December 2015

A Great deal of Building

John Betjemen 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?

Implicit in Betjeman’s observation is that, somehow or other, by virtue of its positioning between the likes of Bristol, Bath and Cheltenham, Swindon should be like them in terms of its architecture.

But why should it be? And more to the point – why would it be?  Swindon’s Old Town aside, it is a town born and reborn many times over from a rich variety of industry.

“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.

Nevertheless, we should note that, being as fond of Victorian architecture as he was, Betjemen 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 however 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:

  1. The Wyvern TheatreSir Hugh Casson
  2. The Renault Building/Spectrum BuildingNorman Foster
  3. The Art Deco diving board at Coate Water – okay not strictly a building but it’s on the listed register
  4. The David Murray John Tower – Douglas Stephen
  5. 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. I liked it on first sight.

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 twenty-odd years ago.  I absolutely love it. I can’t necessarily articulate why I love it – it simply invokes some visceral reaction in me. I think it’s *expletive deleted* awesome.

Some may say it stands out like a sore thumb on the landscape but I really disagree. To me it’s a giant exclamation mark, proudly proclaiming itself to all directions. It’s the master of all it surveys.

See the DMJ tower in Brian Carter’s Flickr collection:

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.  Now, I don’t know about you but I find that to be fantastic and wonderful. Here in Swindon, a town with a lot of buildings but no architecture, we have a building that’s viewed as extraordinary!

Something to shout from the rooftops surely? From the room of the DMJ itself preferably.

So, for all these reasons, that will be the first building that I’ll explore in greater depth in later articles.

Plaque on David Murray John Tower in Swindon

Plaque on DMJ tower

Look up

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.


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