Southampton's Civic Centre's eastern facade

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Southampton Civic Centre
By David Jennings*

14 August 2010: Created a city in 1964, Southampton has its administration at its Civic Centre, the first in the UK to be so titled. The building is Grade II* listed due to its outstanding design. The Mayor also  holds the now ceremonial only role of Admiral of the Port.  The origins of today's city can be traced back to a 6th century Saxon settlement, which grew throughout the mediaeval period to become one of Britain’s greatest trading ports: famous ships include the Mayflower , which sailed from here (via Plymouth) to America in 1620, and the Titanic began her ill-fated maiden voyage from Southampton in 1912.

However, the then Borough’s government had expanded piecemeal over the period, and was housed in a number of different buildings scattered throughout the city. From the late 19th century onwards there was much debate about bringing the offices together in a single building. This dream was not, however, realised until E Berry Webber won a competition held in 1928, to build a series of interlinked Civic buildings on a former mediaeval common known as the West Marlands. The foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert, Duke of York – later King George VI – who also opened the first block, housing municipal offices, in 1932. The building was not completed until 1939, by which time it included, in addition to the municipal offices, the Guildhall, Art Gallery, Public Library and Law Courts (now occupied by the Police).

The complex was designed in a modern, spare Classical style, and is faced throughout in brilliant white Portland stone. Each of the four frontages is executed in a different design, albeit all with symmetrical, but largely unadorned façades, and projecting wings; except on the west side, these form open courtyards.

The Guildhall has an impressive hexastyle Ionic portico, whereas the Municipal Offices have a three-storey central pedimented doorway, with the City’s coat of arms above. The most prominent feature is the central clock tower, 156ft high and square in plan, which tapers gently upwards to the clock, surmounted with a bell stage and a low, pyramidal cap in copper. This locally has the nickname of Kimber’s chimney, after Sir Sidney Kimber (1873-1949), the mayor who instigated the project.

Although some of the courtyards are now used for car parking, other frontages look out onto municipal gardens, and the whole composition is unquestionably impressive. The Guildhall in particular is a major music venue, hosting everything from classical performances to pop and rock concerts. The city’s art collection, comprising 3,500 works from the Renaissance to the present day, has been designated by the UK Government as having Special National Significance, and is particularly strong in pre-Raphaelite works.

* David Jennings is an independent management consultant working on policy and strategy development and stakeholder engagement, including government and business relationship management. He is an Associate of Indepen and Achill Management

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