Inspirational architecture: Longton’s Bennett Precinct

From the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel, Friday, April 27, 2012

Bennett Precinct offers more solutions than a City Sentral

I LOVE Longton’s Bennett Precinct. Well I suppose there has to be someone, I hear you say.  But this space was the Potteries’ first in the critical stages of regeneration and still represents the perfect design in retail connectivity between seller and buyer.

  1. IN STORE: Bennett Precinct, Longton, pictured in 1975. Inset top, town planner James Plant with his plan for the complex.

    IN STORE: Bennett Precinct, Longton, pictured in 1975.

What you see in the inner walkways relates perfectly with its outer aspects. And its postmodernist environment makes for comfortable visiting in surroundings much like an envelope turned inside out.

After the war, the civic leaders of many bombed-out European cities got down to rebuilding their urban centres at a time when America was pioneering out-of-town shopping.

This was a chance for young architects across the war-torn continent to seize the moment and rebuild as Christopher Wren had done after the Great Fire of London.

And they created traffic-free precincts with light and airy glass-fronted shops. Coventry was one of the first, led by a talented planning officer, the 29-year-old architect Donald Gibson.

Of course none of Stoke-on-Trent’s town centres were affected by the war. And yet there were many who wished it so.

I’ve heard people complain many times that had the Luftwaffe bombed Stoke-on-Trent, it would have impelled the remodelling of the impossible six towns linear settlements into a radial city.

You can see the reasoning of this, for even nearly 70 years on, civic leaders are still battling parochial antipathy against city centre inclination.

Under council leader Albert Bennett, many changes were planned in the 60s for ‘a great leap forward’.

The largest and most involved transformation was reconstructing Longton’s town centre, which really was an ugly blot on the landscape, with potbanks, waste tips and open marl holes sharing space with high street shops.

The city’s chief planning officer, James Plant, decided Longton needed precinct shopping after the manner of Coventry.

Plant was certainly no Donald Gibson. But his designs to obliterate every building, both treasured and disposable, inside the borders of Stafford Street and King Street, and replace them with a completely new shopping concept was, in my opinion, nothing short of genius.

The Bennett Precinct, built by Ian Fraser & Associates, was opened on September 1, 1965 and named after the council leader.

By every standard, Longton’s new town centre was declared to be the best of the district’s retail and commercial architecture.

The entire project contained 100 shops and stores facing out to Longton’s main roads, as well as a promenade of central arcades complemented with ground level integrated car parks. Its beauty, though, was enhanced by the way it fitted in with the existing central shopping area and civic market hall.

Bennett Precinct has stood the test of time. Similar projects were half-heartedly tried in Burslem and Stoke. But the old parochial feelings and financial constraint restricted their development.

In those two towns, similar designs pathetically went nowhere in embracing the ethos of societal needs.

Precinct planning was a needs-must European model, and that’s what makes it distinctive.

For me its appeal is its outdoors character, in the established usefulness and simplicity of shopping, and in particular its distinctive localness. Proof of its success can be seen in the number of shops that have kept the faith and remained contributors to Longton’s identity.

Among these is the unbelievably iconic Bevans music store. It recently featured in a movie about 60s music. And stepping inside is still an adventurous journey into the past – and it should be preserved as a museum.

When designing efficient and likeable retail and community centres, the council should have looked no further than Longton’s Bennett Precinct.

In my view the city’s whole community would be better served by single town investment rather than a City Sentral dedicated to M&S.

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