Resonations #3 From Wigan to Portobello
As a young boy growing up in Wigan in the early 70s Saturday mornings meant swimming lessons. My Dad would drive my sister and me down into Wigan through the rows of red brick walled and black slate roofed terraced houses that comprised Pemberton and Lamberhead Green. In winter, as we descended into the town centre we’d often drop into a ‘pea-souper’ – a smog formed because most people back then were still burning coal fires.
The brand new Olympic sized swimming pool was something else entirely – walls comprising mosaic tile and huge planes of glass enveloped a volume far bigger and brighter than any other building I’d ever been in up to that point. Aged six, I don’t think I’d been in a cathedral but that was what it felt like. In contrast to the surrounding smoke engrained terraced streets, I’d experienced the future, and it felt fantastic.
One fine sunny day at primary school the teacher sent us outside with a drawing pad with the instructions to draw whatever we wanted to. I drew the school building – not the original Victorian block but the recently completed extension with its plate glass walls and upside down butterfly roofs. Aged seven, I knew I wanted to be an architect.
On Saturday afternoons I’d go around to my Nana’s for tea. She lived in a ‘two up, two down’ in one of those terraced streets in Pemberton. My job when I was there was to keep the coal fire going. I’d take a shovel and the coal scuttle outside to the bunker. At the back of the house was a big yard, shared between around eight to ten houses. Overhead the yard was criss-crossed by washing lines and underfoot the rough grass was eroded into well worn paths following the same pattern. Across the back of the yard was a row of single storey outside loos – one dedicated to each house. There was a big old mortice key belonging to the toilet hanging on a hook on the back door. The single skin brickwork of the toilet was painted inside, but the damp caused the paint to bubble and, sat on the loo, it was impossible to resist popping the bubbles of paint with the key, for which my sister and me would regularly get told off.
After tea, my Nana’s friends would call around and we’d play dominoes until it was time for me to go home. Gladys from across the road, Martha and Annie – sisters and spinsters from up the street – and Lily from next door. Looking back, there was an extraordinary sense of community around that back yard that resonated sufficiently with my six year old self for me to recall it now. I was reminded of it when I read Lesley Riddoch’s book ‘Blossom’ where she writes:-
…modern life tugs us all apart, but the Scottish tenement tugs us back together again. Not to the levels of umbilical closeness known in the good/bad old days when neighbouring families lived in each other’s homes. But relative to the rest of our modern, atomised, world, life in a Scottish tenement still involves sharing and exchange…compared to other housing types, tenement flats are still hugely popular. They still involve more regular contact and space-sharing than any other housing type in the UK – and with some imagination they could act as a basis for all sorts of future co-operation.
Our Bath Street project is an attempt at taking that tenemental model and updating it for the twenty first century. From Wigan to Portobello, from back yards to tenements, architecture plays such a fundamental role in how we bring people together.
Unfortunately the pool was demolished a few years ago – the image (the only one I could find, sadly) shows it empty of water and scaffolded before the final demolition took place.