Written by Mark Harris
Next year is the 20th anniversary of the English publication of Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Why should the work of a relatively unknown but influential French writer still be relevant today? Well, the book is primarily about how the residents shape the identity of a town or how the town affects the identity of its citizens.
There are perhaps very few places in the UK where this sense of identity can be more keenly felt than in Portsmouth & Southsea. But where does it come from? Is it from being an island city, its crowded streets, its history, or the endless horizon of the sea?
One of the great things about Southsea is that it continues to evolve, whilst not forgetting about its past. A walk along the seafront will lead to the re-opened South Parade Pier or, further west, to the Hot Walls and the new artist’s studios and cafes that were, until recently, just an idea. Of course, more is to come. It wasn’t that long ago that Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, could those days return with the new plans for the historic building? Will the Portland Hotel finally come back to life?
But there are numerous buildings in the city that have already evolved and have been successfully adapted for contemporary use. Here are a few of Portsmouth’s buildings that I particularly admire, both as pieces of architecture in their own right, but also how they have been successfully adapted and given a new lease of life.
The focal point of Castle Road, the Clock Tower is now used by various creative enterprises but many readers will remember the previous occupiers, the Fleming brothers’ antiques shop. In fact, since the building opened in 1903 it has been home to a car showroom and another antique dealer, Ernest Smith, whose name still survives on the clock. Last year it was awarded the city’s best restoration project by the Portsmouth Society.
The conversion of the Old Dairy, by RBA Architects, provides an inspiring example of what can be achieved with sensitive and imaginative remodelling. Here, a small Victorian dairy was converted into four individually designed mews houses in 2010.
According to recent reports, 20 pubs a day are closing throughout the UK, and with Portsmouth’s rich tradition of public houses, this has provided many opportunities for conversion projects. One of the most successful examples is the former Grave Diggers pub in Highland Road. Architect Carl Leroy Smith’s award-winning conversion, with building work by CT McCann in 2013.
An ingenious conversion, by PWP Architects, has seen a 1930s substation converted into a new house that retains the brick facade of the original one storey building with the addition of two futuristic glass reinforced plastic pods on the roof.
Another example of a creative re-use of a redundant substation. Opened in 2015 by the proprietor Mark Hogan and overlooking the Common the tea rooms have been successfully trading ever since.
Following the relaxation of planning laws, projects are not just restricted to small building types, which has allowed for the transformation of the 1973 glazed fronted Zurich House office building into a 405 bed, student halls of residence, (2017). Unfortunately, the newly built Greetham Street Halls of Residence, with it’s distinctive yellow top floors, was nominated for this year’s Carbuncle Cup, an annual award for the worst buildings completed in the UK.
Tucked away between Victory Gate and the Visitor Centre at the Historic Dockyard a former Victorian Naval prison has been skilfully converted into small office units. Perfect for digital, creative businesses, studios are available for exclusive use or to be shared with another ’inmate’.