Portsmouth is a city of concrete, a material used for its postwar reconstruction. Some concrete buildings in the city however are more superior than others. This month, we’re highlighting our favourite – Portsmouth Central Library, a magnificent sculptural composition inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. Photographed here by Simon Phipps.
The brutalist architecture of Portsmouth Central Library is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1959) in New York and another building closer to home, the now demolished Tricorn Centre (1966) in Portsmouth by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon. The concrete architecture was built in 1976 to a bold, curved and turreted design; the sculptural library floors are unified by a tall administration block.
Portsmouth Central Library is also known as the Norrish Central Library, named (in 1995) after its architect Ken Norrish, who headed up the City Architects’ Department. He was the architect of other concrete buildings in and around the area including the D-Day Museum, The Hard Interchange bus and coach station, the Isle of Wight car ferry terminal, the Mountbatten leisure centre and the Somers Town Health Centre.
Located in the south of England, Portsmouth was subject to bombing during WWII and had to be reconstructed postwar, for which concrete was the material of choice. Unfortunately, some of it was not of great quality and construction was poor. The Tricorn Centre – a shopping complex housing the largest Laser Quest arena in Europe, two pubs (The Casbah and The Golden Bell), a night club and car park, which resembled a tricorn hat from above, was demolished in 2004.
Fortunately, Portsmouth Central Library sits within the Victoria Park conservation area established in 1973, so could not be demolished. Plus, it does show more refinement than some of its contemporaries – its curves are reminiscent of the Balfron and Trellick Towers in London designed by Ernő Goldfinger; its vertically ribbed concrete with horizontal lines creates some rhythm, breaking down its solidity. If you’re not yet convinced, take a look at these photos of the library by architectural photographer Simon Phipps.