world. Keeping company with Marseille Cathedral, the Walhalla Temple in Bavaria, Cothay Manor in Somerset and Edinburgh’s Stewart’s Melville College,
In the year that the Switch on to Swindon campaign launched, the David Murray John Tower is surely a reason, all on its own, to do just that?