A dozen years ago, I advanced the theory that dramatised demolition was a better fate than blanket conservation for superannuated modern buildings - citing Memento Mori , Peter Mitchell's poignant record of the demolition of Quarry Hill flats as proof.
I had only one opportunity to film the demolition of a modern masterpiece.The star of this modest TV epic was the Reliance Controls building in Swindon, designed by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Anthony Hunt, a pioneer industrial structure of historical importance that was nonetheless known to its occupants as 'The biscuit tin', in recognition of the temperatures it attained in the summer months. Having already chronicled my unsuccessful attempt to get this building listed, I mention it again as way of an introduction, for less than 20 miles from the former industrial estate where Reliance Controls stood is another pioneering modern structure in a very bad way indeed. Bad enough perhaps to justify its own TV drama.
Oxford Ice Rink was designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners in 1984 and opened the following year. It was unorthodox in appearance, one of the first generation of mast-supported and long span structures to exploit the corrosion-resistant coatings developed for offshore structures in the North Sea, but it was also very cheap.As the architect notes (in The Early Work of Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners , Phaidon 1995), the client for the building, Oxford City Council, wanted an ice rink but did not have enough money to build one. The practice helped out by producing a very economical twin mast, suspended boom design clad with standard cold store panels except for its front elevation, which was largely glazed.
Like Reliance Controls before it, on completion Oxford Ice Rink was hailed as a great architectural achievement. Not only because it fulfilled its brief with economy and ingenuity but because it was exceedingly popular with young people. As Grimshaw noted in his aforementioned practice book: 'The building is a social centre for all ages and we have heard from the city engineer that vandalism has reduced dramatically in the city since this project was completed.'
That, of course, was written some seven years ago. Nonetheless it will strike an ironic note for any visitor to the ice rink today, who must ask him or herself how bad Oxford's vandalism can possibly have been before, if it is now 'reduced dramatically'. Nowadays, the building presents a woeful aspect from all directions.
Its car park is filled with threatening notices, a lived-in caravan and smashed-up entrance and exit gates. Its front elevation shows 10 large glass cladding panels replaced with sheets of chipboard and another five with bullet or other missile holes and cracks in them. The freezer store cladding panels are a dark, uneven grey colour with green algae growing on them, while the escape doors and stairs, and the concrete ground anchors carry a heavy load of graffiti.
Indoors, the building is in daily use despite its run-down condition - the formerly glazed north wall is barricaded off with incongruous traffic cones on the ice.
What will become of the Oxford Ice Rink? Some fear the worst. The city council is strapped for cash and has resorted to selling off its properties, and the site allocated to the rink does seem large and empty. At the same time, there has been talk of the need for a new railway station. In any case, the uncompromising low-cost functionality of the building belongs to a different age and a different class to such recent additions to the city's architecture as the Said Business School.