Big pieces in the media today about Swindon’s attempts to become a new cultural centre for the UK. The town’s bid for funding to build a new gallery is based around the existence of what has been referred to as ‘one of the most important collections of 20th century art outside the Tate’. Who knew? I’ve lived withing spitting distance of Swindon for 10 years and never even heard of a museum cited in Old Town, never mind that it houses a cultural goldmine of art and porcelain.
So why the problem with Swindon and what’s the town to do about its much-maligned brand? Without a doubt, the town’s centre is an architectural wasteland. Lots of decaying concrete, subterranean walkways and soulless traffic roundabouts. The shops leave much to be desired; the residents are frequently the butt of jokes. Even the list of celebrities Swindon can muster is pretty unimpressive: Diana Dors, Melinda Messenger, Billie Piper — clearly the town’s big on glamour — plus the band XTC. The town’s name is a problem, too: Swindon harks back to the swine on which its early economy was based. I’m struggling to think of any well-loved English town or city whose name begins with ‘swin’.
Swindon’s not going to be able to change its spots overnight. Architecture is architecture, hence the town’s centre is going to look the same for the foreseeable future. What the town’s authorities have to do is look at the positives — the railway heritage, the beautiful countryside, great transport links, accessible housing. Having enough of a sense of humour to laugh with the British public rather than berating them would be a sensible move. Some tongue-in-cheek marketing, a blue plaque scheme and a celebration of some of the town’s more brutalist features would also serve the cause.
Ultimately, the key to building Brand Swindon is not to spend all your time refuting the jibes, but to embrace them. Once embraced, they can serve as a platform on which to build something bigger and better.