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NO ROOM FOR THE INN

AGENDA

'It's a bloody lovely little pub, ' one regular says of Walsall's Wharf Bar. 'Why would they want to knock it down?'

This was the general attitude to the news that Will Alsop's masterplan for the centre of the Midlands town - unveiled last week (AJ 27.07.06) - would see the demolition of Sergison Bates' first defining building.

Another regular drinker and architectural aficionado agrees: 'It is a truly wonderful Modern building, ' he says. 'The masterplan is destroying the town. It is like the 1970 destruction all over again.'

Just about everyone seems to appreciate the quality of Sergison Bates' 1998 building, which sits near to and complements Caruso St John's famous New Walsall Art Gallery.

Everyone except Alsop that is, who claimed last week that the hostelry was 'horrible' ( ajplus 28.07.06).

Sergison Bates worked with Caruso St John on the design of the Wharf bar, which was completed soon after the gallery. It was seen as an attempt to bring nightlife back to the rundown town centre.

The practice also credits the building with launching it into the big time in Europe, with the pair securing a joint professorship in Zurich.

The extent to which Stirling Prize-winner Alsop is on his own with his views about the pub is most apparent when one talks to the client Urban Splash, the firm sanctioning and funding the proposed demolition. Even they cannot bring themselves to attack the design.

'This is not about architectural merit - I really like it as a building. But the point is that we might get 15 or 20 better buildings if it goes and that must be remembered, ' Urban Splash's local director Nathan Cornish says.

'Our thinking is that the Gallery Square does not work very well at bringing people into the waterside site, ' he adds.

'We believe another public building, such as a hotel, might work better there.'

Perhaps unbelievably, however, the demolition itself is not the most extraordinary element of this tale. This dubious honour goes to Adam Caruso, of Caruso St John, who was actually on the jury that selected Alsop for the vast site ( ajplus 02.08.06).

Quite what happened on that competition jury, which met two-and-a-half years ago, is open to supposition, but it seems unlikely that Caruso would have approved of the demolition of a building of which he is clearly very fond.

Those present are keeping schtum on what really happened - so we'll just have to speculate privately.

If Alsop's masterplan proposals, which were announced as the winning design, do get the final go-ahead, they will see the demolition of a 7ha swathe of central Walsall.

This will be replaced by a series of mixed-use buildings by Alsop himself, shedkm and young Austrian stars Querkraft.

Being reasonable and understated people, neither Caruso St John nor Sergison Bates are interested in entering into a public spat with Alsop or Urban Splash over whether their building ought to face the wrecking ball.

Instead, they say they are hopeful that the current predicament will trigger a 'civilised debate'.

Adam Caruso says that there was a 'very important' question to consider, about whether developers in regeneration areas can 'exploit needy areas'.

'Often when this kind of thing goes through planning in places like Walsall there are not enough questions asked by the council, ' he says.

And Jonathan Sergison says there were philosophical issues surrounding the idea of demolition.

'There would have to be questions about sustainability - this was, after all, funded by the council itself, ' he says.

'There are issues about responsibility as well. To knock [a building] down after eight years seems very questionable.

'There is one other point that's worth thinking about, and that is that people in mainland Europe would be very confused to see a building like this under threat. There are not many buildings that they travel to the UK to visit.

'However, I would make it clear that we are really not the people to comment on the pub's architectural merit, ' Sergison adds.

With this gentle response from the designers themselves, perhaps it is necessary to turn to a neutral to make a case for the bar's defence. Birminghambased architect Richard Newman, of Bryant Priest Newman, told the AJ that he knew the pub well.

'I think the pub and the art gallery are an oasis of quality in a desert of mediocrity, ' he says. 'I have even more time for it now than I did when it opened.

'The way that it takes domestic roof forms and slightly subverts them is really interesting and has become more mainstream recently.

'There is sometimes an argument to demolish a building which triggered a regenerative effect as the regeneration matures, such as with some of the bars in Birmingham. But this is definitely not the case here.

'It is a pleasant space and has a good atmosphere, ' Newman adds. 'And it's not too precious or arty, which is important. Also it now seems to have developed a pleasant patina, like all good pubs.'

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