On Saturday, November 23 last year I went to the final day of The Public, the controversial arts centre in West Bromwich designed by the architect Will Alsop and opened in 2008.
Alsop had announced that he would attend and defiantly declare the building “not closed”, but in the event he wasn’t there.
It was a busy and well-attended day, with exhibitions, a zumba class, a display by Sandwell Irish Society dancers, Father Christmas in his grotto, and thousands of visitors who, like me, were taking the opportunity to see the extraordinary, extravagant and garish interior for the last time.
Alsop called The Public “a box of delights”. One significant precedent for his design is the unbuilt project called the Fun Palace, which the architectural visionary Cedric Price designed for the theatre director and cultural populist Joan Littlewood in 1961. (Alsop worked for Price in the early 70s).
The Fun Palace was intended to be a “laboratory of fun”, a high-tech machine where customers could drop in and engage with diverse cultural offerings rather like you choose rides at a funfair.
The Public closed because Sandwell Council decided that it could no longer afford to pay the £30,000 each week needed to keep it open.
It is being transferred to Sandwell College, who will occupy it as its sixth-form centre. Sandwell College and its architects, Bond Bryan, have chosen not to give me any details of how the building will be converted, perhaps because of the building’s notoriety.
But Alsop described his building as “a simple box with a complicated interior”, and it seems reasonable to expect that the box will remain while most of the interior is replaced.
The Public had its detractors and its defenders – more of the first than the second – but judged on an objective level, it has to be called an extravagant project.
Its cost rocketed to £72m, an amazing sum for what was conceived in the 70s as a local community arts project, albeit one with big ambitions, and it was delivered years behind its programme. But when I first visited in 2008, it was not so much the extravagance of the building which struck me, but its lack of robustness.
Robustness is a quality which is usually hard to find in modern buildings, when compared to older surviving buildings. The term refers to an architecture’s ability to respond to changing circumstances, to accommodate varying functions during its lifetime, without having to be expensively modified or rebuilt. It is a measure of sustainability, though less widely recognised than the measure of energy consumption.
Even if The Public’s lifetime as an arts centre had been able to extend beyond five years, the architecture would have had varying demands placed on it from year to year. But the interior was so specifically tailored to contents with a limited life that in 2008 I could not see how it could survive.
Price’s Fun Palace was designed to respond to change, but it used the idea of flexibility, which is not the same as robustness. It was to be a giant mechanism, looking more like a container depot than a conventional building, which would be reconfigured every day by gantry cranes to enable different things to happen inside it. Almost certainly, if built it would also have turned out to be unaffordable. But The Public was neither robust nor flexible.
Every building is designed initially to serve a specific purpose. Fort Dunlop, an example of a robust building, was designed to make tyres. But its robust design meant that later in life, when its initial purpose had disappeared, it could be successfully adapted without much fuss to new economic uses.
That is both practical sustainability and practical conservation – which really are similar ideas. The Public’s eccentric (though delightful) circulation system of a ramp winding up around the perimeter of the big blue box could never be adapted to new purposes: in the conversion to a sixth-form centre it will surely go.
It may seem strange to describe the re-use of a five-year-old building as a conservation project. We are more used to using the term to describe redundant Victorian schools or Edwardian railway stations. But a conservation project it is. To re-use the building is the correct decision. For a start, that will conserve resources: to demolish a £72m building opened only five years ago would be economically indefensible. But the more difficult conservation issue is that of the conservation of meaning.
Architecture conveys meanings: that is part of its job. When a redundant building is converted to a new use, we try to retain as much of its original meaning as we can, even if it is not directly related to its new use. We expect a Gothic Revival church carved up into six new flats to retain much of its ecclesiastical character.
This is difficult with The Public, because there is no agreement on what its architecture means. For some it communicates the enlightened bringing of diverse cultural sustenance to a deprived community; for others it means foolishly misconceived and irresponsible profligacy.
Even more difficult because the exterior and the interior are deliberately contradictory in what they say. Externally an austere dark blue metal box, relieved only by the pink “jelly-bean” windows: internally a dazzling collision of lights, colours, spaces and peculiar shapes.
I hope that Sandwell College is open-minded enough, and its architects imaginative enough, to retain something of Alsop’s “box of delights” in the sixth-form centre.
That wouldn’t be easy, but it could produce a uniquely hybrid place of education. The expedient way to do it would be to completely purge the eccentric interior and just leave the box, causing future West Bromwich residents to wonder why that big tin shed has those funny pink windows.
* Joe Holyoak is a Birmingham-based architect and urban designer