British architecture, 1926–1945

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the City Centre on 15 June 2016 celebrating '90 Years of British Architecture'.

I’ve been asked to kick things off by looking at British architecture during the period 1926–1945. In terms of new construction my period really ends in 1939 with the beginning of the Second World War and a time when so many of Britain’s great cities suffered horrendous damage. Architectural thinking continued in the interim as thoughts turned early on to what sort of country might emerge from the rubble of war, and I imagine that will be explored in the talks that follow. So, my focus will be on those initial 13 years.

Architectural historians on the whole like to look for patterns and connections that lead towards consistent narratives with clear arcs: the single innovation being gradually – and traceably – incorporated into the mainstream. In the 1920s that innovation was, of course, Modernism. Le Corbusier’s manifesto for the movement, Vers une Architecture, appeared in 1923 and only had to wait four years for an English translation. For most British Modernists looking back from the 1950s and 1960s, the early 1930s was the moment when the seed of Modern architecture was first planted in Britain, initially struggling to grow in a dense thicket of competing styles, before eventually coming fully into bloom after 1945.

In this way, the 1930s are cast as a period stylistic contest, with the view of Modernism fighting a noble battle against the forces of tradition and historicism, eventually winning out as the true embodiment of the spirit of the new machine age, still holding much sway. Yet, on the other hand, we often hear talk of how, like classicism before it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Modernism was slow to take hold in Britain, due in varying degrees to our cultural and geographical remove from mainland Europe. Both narratives are clearly teleological in their reading of the 1930s in relation to what came after. Who knows what the course of Modernism in Britain might have been if the Second World War had never happened? And of course that same question might be asked of politics, economics, and even of empire.

So, the task I have set myself in the short time I have is to show through a series of examples some of the amazing architectural variety of a period, in which Modernism certainly did take hold, yet did not begin an inexorable march towards hegemony. And in this way, I hope to show that this was a period not of architectural contest but of co-existence.

The second part of my talk will focus on housing. I won’t really attempt to draw the two parts together; the discussion later on may well be where that happens.

To disprove the point that Britain was somehow resistant to Modernism or that no great works of Modern architecture were being built in Britain during this time, here are some of the highlights, shown in no particular order:

  • High and Over, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, 1929 by Amyas Connell
  • De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, East Sussex, 1935 by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff
  • Highpoint I, Highgate London, 1935 by Berthold Lubetkin
  • Finsbury Health Centre, Finsbury, London, 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin
  • Impington Village College, Impington, Cambridgeshire, 1938 by Walter Gropius 
  • Lawn Road Flats (Isokon Building), Hampstead, 1934 by Wells Coates
  • Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove, London, 1937 by Maxwell Fry
  • Torilla, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, 1934 by F.R.S. Yorke
  • Pullman Court, Streatham, London 1936 by Frederick Gibberd

All significant works of Modern architecture; some of such high quality that they can hold their own on a European scale.

Another oft-quoted myth is that Modernism's taking hold in Britain depended on the emigrés fleeing Nazi Germany who arrived during the 1930s – and to be sure some like Gropius, Mendelsohn and Lubetkin are among the architects of these buildings. Yet we shouldn't overlook the role of British Modernists, particularly those associated with the Modern Architectural Research or MARS Group. What's more important, I think, is that all these architects found (a variety of) clients for their work, indicating that an appetite for Modernism clearly existed in Britain.

But while the resistance to Modernism in Britain during the 1930s can be overplayed, it certainly did exist. Here’s a passage from Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928. The rich a socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde has decided to demolish her centuries-old house, King’s Thursday, and commission a young Modernist to replace it with, in her words 'Something clean and square'.

Professor [Otto Friedrich] Silenus – for that was the title by which this extraordinary young man chose to be called – was a ‘find’ of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s. He was not yet very famous anywhere, though all who met him carried away deep and diverse impressions of his genius. He had first attracted Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s attention with the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been produced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly. His only other completed work was the décor for a cinema-film of great length and complexity of plot – a complexity rendered the more inextricable by the producer’s austere elimination of all human character, a fact which had proved fatal to its commercial success. He was starving resignedly in a bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury, despite the untiring efforts of his parents to find him – they were very rich in Hamburg – when he was offered the commission of rebuilding King’s Thursday. ‘Something clean and square’ – he pondered for three hungry days upon the aesthetic implications of these instructions and then began his designs.

‘The problem of architecture as I see it,’ he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium, ‘is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man,’ he said gloomily; ‘please tell your readers that. Man is never beautiful, he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.’ 

Waugh is clearly playing here on Modernism's foreignness and what he sees as its curtailing of natural English freedoms. It comes over as rather too hysterical, because there is surely no more heterodox or permissive architectural climate in British history than the one the country enjoyed in the 1930s.

Here is another selection, this time non-Modernist buildings:

  • Battersea Power Station, London, 1935 (phase A) and 1955 (phase B) by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
  • Hoover Building, Perivale, London, 1938 by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners
  • 55 Broadway, Victoria, London, 1929 by Charles Holden
  • 66 Portland Place, Fitzrovia London, 1934 by George Grey Wornum
  • Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Picardy, France, 1932 by Edwin Lutyens
  • St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 1908 and 1930 by Ninian Comper
  • National Westminster Bank, City of London, 1932 by Edwin Cooper
  • Granada Cinema, Tooting, 1931 by Cecil Masey
  • Odeon Cinema, Warley, Smethwick, West Midlands, 1934 by Thomas Cecil Howitt and Harry William Weedon

Could we muster the same variety today? I think probably not.

So while Modernists and traditionalists disagreed, they did not usually seek to exclude, with the 1930s architecture as a whole marked by a wonderful eclecticism in style and approach, of the co-existence of architectural philosophies, structures and materials.

We see this even in one street. This is Daily Telegraph building on Fleet Street. It was designed by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait and built 1928–31 to replace the Telegraph’s previous late-Victorian building on the site. It employs a kind of over-sized (at least for the context) Graeco-Egyptian style, making a powerful statement to the street with those massive, abstracted columns and the projecting Art Deco clock.

And this is the the almost exactly contemporary Daily Express building just a few doors to the east on the same street, 1930–31. The original proposal was for a conventional steel-framed and stone-fronted building, which might have looked a little like the Telegraph’s. This was supplanted by Owen Williams’ idea of using a concrete frame to double the unobstructed width of the printing hall in the basement. The result was the first true curtain-walled building in London with its façade of black Vitrolite or transparent glass set into chromium strips – all wonderfully smooth. Some say Williams wanted to go further and expose the concrete frame, but was overruled, apparently by Lord Beaverbrook himself. (The entrance hall is Art Deco fantasy by Robert Atkinson with reliefs by Eric Aumonier.)

Both buildings attempt to do the same thing, at the same time – embody the power and influence of their respective institutions – but go about it in completely different ways. They shouldn’t be able to co-exist as they do, but to my eyes they do so happily. Fleet Street has always been an eclectic street with its mixture of narrow frontages and grand nineteenth-century impositions. These two buildings simply represent its continuation.

That spirit could even be manifested in one single building, with the most dramatic, yet unassuming case in point being Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel’s St Olave’s House on Tooley Street (1929–31). From the river we see a rather elegant deco-ish façade, whose main focus are the central windows on the first three storeys embossed by gilded panels by Frank Dobson.

On the street front we see what looks like almost a different building. Its crystalline white, functionalism is as modern as anything in London at the time, though on close inspection rather more complex than it initially appears (look at those top level windows and octagonal turrets). Though he was a idiosyncratic and at times quite strange figure, there was great validity in Goodhart-Rendel’s notion that the choice of style should depend on a building’s function and location, and not be pre-ordained through architectural ideology.

Housing and the market

I’ve looked up to this point at architecture with a capital A, but in many ways the more mundane realm of Metroland and mass housing is of greater lasting importance – and with something to offer the present moment.

As we often hear in the media, the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 is among the slowest on record. The recovery after the rather more severe Great Depression was actually far quicker. In each year from 1933 to 1936, economic growth was over 4% – numbers our political leaders would sell their grannies for today. This was aided by an expansionary monetary policy once the pound came off the gold standard in 1931, with interest rates at near zero – the latter being familiar to us today. But rather than ending up in banks coffers as today’s quantitative easing has done, the increase in money supply drove a massive expansion in house building by the private sector.

I want now to show a graph that will be familiar to lots of you. Produced by for a report called ‘A Right to Build’, which was published in 2011 by Sheffield University’s school of architecture and Architecture 00, it shows housing completions by tenure – public sector, private sector and housing association – from 1945 to 2010. The usual thing is to note the huge increase public sector housing completions in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s which then tails off to almost nothing after the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the private sector remains roughly constant, ebbing and flowing with economic boom and recession – and not filling the numbers left by the public sector retreat, as many predicted would happen. The line shows what’s happened during this time to average house prices, which remain roughly constant until the roll-back of the public sector and then increase exponentially. 

The graph perfectly fits the narrative about the need for the state to start building houses again in response to our crisis of housing affordability.

Rarely seen is what this graph looked like in the 1930s, which reveals a rather different picture. As you can see, it’s exactly the same information, just extended back to 1921.

In 1931–32 private sector house completions were 133,000, rising to 293,000 in 1934–35 and then 279,000 in 1935–36 – well above the generally assumed number we need to be building today of 250,000 a year. And as we know, money invested in construction has a multiplying effect in the wider economy, so that up to a third of that aforementioned GDP increase at that time is attributable to housing construction.

And this housing was cheap. 85% of these new houses sold for £750 which in today’s money is – anyone want to hazard a guess? – just £45,000. And these were good houses that people liked living in then and like living in now.

Why were they so inexpensive? Construction costs were low, which certainly helped. and mortgages were easy to come by. But the biggest factor was that land was cheap – so housing was more of a low-margin, high volume game where there was little incentive to artificially restrict supply to keep prices high. And it hardly needs saying that the reason land was cheap was because it was in plentiful supply; this was, of course, an era before the advent of planning as we known and the Green Belt.

So, looking at that extended graph once more, we might draw a different conclusion to the one noted above: what is actually preventing the private sector increasing house completions above the more of less consistent level of the last 60 years, and reaching the levels they did during the 1930s, is not developers’ greed, as we so often hear, but the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.

Infrastructure for the 21st Century

This is an excerpt of my introduction from the Infrastructure for the 21st Century event held as part of the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Programme on 10 October 2016. The event sought to rethink how we understand infrastructure, and what, specifically, infrastructure might mean and enable in the context of a global city in the 21st century. 

As we are all witnessing, London is in the midst of a series of major infrastructure projects: Crossrail, the Thames Tideway ‘super sewer’ and the extension of the Northern Line to Nine Elms. Meanwhile, debate is intensifying over the next generation of projects: HS2 and airport expansion in the southeast, with the decision on whether the latter will entail a third runway at Heathrow looking set to made in the next few months.

The Brexit vote has acted as a catalyst for these discussions, as Theresa May’s government, in contrast to the political orthodoxy of the last three and a half decades, argues for a more interventionist state with a clear industrial policy – something that many thought had been consigned rightly or wrongly to the dustbin of political and economic history. What will actually pan out over the next few years remains to be seen, but the shift in rhetoric is notable.

So given this context, over the next few years, we are likely to hear even more from government about infrastructure. And it will be interesting to see what kind of political opposition it will meet, with Labour promoting their own version of an investment-led economic plan. Either way, infrastructure is one of the few areas in which left and right can agree that the government should have a major role. Infrastructure, as it is usually conceived, requires strategy and long-term planning that looks across several decades – something which the market is traditionally seen as reluctant to do.

Yet, governments, as we know, are also beholden to their own short-term agendas, principally the deadlines imposed by the next election. While on the surface the establishing of the National Infrastructure Commission in 2015 by George Osbourne might be seen as an attempt to take the politics out of infrastructure and to try to look beyond the next electoral cycle – but the reality is, of course, rather different for this most political of chancellors, who in that role was well known for his love of the grand projet and being photographed in ‘high viz’ and builders’ hat.

Infrastructure is always political – just witness the furore over Hinkley Point C and at Heathrow – and rightly so, as it requires the state to take decisions about where to invest often large sums of taxpayers’ money on projects that ca be hugely disruptive will undoubtedly benefit some people more than others.

While the NIC is ‘arms-length’, it, of course, remains political and partly as a consequence focused on government-initiated, centralised projects that deal almost exclusively with the physical movement of people, goods, energy and waste. This, though, is a concept of infrastructure that is rooted firmly in the twentieth century, if not, in some ways, the nineteenth – making it somewhat fitting thatthe NIC was launched by Osborne at the National Railway Museum in York.

This evening we’re aiming to look beyond traditional notions of infrastructure, to focus less on the movement of ‘stuff’ than on the systems, networks and spaces which, as London develops over the next few decades, will be arguably as vital to its success as its physical infrastructure.

These kinds non-physical or ‘soft’ infrastructures are often described in wooly terms as social, cultural or even economic infrastructure. So, we hope one the main outcomes of this evening will be bring a great deal more focus to this debate, as well as widening its scope, through the propositions and ideas put forward by our seven speakers. The intention is not to offer a complete set of worked-up propositions that are ready to go tomorrow – although we may see some – but to look at the fundamental questions of what infrastructure could or should be doing in the 21st century and how it might be formed.

Is infrastructure by definition always strategic and state-led? Can it be bottom-up?

Is infrastructure universal or should we be conceiving it in relation to specific social or cultural groups?

Are there any benefits to an absence or lack of infrastructure – particularly in terms of transport – when it comes to resisting or mitigating the effects of gentrification?

Physical infrastructure suffers hugely from NIMBY-ism. As infrastructure becomes increasingly digital, who or what will determine how it is designed in this realm – and who has access to it? What, for example, underlies the algorithm that regulates traffic flow in the city, and what should determine the decisions that it makes?

What is the relationship of infrastructure to power, particularly when it comes to the systems and structures that aim to shape health, lifestyle and wellbeing? When does ‘nudge’ become coercion? To what extent can de-centralised self-regulating systems function as a kind of individual infrastructure?

How can infrastructure sit between economic and other forms of value?

Forgotten Estates

This is an excerpt of my introduction from the Forgotten Estates event held as part of the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Programme on 26 September 2016.

From the beginnings in the ruins of the Second World War, Britain’s post-war housing estates have long been focus of intense and passionate debate. As we will hear this evening, housing estates were the most visible manifestation and embodiment of the post-war belief in the common good and the in progress towards a country that was healthier, more affluent, and more comfortable for all, irrespective of wealth or class.

But to their critics, who began to gain prominence in the 1970s, and then with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 took control of housing policy, housing estates were the failed experiments of left-wing social engineering, and with their concrete and tower blocks were so alien to their inhabitants that they served to exacerbate the problems of social deprivation they were designed to alleviate.

The latter characterisation is remarkably persistent and still shapes how many people view council estates, especially if they’ve never actually lived on one themselves. Conversely, the views and experiences of the people who actually live on estates rarely appear in the media.

Success and failure when it comes to the debate about housing estates are, of course, relative terms. If we consider the success in terms in improving the living conditions of millions of people, then the post-war housing estate building programme was surely one of the greatest public policy successes in British history. And in the context of today’s housing crisis, then that success appears even greater. I have a few stats which bear this out.

In 2011, the number of households renting privately surpassed the number of social renters, which have declined slowly but steadily since the early 1980s. In the 13/14 English Housing survey. Needless to say they had the highest weekly housing costs of any category at £176/week – nearly double that of social renters. With 58% of the 4.4 million private renters aged between 25 and 44, it’s not hard to see why social housing is of such interest to the young. Also important to note is that social renters were far more likely to agree that their form of tenure was a good way of occupying their home than private renters: 80% to 53%.

So, renting a council house or flat is both cheaper and more liked than renting privately – and with 1.2 million people currently on the council housing waiting list, with 260,000 in London alone, the need for this type of housing tenure is clear. But despite all this, post-war housing estates have become a target for redevelopment, particularly in London.

The most notorious example is the Heygate Estate at Elephant and Castle. Here more than 1,200 primarily social-rented homes are being replaced with more than 2,300 flats. Of these Southwark Council says just 79 will be at "social rent", or 40% of market rates, with another 212 homes at 50% and 300 more under shared ownership.

Another important example, and the backdrop to this evening’s discussion is Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar. If you Google Robin Hood Gardens the second autocomplete suggestion after demolition is ‘crime’ – which tells a story about how it is portrayed in the media and often by politicians. At RHG, over 200 decently sized flats in a development that many regard as an architectural masterpiece will shortly be knocked down, despite the valiant efforts of a many of campaigners to preserve not only a place where people live, but what is for many a vital bulwark against the forces that are currently transforming London’s urban fabric. For those who, on the other hand, advocate its demolition, RHG is the archetypal failed estate, an emblem of the folly and hubris of its architects, a ‘concrete monstrosity’ whose continued existence is holding up the possibility of providing much more housing on its valuable site.

This evening we look to get behind the reasons why housing estates have become so totemic for both political right and left, while not forgetting that though they have become an ideological battleground, for many people in this country a housing estate is simply where they live and the place they call home. And this is what we mean with the title ‘Forgotten Estates’. The discussion will consider the ideas and ideals that created post-war housing estates, how and why their status has changed, the role of the media in how estates are portrayed and how characterisations disseminate, the question of social versus financial value, the public versus the individual good, the increasing interest in the post-war era and its architecture, and the nostalgia that many now feel for a moment that was concerned above all about the future.

Peeling back the layers

Originally published in Autumn 2013, in this article I discussed the RA’s ambitious Keeper’s House renovation project with its architect Rolfe Kentish.

Visitors passing through the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard this autumn might notice something they haven’t seen before. A door to the right of the main façade of Burlington House will draw the eye towards the Keeper’s House, the newly-renovated sideways extension of the old house originally created by Sidney Smirke RA in the 1870s. Tracey Emin RA’s bright neon work, Keep Me Safe, 2007, acts as something of an emblem for this ambitious project. The words of Emin’s piece allude both to the name and the welcoming and friendly ethos of this refurbished part of the Academy. Strictly speaking the Keeper’s House is the studio and suite of rooms used by the Academy’s Keeper, the officer responsible for the RA Schools – currently Eileen Cooper RA. Though the scope of what is now called the Keeper’s House has widened, the idea of hospitality is at the core of the project: to remake a disconnected series of rooms and spaces into comfortable new facilities – in essence, ‘a home away from home’ – for Friends, Royal Academicians and members of the public visiting the RA.

Microcosm

I catch up with architect Rolfe Kentish, whose practice Long & Kentish has led the project, amidst the excitement of ‘seeing the furniture come in, the catering equipment, and the colour on the walls’. Kentish is keen to point out from the start that the project has ‘affected and been affected by every almost department of the RA’. In some ways, he suggests, the Keeper’s House can be seen as a microcosm of the whole institution. Space previously used for offices has been taken over in both the rabbit warren-like basement and the old Architecture Room, while the more familiar Casson and Belle Shenkman rooms have also been brought into the project’s orbit. Uniting these disparate spaces is a metaphorical and functional ‘spine’. ‘Comprising a new lift and staircase, the spine will provide access for seven different floor levels, including for the first time the RA’s Library and Archive’. What this has allowed, Kentish notes, is ‘the connection of a variety of different rooms with different characters serving various groups’. The building however remains ‘a very domestic project; each room is a room and they have if anything become more enclosed’.

The grandest room is undoubtedly the Architecture Room, which sits to south-east of the Main Galleries. Designed by Norman Shaw around the time he created what are now the Weston Rooms and Restaurant at the RA to the west of old Burlington House, the Architecture Room will provide much needed space for Royal Academicians and their guests. ‘We’ve removed successive layers of paint, wallpaper and canvas and gone back to the original Norman Shaw red paint finish which was identified by sectional paint analysis overseen by Julian Harrap Architects’, reports Kentish. ‘The walls are almost like architects’ drawing boards: tongue-and-groove boards tightly butted together and then painted. We’ll be leaving them entirely as they are, even retaining the nail holes used to hang architectural drawings in the room’s former life’. The old carpets have been taken up to reveal the original oak floor and Portland stone margin, while the ceiling’s plasterwork has been overhauled. Thee Architecture Room’s decoration and proportions are similar to rooms Norman Shaw created in a number of houses, notably at Cragside, Northumberland. It’s fitting therefore that in its new guise the Architecture Room will reflect this domestic quality as both informal gallery and space for the on-going debate and discussion of art and architecture.

History made visible

The philosophy guiding the whole project has really been ‘about peeling away successive layers, many quite recently applied, to get back to an original state’, whatever that may be. Brickwork has been stabilised, floors sealed and repaired while in the dining room the hotchpotch of beams running across the ceiling has been left exposed. ‘Early plans for the basement call the area a beer store or a wine cellar’, Kentish recalls, and true enough, eighteenth-century wine bins have been found in the vaulted space that is now the ladies’ bathroom. Elsewhere an old fireplace or possibly latrine shoot, most likely part of the original 1660s house, was discovered adjoining the culvert that was created with the insertion of the courtyard fountains in 2000. These underground spaces are left raw, their complex histories made visible, yet given coherence by Kentish’s subtle palette of oak, Purbeck stone and bronze. Upstairs the Casson and Belle Shenkman Rooms have received a much-needed refresh. The carpet has gone, with new white oak floors taking its place. Furniture chosen by David Chipperfield Architects, who are responsible for the interior design of the whole project, lends the spaces a contemporary yet classic feel. Visible from the Belle Shenkman Room (and accessible from the bar the floor below) is the garden, which Kentish describes as ‘another room’. The garden itself will be paved in brick and elegantly planted by landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith, while the roof of the adjoining electricity substation will be turned into a sculpture ‘shelf’ which will change annually.

Making links

The considerable amount of wall space throughout the Keeper’s House will be used to display works from the Academy’s Collection, notably architectural casts, which will be hung around the perimeter of the dining room and other spaces. Taken from ancient architectural fragments and acquired for the instruction of RA Schools students, the casts’ presence in the Keeper’s House will connect it to yet another part of the institution – and this sense of making links and bringing people together is what the Keeper’s House is really all about. Friends, Royal Academicians and other visitors will have new spaces – and a separate front to door with which to reach them – to come together to look at and debate art and architecture over a drink, quick bite or longer meal. As Kentish remarks, ‘there are lots of permutations to how the Keeper’s House will be used and once it is open, we’ll see what’s truly possible’.

Making Connections

Originally published in May 2013, Neil Bingham and Jeremy Melvin, respective curators of Sir Hugh Casson PRA: Making Friends and Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, discussed with me the careers of these two architects and, despite their radically different outlooks, a common ability to make connections – intellectual, aesthetic and social.

Hugh Casson (1910–1999) and Richard Rogers (b. 1933) seem much more than a generation apart when one considers their ambitions for architecture as an aesthetic, social and technological force, and in their conception of the social role architects should play. Yet as President of the Royal Academy, Casson embraced the new and different: a year after he was elected in 1977, Rogers became an ARA, and in 1984, the final year of Casson’s transformative tenure, Rogers became a full member. Two concurrent exhibitions give visitors an insight into these two architects who Melvin describes as ‘two of the greatest architectural showmen of the twentieth century’, and the world of architecture that they helped to define.

Working practices

‘What unites Casson and Rogers as architects’, Bingham observes, ‘is that they are both connectors’. ‘A man of great wit and humour’, Casson connected to a huge world beyond architecture; Rogers, ‘continually connects within and beyond his office’. Casson began his successful partnership with Neville Conder in 1952 when they won the masterplan competition for the Sidgwick Site in Cambridge. But then, ‘Casson did all the royal jobs on his own: the Royal Yacht Britannia, a wonderful suite at Windsor Castle (photographed especially for the exhibition), work at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham. Everything else is really Casson Conder’. While, as Bingham observes, Conder led on the design, ‘Casson was always in on every job, he would always make a comment or bring in a concept, and it was always the right comment ... he was the office critic, the connector’.

Remaking the Royal Academy

When Casson was elected President of the Architectural Association in 1953–54, he was riding the wave of having been the Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Under his presidency, Rogers entered the school, initially gaining little success in his studies but graduating with enough credibility to win a Fulbright Scholarship to Yale. After a successful career as an architect, journalist, author, and professor at the Royal College of Art, Casson’s election as President of the Royal Academy in 1976 made him, in Bingham’s words, ‘the country’s most well known architect, a public figure, only really rivalled by Basil Spence [of Coventry Cathedral fame]’.

In many respects, Casson remade the Royal Academy in his own image, creating an institution that was personable and social, one that could foster new and competing ideas by making connections with new Members of quite different outlooks – and, of course, through founding the Friends of the Royal Academy in, literally, ‘making friends’, the subtitle of the exhibition. As Melvin notes, ‘Casson really went against the 1970s belief that arts institutions were better off government funded’. This was an idea with which Rogers had sympathies. Despite its radicalism, ‘Rogers was wary of the Pompidou being named after a president and being under centralised government control’. ‘Casson’, Melvin suggests, ‘understood there was something interesting in not being that; instead, working between the cracks of British society to create something between a state-funded institution and a private gallery’.

Crossovers

‘1978 was a significant moment for Rogers’, Melvin notes, between the start of the Lloyd’s building and ‘the [Centre Georges] Pompidou which had opened the year before. Rogers was seen, probably by Casson himself, as being someone who was making waves in architecture for cultural organisations’. Rogers had come across Casson’s work as a young man visiting the Festival of Britain in 1951. Not yet at architecture school and about to go into the army, Melvin describes how for Rogers, as it did for many, ‘the Festival marked an extraordinary outbreak of colour. There was a feeling that before everything was grey. The Festival was this wonderful moment where there was fun and lightheartedness’. Melvin suggests, ‘the Pompidou can be seen as a version of the Festival of Britain by someone who had been a student of [the Brutalist architect and thinker] Peter Smithson. There’s a conceptual rigour to it but it also picks up on popular culture, mass entertainment and fun. While there are certainly other in influences, without the Festival of Britain, the Pompidou might have taken a different course’.

Sensibilities

‘The very idea of an academy came naturally to Casson’, remarks Bingham. Coming from a conventional British upper-middle-class background, he was about to take Classics at Cambridge but suddenly switched to architecture at the last moment. Aware of the classics but without the same academic grounding, Melvin describes Rogers as ‘a sharp observer of the interface between the everyday and cultural aspects of modern life, underpinned by a very powerful social sensibility, a sense of fairness and justice’. Born in Florence, he frequently refers to the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, partly, Melvin notes, because he has always maintained that affinity with Florence, and also because ‘Brunelleschi was so overtly an inventor who had to solve massive technical problems’.

Connections

For Rogers, architecture must belong to its time in social and technological terms, a belief that has a strong affinity with modernism. Casson, Bingham says, ‘professed no ideologies’. ‘He loved all types of people and all types of architecture’, promoting Victorian architecture at a time when it was deeply out of fashion. ‘The thing about Casson was that he was in essence a watercolourist’. ‘While people say watercolour is light and easy, and it has that amateur veneer, it is in fact extremely difficult; you have to work fast and have that ease but at the same time there is a lot of skill behind it – in many ways, that sums up Casson’s personality’. The analogue for Casson’s watercolours are Rogers’ notebooks, in which he collects snippets of information, little sketches and thoughts, all with a view to working out and making connections, as his architecture does in both a structural and social sense. If anything unites Casson and Rogers it is that common ability to make connections, and also their showmanship: both in different ways, becoming public figures and advocates for architecture to be social, inclusive and, perhaps above all, fun.

Heavy with History

An interview with the artist Blue Firth about her exhibition in the Architecture Space at the Royal Academy of Arts in January 2013

‘Sound is a good place to start’ remarks Blue Firth as we sit down outside the RA restaurant to discuss her spring exhibition in the adjacent Architecture Space. Exhibition may not be the right word, for what Blue is envisaging is actually a ‘playful tweak of the space’ that she describes as a ‘hinterland between two buildings’. That ‘hinterland’ was formed in 1868 by the Royal Academy’s erection of its Main Galleries 4.25 metres to the north of old Burlington House on the site until then occupied by its gardens. For over a hundred years the gap was open to the elements, gradually colonised by various lean-to structures, before it was cleared out by Foster + Partners and turned into circulation space for the new Sackler Wing of Galleries in 1991, thus also creating the sloping area now known as the Architecture Space. 

Before and after graduating from the RA Schools in 2011, Blue’s practice has been concerned with ‘thinking about how people will encounter the work ... [and] subverting the idea of diverting someone’s attention’. ‘Everyone knows I love a ghost’, she says, recalling her memorable 2010 work, VIGIL, which saw willing participants engage in a quasi-scientific investigation of (alleged) paranormal activity in the RA Schools. ‘As soon as you enter somewhere which is or was haunted ... the way you interact is completely different because there is that expectation something will happen’.

While ‘VIGIL was made as scary as possible’ (‘we thought it would be amazing to have a pig there’; an idea that VIGIL’s participants were perhaps thankful went unrealised), the Architecture Space poses a quite different proposition. It’s not enough, Blue notes, to say ‘look at this’ and just ‘point out the architectural nuances of the ham and cheese between the bread of two buildings’. Instead, Blue intends to heighten the Space’s already existing architectural characteristics, ‘to jolt the person entering the space out of what they are expecting’.

The Stone Tape

We come back to the idea of haunting but of a quite different kind, inspired by the work of parapsychologist, T.C. Lethbridge and popularised by the screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s TV play, Stone Tape (1972). The theory holds, as Blue describes, that ‘architecture is like a tape, constantly recording – it retains history’. This is not just in the physical sense, for example in the residue trapped in layers of paint on a wall, but a psychological one too in the ‘sense of prehistory, ancientness, otherness’ conjured by the raw, visceral qualities of texture. It is this feeling that Blue aims to spark by introducing further fabricated texture to the brick, stucco, polished stone and glass already on offer in the Space, hoping to ‘tamper with its history’.

Blue has spent a lot of time ‘thinking about the idea of textural noise being similar to stone’, and she sees unplanned noise and interference as having much in common with physical texture. A ‘new façade’ for the Space’s north wall, generated via digital distortion, will, Blue notes, suggest the ‘falsication of the original, the ancient faked’. Continuing the theme, a ‘moiré effect on windows above the Space... will see things move around you as you move through, giving a sense of disorientation despite everything being at’. And returning explicitly to sound, visitors will be greeted by a ‘hidden audio track, which you can only access in a given space. It will live there, and give a heavy feeling that it is a space with history’.

The Lost Art of Street Architecture

An interview with Alan Powers, originally published in the Royal Academy Architecture Programme leaflet for Autumn 2012 on the occasion of his exhibition, Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture

There can be few more famous streets than Piccadilly. So famous, in fact, so bound into London’s identity shaped over centuries, that its name needs no suffix of ‘street’ or ‘road’. Yet unlike the older Cheapside or Poultry in the City of London, the mere mention of Piccadilly connotes a type of cosmopolitan affluence quite rare in London. The name Piccadilly, however, has rather more modest origins. The story goes that it originates from pickadils, the type of stiff collars in vogue towards the end of the sixteenth century. This fashion made the fortune of the tailor, Robert Baker, who built himself a grand house on the street in the early seventeenth century. Mocking such ostentatious pretensions of a mere needle worker, contemporary commentators dubbed Baker’s mansion, ‘Piccadilly Hall’ – and so the name was born.

Today, Piccadilly is a site of high-end shopping, expensive restaurants, grand hotels, notably the Ritz, and, of course, the Royal Academy and its fellow Learned Societies. However, architecturally Piccadilly is rarely seen as anything particularly noteworthy or special. The RA’s own Burlington House is the last (heavily-altered) example of the town-palaces which lined the street from the mid- seventeenth century. Since then, the street has been remade countless times, especially in the 1920s and 30s, though without an overarching architectural theme, leaving it something of a mish-mash of the architecturally overlooked and unfashionable. But for Alan Powers, guest curator of Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture, this is one of Piccadilly’s great virtues. 

‘It’s a very interesting mixture if you want to look at the twentieth century, the middle decades particularly’, Powers remarks. Some of buildings which went up over these years were ‘thought very good at the time, but more recently people haven’t looked at them.’ One such building rarely considered architecturally, Powers notes, is the Ritz. ‘It was seen at the time as hugely important. [Now] it looks like another stone classical building, but what excited people was that it was just so accomplished. One of the critics wrote that its great virtue was its invisibility; it looked as though it had always been there’.

Neighbourliness

Invisibility in a more contextual way was also key to another building from that period: Sir Edwin Lutyens PRA’s neo-Georgian Midland Bank (now Hauser & Wirth) next to Sir Christopher Wren’s St James Piccadilly. ‘It is in some ways a toy building, a grand building shrunk down to a very small scale. [Lutyens] is having fun by breaking the rules of classical architecture which is going back to the Mannerism between Renaissance and Baroque, using bits and pieces from Wren, but mixing it in a particularly twentieth-century knowing kind of way’. ‘It’s also beautifully built’, Powers observes, just like a slightly later, though radically different building, a few doors down on Piccadilly’s south side.

Now Waterstones’ flagship store, this building, one of Piccadilly’s most famous, was originally erected by the clothing shop, Simpsons, ‘one of the smartest, most modern businesses of its kind in London, so it was appropriate to have a modern building’. Designed by the early English modernist, Joseph Emberton, ‘it had quite a revolutionary steel frame and steel structure on the outside, but it still retains the politeness of some of the neighbouring buildings through using stone facing’. Also notable are the continuous curved shop front windows – a London first – which have seen displays by such distinguished designers as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Terence Conran. ‘Luckily’, Powers notes, ‘it’s a place you can still walk into and enjoy the interior as well’.

Despite the preponderance of shops and hotels along Piccadilly, most buildings, or specifically most parts of each building, are not publicly accessible. For street architecture a building’s front is the ‘bit that matters’, the design (and appreciation) of which, Powers argues, requires very particular skills and sensibilities. ‘In 1923 the RIBA awarded its first medal for London street architecture [and] at that point it was seen as something that mattered, that buildings fulfilled ... a visual function which related to a street ... the front would be visible to the public and therefore it was a matter of public concern how it was designed’. ‘After all’, Powers continues, ‘the front is what the public sees and people who aren’t trained in architecture tend understandably to judge a building by its front. What is strange is one of the outcomes of modern architecture is that it is somehow not polite to talk about that’.

The Language of the Street

And this, Powers suggests, has seen a generation of architects emerge, no longer conversant in the nuanced language of street front design. ‘There used to be a lot of skills around for how to design the front of buildings and how to use that very shallow depth, working with materials to get an interesting pattern of light and shade, a geometry, so the bits go together more like a musical composition that has a sort of logic and coherence to it. at skill is now very hard to and, I think’.

Some recent additions to Piccadilly’s streetscape bear out Powers’ theory. An office building directly abutting Simpsons by Robert Adam, one of today’s leading classicists, has been nothing if not controversial. Yet in some ways it shies away from the street, its architectural emphasis being on the corner between Piccadilly and the lane running perpendicular alongside Wren’s rectory. ‘It’s certainly very bold’, Powers remarks, ‘and pulls out all the stops, [with] special sculpture by Alexander Stoddart’. ‘Personally I don’t find it quite to my taste, but I think it fits in very well with the exuberant Edwardian buildings like J.J. Joass’s building on the corner of St James’s Street, built out of Greek Pentelic marble which ... has that Edwardian, full on quality’.

Learning to Look Again

It seems that, for Powers, the ideal type of street is one with different architectures (whether they be to our taste or not) competing for our attention, yet coming together through a shared appreciation of the values of street frontage design. In the early twentieth century ‘The RA was well known for the kinds of architects who did buildings ... that were very pictorial in that sense that they had street elevations’. It is interesting for Powers that the latest addition to Piccadilly (currently on-site) is by another Royal Academician, Eric Parry, ‘one of the architects today who’s done a lot to think again about the elevation even whilst maintaining his modernist credentials’.

In focusing on Piccadilly, Powers hopes the exhibition will get architects and the public alike talking about street architecture again. In this guise, the exhibition will act as something of a guide to looking. ‘It’s helpful’, Powers argues, ‘to have someone to point things out and to say, what if the architect had done this differently? They made a choice; do we agree with it? I think one of the great pleasures when looking at architecture is to think, well, they must have had a reason for this, let’s try and work out what it was’.

Breaking the Circuit

Originally posted on 15 January 2011

Last night I attended a performance of Rod Dickinson’s Closed Circuit at the Cockpit Theatre as part of Signal:Noise organised by The Showroom. Produced in collaboration with Steve Rushton, the work consisted of a meticulously staged presidential-style press briefing. Two actors delivered a 30-minute speech entirely composed of fragments from actual speeches given by various heads of states and politicians from the Cold War onwards. The script was visible to the audience in two large autocue screens which revealed the origins of the speech’s various components.

Dickinson states that his work is concerned with “ideas of control and mediation and focuses on the way in which our behaviour is moderated by feedback systems”. By juxtaposing the various fragments of political rhetoric in a continuous stream, he aims to reveal how “similar declarations and political rhetoric have been repeated and reused by numerous governments across continents and ideological divides to justify acts of aggression and state sanctioned violence.” Carefully chosen in collaboration with Rushton, the fragments appeared interchangeable whether the source was Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, John F. Kennedy or Slobodan Milosevic. Thematically they are linked together through their grandiosity – most deal with existential threats to social orders or economic systems – but also through their sheer banality. The generic ‘crisis’ trumped any hint towards specificity.

The hyperbolic rhetoric was matched with an equally overblown set and staging – straight out of Dr Strangelove. The two immaculately besuited actors delivered the speeches from identical lecterns, with dark behind curtains completing the tableau. The theatricality of this staging accentuated the fabricated-ness of the speech, lending it an air almost of the ridiculous that approached parody. However, without the disruption of the autocue, the convincingly delivered speech would have surely washed over audience, mesmerised by this seeming apotheosis of the masterfully staged political set-piece.

During the performance, most of the audience focused directly on the actors while only occasionally glancing back to the autocue as if to pinch themselves that what they were hearing actually was an assemblage. Occasionally there were small gasps (sometimes followed by chuckles) at some of the most outlandish rhetoric. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the most evident audience reactions were to fragments from the more recent speeches, by George W. Bush and especially Tony Blair. It seemed that Dickinson and Rushton had chosen the former when at his most belligerent and folksy, and the latter at his most sanctimonious (although, in hindsight, one might ask, when was he not?).

Although it is entitled Closed Circuit Dickinson’s work in many ways acts to break the circuit. The work reveals the insidious means by which political rhetoric acts as a decoy for the exploitation of crises for the deployment of regressive social and neoliberal economic policies – what Naomi Klein calls The Shock Doctrine. This is all the more topical amidst the hyperbolic scaremongering over the UK’s apparently impending financial meltdown as a decoy for the roll back of the state for the benefit of the rich and ever further marginalisation of poor. In light of the Tory(-led) governments’s mendacious slogan, “We’re all in this together”, Dickinson’s work is a valuable intervention on the mechanisms – and implications – of political rhetoric.

The problems of authenticity

Originally posted on 27 January 2011

What might we say is an authentic urban experience? Is it pushing and shoving one’s way down Dalton’s Ridley Road market, one of London’s few still thriving fruit and veg markets? Is it having a quiet pint of ale in one of the old pubs off Fleet Street supposedly frequented in days of yore by Johnson, Dickens et al? Or is it strolling down Stoke Newington Church Street with its array of independent shops and restaurants with not a single multinational chain in sight?

For some these may very well be authentic experiences. Yet for many others they would be seem alien, activities only of interest to those with the time and money to care about where they shop or have a pint. And while some experiences may seem decidedly authentic to one individual (or segment of society) for others they may be just a part of everyday life.

The notion of authenticity is, of course, highly problematic. It can in varying degrees be dismissed as subjective, elitist, nostalgic and an unhelpful distraction to a proper consideration of the urban environment and the social and economic power structures which shape it. However, for Sharon Zukin, professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, New York, the notion of authenticity is, despite its inherent difficulties, an important tool in thinking about urban environments.

In a recent lecture for the LSE Cities Programme elaborating on some of the ideas discussed in her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (OUP, 2009), Zukin argued for authenticity as a way of understanding the city in cultural terms which could be used to defend the social rights of communities and individuals. Authenticity, Zukin suggested, is useful because it combines a “sense of place with a sense of time”. It takes account of personal experience and the “enchanting” character of particular types of urban experience and the way the individual and collective search for identity is realised in the creation of distinct districts with particular characters. While authenticity can be understood as a particular aesthetic category – manifested in a kind of unsmartness or quaint dilapidations synonymous with traditional shop fronts, and, especially, the lack of overt advertising commensurate with large retail chains – it can also be seen as a signifier for particular social and economic conditions.

Zukin used the example of Vesuvio Bakery on Prince Street in New York’s SoHo district, tracing its evolution over a couple of years from family-run bakery business, via short-lived cafe, to trendy cupcake (chain) store. When the bakery business folded after the death of the family patriarch, Zukin remarked how the new cafe changed very little of the shop front other than adding the word “cafe”. The intention of the new owners was obviously to try to trade on the reputation of the bakery. Zukin, however, drew attention to the presentation of the bread in the window, showing the audience how it had remained almost entirely consistent throughout the bakery’s history. While the cafe’s display was similar the differences were clearly apparent to those who had actually patronised the bakery, or even those whose everyday activity took them past it – a difference unnoticed by anyone not part of the area’s social structures.

When the cafe business itself went to the wall and the cupcake boutique moved in little was changed externally (apart from the removal of the cafe sign) with it largely returned to its appearance the day the bakery folded. While investing considerable capital to bring the shop’s internal infrastructure up-to-date, the small cupcake chain preserved the shopfront’s unique and endearing character, not even adding their own name to the shop front. However, the physical preservation of the shop front did not go hand-in-hand with a continuation of its social and economic role. The cupcakes it sold were now almost certainly baked off-site in some centralised bakery and the shop now addressed a completely different (and no doubt much more affluent) clientele, whose aesthetic tastes were seduced by its appearance of authenticity.

The powers driving the destruction of authenticity can be reduced to capital (i.e. investment in “underdeveloped” areas), the state (via the instigation of urban regeneration projects, although often using private money), and the media. The latter, Zukin sees, as central to the formation of a taste for the authentic. This is, of course, bound up with gentrification and its derivative, so-called “hipster” culture.

On one level gentrification can be understood as a purely economic process. In London, for example, the pioneers of this process in the 1980s and 90s were principally students and especially artists. Mostly middle class but with limited means, they colonised historically poor areas because of the cheaper rents available there. Often these areas were those left vacant by deindustrialisation. In this context it was rather apposite that the new economies the colonisers created in these areas produced little (most gentrifiers worked in the service industries, and especially the media) but were geared towards a particularly pure form of consumerism.

Fashion is the most obvious marker of such processes, and here saw the emergence of a retro-chic based on the continual regurgitation and assimilation of past styles – the calling card of hipster culture. The concomitant urban – or even architectural – manifestation of this process was a fetishization of the seemingly authentic. Of course gentrifiers patronised pre-existing, properly authentic businesses. However, because their purchasing power exceeded that of their of the local population, new businesses whose products catered, and were priced according, to hipsters’ retro and eclectic tastes flocked to these areas. Unable to afford the resultant increase in rents, indigenous businesses who didn’t cater directly to these new markets began to be pushed out and replaced by ones which did – illustrated neatly by Zukin’s example of the Vesuvio bakery’s latest incarnation as cupcake store.

I’ve alluded already to the way authenticity has in many ways become a commodity: businesses flocking to newly gentrified areas and trading on their acquired authenticity to cater to the tastes of hipster culture. Determined by geography and particular demographics, hipster culture essentially defines itself as a niche. Despite this, large businesses soon started to recognise the allure of hipster style and its perceived counter-cultural attitude for those on the outside. In their mainstream, high-street lines they quickly started to imitate hipster fashions. Thus leggings, Converse trainers, Ray Bans and skinny jeans all became mainstays of high street fashion after originating (in regurgitated form) on the streets of east London.

It wasn’t just the products which sought to imitate hipster style with its idolisation of the authentic. Shops, cafes and bars too reproduced the look of authenticity. Peeling paint, mismatching furniture and an assortment of brik-a-brakery assimilated a kind of junk-shop chic. The message was simple. To bask in hipsterism’s counter-cultural sheen all one needed to do was buy hipster clothes, shop in apparently dilapidated stores and buy your latte in a coffee shop which appears to have more in common with a curiosity shop than a branch of Starbucks. (Though, of course, Starbucks is busily rebranding their coffee shops in response to this process). And all this was now accessible from the high street without having to wander off piste to some unfamiliar, potentially dangerous area. Of course it goes without saying that hipster fashion hasn’t remained static. As it’s appropriated by the mainstream it evolves, although always in keeping with its raison d’être by regurgitating and assimilating past styles. And this has just played into the hand of the chain stores by providing a constant stream of ideas and material from which to derive next season’s range.

In a context where any coherent understanding of authenticity has been thoroughly debased by the market, is there any point in clinging to it as a concept? While admitting its inherent problems, Zukin contends that authenticity can act as a important decoy in talking about urban environments. Enshrined in Zukin’s definition of authenticity is her own personal agenda which privileges family-run or independent stores selling locally-produced goods over the homogenising tendencies of multi-national chain stores. Under the shroud of “authenticity” she argues it is possible to talk again (albeit sometimes implicitly) about things like rent controls and imposing constraints on development without entering a hornet’s nest of antithetically-oppossed ideologues. Summing up her stance, Zukin describes herself as advocating a kind of “social sustainability”. Similar to the way environmental sustainability aims at creating a kind of perpetual motion machine with no net energy requirement nor any waste product, “social sustainability” intimates self-supporting, mutually dependent communities.

How this relates to the physical environment is by no means straightforward. If we preserve the authenticity of a building or even an area, does it follow that we have also prevented a community from splintering and fragmenting? As we have seen, with the fetishization of (fabricated) authenticity part of the mainstream, there exists no easy link between authenticity in physical environments and the social structures to which they relate. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the way we perceive authenticity as linked with the physical environment is actually an illusion. Remove the authentic community and the authenticity seemingly embodied by particular buildings evaporates, to be replaced by a cadaverous image of authenticity, poisoned by the market. In preserving buildings it may be that we act to further burnish their allure for outsiders, thus inadvertently fuelling their commoditisation and the eventual destruction of the very communities and cultures which make them authentic in the first place. How do we negotiate the seeming dichotomy that exists between physical and social environments, while accounting for the ways each one conditions and determines the other? Does our obsession with the authentic and its preservation in the end actually destroy what is worth keeping? In a followup to this post I will exploring responses to these questions, trying to unpick the assumptions and difficulties inherent in acts of preservation.

Future Memory

Originally posted on 29 January 2011, this is an extended version of the explanatory text for a series of discussion events I organised at the Royal Academy of Arts Forum.

Memory, we might say, acts to mediate. All our experiences can be understood to be continually refracted through the prism of memory. Yet, memory itself is mutable: it can be moulded, augmented, conditioned, repressed, lost; and is constantly in flux. The way we understand the notion of memory is essentially dialectical, oscillating between series of polarities: the long and the short-term, the individual and the collective, the fixed and the contested. Here in many ways lies the difficulty of relating memory to art and architecture for practitioners and theorists alike. How can we take account of memory, which is in its very nature ephemeral and transient, when dealing with works of art and architecture that operate in the physical realm?

For John Ruskin, architecture embodied memory. A building – and, we could add, a work of art – held memory as an index or trace of the labour that went into its production. Thus, Ruskin saw memory and architecture as inseparable. Writing in 1874, twenty-five years after Ruskin, Friedrich Nietzsche contended that ‘it is possible to live almost without memory … but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting’, prefiguring in many ways the modernist ambivalence towards memory in art and architecture. Despite this, the twentieth century, and, indeed, the first years of the current century have been characterized by an obsession with memory, witnessed by the huge proliferation of museums, libraries and monuments and the great cultural and political importance attached to them.

Lying between art and architecture, monuments pose an interesting case in this phenomenon. Monuments are designed to act as lightning rods for memory, conducting and inscribing in space memories of an event, person or idea for posterity. Yet in usually focusing on one strand of memory, it can be argued that monuments inevitably propagate a selective memory. In the same way that Nietzsche argued forgetting was an essential catharsis for individual existence, how monuments ameliorate past traumas on a collective scale can be seen to perpetuate existing social and political systems. In the first RA Forum event, we examine the function and political implications of monuments, conceived both as object-based strategies and spatial practices of procession and ritual. We consider how tactical re-enactments or new stagings, like speaker Rod Dickinson’s re-working of presidential-style speeches press briefings, pose new perspectives on the political role of monuments and remembering.

The concern for preservation, like the enthusiasm for monuments, reveals a remarkable confidence in the power of physical objects to embody or act as a trigger for memory. In their installation, Cronocaos at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA examined preservation and destruction and the increasingly ideological imperatives behind them – the subject of the second RA Forum event. The motives driving what, how and why we preserve are noticeably fluid and often little understood. OMA’s installation showed how vast swathes of the world deemed ‘historic’ or ‘significant’ are being preserved, while other components of the built environment, especially post-war public architecture, have been vilified and are thus increasingly being destroyed. They argue, ‘The current moment has almost no idea how to negotiate the co-existence of radical change and radical stasis that is our future.’

The consequence of ‘our obsession with heritage’, OMA continue, is to manufacture ‘an artificial re-engineered version of our memory…’, echoing the influential Italian architect, Aldo Rossi, for whom ‘the city [was] the collective memory of its people’. An urban intervention can thus be seen as acting on collective memory too. While the urge to preserve stems from anxieties about forgetting, it can be questioned whether through preserving our physical environment we actually negate the need for memory. Could it actually be through the destruction of our physical reality that we remember? How do we in the present construct memory for the future?

Borromini and the English Baroque

Originally posted on 10 February 2011

Jonathan Glancey wrote a nice little piece in Saturday’s Guardian on Kerry Downes’ new book on Borromini. For anyone who doesn’t know, Downes is one of this country’s greatest and best architectural (and art) historians having written pioneering monographs on Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Wren among others. His books on Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in particular remain essential reading for anyone working on them.

What unites Borromini with Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh et al is, Glancey observes, the Baroque – that most dramatic, illusionistic and sensational or artistic styles. The continental Baroque is broadly speaking usually seen as the artistic outpouring of the Counter Reformation. This was shock and awe of the highest artist intent. That England, a Protestant country, had its own Baroque has only recently been posited. It was Downes’ own book, English Baroque Architecture (1966), which sought to position the drama, monumentalism and licentiousness of late-Wren, Hawksmoor London churches and Vanbrugh’s great houses as the visible manifestation of our very own Baroque age.

If there was a Baroque age in England it was a short-lived one. Soon, so the old story goes, the Palladian straightjacket of Lord Burlington’s aristocratic taste clamped down and extinguished the Baroque’s flame of English individuality. For the Palladians, the Baroque was ugly, luxurious, decadent, even Catholic. Yet while the latter suggests the English Baroque as the product of irresistible urges of the Baroque spirit lapping onto English shores from the Catholic continent, the English and the continental Baroque were quite different.

None of Wren, Hawksmoor or Vanbrugh ever visited Italy to experience the Baroque spirit in its full glory. Wren did meet Bernini while in Paris in the 1660s, but his work shows little trace of the great Italian’s influence. English architects certainly knew of the work of Bernini, Borromini and others through prints and written accounts. But without seeing their buildings in the flesh they would hardly have discerned the sheer drama and delight of these works no matter how vivid their imaginations. The English Baroque was instead a quite insular development.

By the late seventeenth classical architecture had begun to lose its position as signifier of elite status it had had when imported into England by Inigo Jones at the beginning of the century. Classical elements – columns, friezes, consoles, etc – could now be found adorning the houses of even the middle classes: the houses in Spitalfieds’ Fournier Street (above) are prime and still-surviving examples. The Baroque developed out of this context as a grander, more opulent and monumental form of classicism, one quite unavailable to all but the social and cultural elite. Importantly, and this distinguishes it in many ways from many continental variations, it also drew from the architecture of the past, especially the medieval past for the residual authority it still held; many of the country’s most important buildings were, and still are, medieval ones.

However, the English Baroque moment was a brief one. An architectural style which relied on grandiose and individual effects to distinguish the elite status of its owner or patron was to be both economically and aesthetically unsustainable.

Urban Renaissance Travelogue

Originally posted on 23 December 2012, this is a longer version of my review of Owen Hatherley’s A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (Verso, 2012) which appeared in the Oxonian Review on 4 November 2012.

Over the last few years, Owen Hatherley has established himself as something of an enfant terrible of architectural criticism. His Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and now A New Kind of Bleak have launched vitriolic attacks on Britain’s architectural culture, and have done much to shape many especially young people’s understanding of urban Britain and the forces to which it is subject. A self-avowed leftist, Hatherley’s critiques have emerged into a zeitgeist shaped by the inequities of Britain’s urban environments, whether the Occupy Movement, protests against cuts and dwindling pension provisions, the urgent housing crises of our city centres, or, most acutely, the riots of August 2011. It is capitalism and in particular its neoliberal formation of the last thirty years which, Hatherley argues, has tainted architecture and the built environment. Over history buildings have always been highly visible statements of power – architecture is, one might say, power made visible – yet for perhaps the first time architecture has become an agent of the system itself.

This book continues the series of ‘urban trawls’ – essentially potted explorations of Britain’s cities – which made up A Guide to the New Ruins. Originally commissioned by the architectural paper, Building Design and first appearing in 2009, the series sought to chart the neglected post-industrial cityscapes of particularly Britain’s northern cities but also the often ham-fisted attempts by the then New Labour government of rejuvenating these cities through the dubious strategies of rebranding and ‘regeneration’.

New Labour’s strategy was, Hatherley admits, laudable enough in principle. Influenced by the ideas of several architects and urban thinkers, one of the main arguments behind New Labour’s intended ‘Urban Renaissance’ was that denser cities were better cities. Density of buildings and habitation would create cities which worked better, and also foster the types of urban culture which made them ‘vibrant’ (to use one of the marketing phrases) places to live. Like so many of New Labour’s initiatives, the private sector was the source of capital for these new ‘aspirational’ developments, yet with the local authorities often little more than giving away the land to ease them through. City centre brownfield sites dominated, or one could say, ones which were made brownfield by the demolition of swathes of 1960s and 1970s council housing. Not only were these buildings reflective of the now superseded post-war social settlement, but they simply were not dense enough. Most estates contained the civilising gestures of decent amounts of public spaces with buildings set back from one another or from a busy road, all things which were incompatible with the new project of making cities more urban, and, one can hardly ignore, developers’ need to maximise the profit potential of their plots.

The particular aesthetic these new developments (which extended well beyond housing) adopted Hatherley calls pseudo-modernism. This, he argues, is actually a form of postmodernism superficially adopting the forms and appearance of modernism, but stripped of its moralising force and social agenda which drove so many early modernist projects. Thus, we have proliferation of various forms of cladding, an often garish use of colour, ubiquitous (and hideous) green glass and pink terracotta, to give just a few examples. Irregular ‘barcode façades’ were intended to provide variety while the occasional sweeping curve or jagged roof, debasing the forms of Deconstructivist high architecture, offered the faintest nod to contextualism and the code of ‘good design’ guarded by Labour’s now defunct Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). Like the buildings themselves – expensive looking new housing blocks disguising shoddily built, pokey ‘designer flats’, a derisory number of which were (barely) affordable, as Hatherley angrily points out – the Urban Renaissance gave the appearance of regeneration while doing not much more than lining developers’ pockets.

In many ways, as Hatherley admits, little has changed during the last two years under the coalition. Urban Renaissance-style buildings are still being built, and despite their hideous and lasting costs Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes are ploughing on with renewed vigour. Thus, in many ways this book is continuation of New Ruins both in terms of content and theme; although having already covered many northern English cities in his previous book, Hatherley extends the focus of the present book to the cities of the midlands, the west and southern England while also including the Valleys, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast. ‘Middle England’ is brought into view, and it is fitting that here in Britain’s electoral heartland Hatherley does carve out differences in policy between the coalition and their New Labour predecessors, and begins to assess the mark they will leave on urban Britain, even if the ongoing recession means that comparatively little is currently being built.

While New Labour was a keen advocate of the creative industry-led ‘good design’ (despite its often bad results), the coalition, in contrast, is staunchly anti-architect. One only need read education secretary, Michael Gove’s comments on his low-cost replacement for Labour’s ambitious Building Schools for the Future programme for an indication of the coalition’s diametric opposition to Labour’s architect love-in: ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no-one in this room is here to make architects richer’. If the coalition, then, is anti-architect, they are also vehemently pro-developer. The first draft of the coalition’s planning reforms took the notion of consultation to new levels; so relaxed were its restrictions, it appeared to have been written by developers themselves. Although now revised after the predictable uproar, the first draft could be read as an attempt to remove the planning system entirely, enshrining in law a presumption towards accepting whatever was put before planning committees; in essence, turning the whole country into a Thatcherite low-tax, de-regulated enterprise zone. Given Hatherley’s often harrowing depiction of the recent additions to urban Britain in this book and his last, the right-wing argument that planning regulation is somehow holding back economic growth seems quite bizarre.

If the removing of planning policy was in many ways going against the grain of traditional conservative thought, a further aspect of the Tories’ intervention into urban Britain, though not about architecture at first glance, was intended to play right into that sphere. The coalition’s reform of the benefits system and in particular the cap on housing benefit will have the effect of socially cleansing (call it what you will, but I do not believe this to be too an extreme description) our city centres, especially London. The reforms penalise those too poor to have taken advantage of the property boom who remain renting their properties at ever increasing levels (with their wages remaining stagnant or actually decreasing in real terms). The charity Shelter recently reported that in 2011 private rents rose 1.8 times the rate of wage inflation. The situation is quite desperate, with the repercussions of these policies sure to be felt, it is no exaggeration to say, for decades to come. Hatherley’s aim with this book of searching ‘for the coalition’s space … their deliberate strangling of the cities, and more than anything else evidence of the swift dereliction that has overtaken the spaces of the outgoing regime’ are, therefore, doubly urgent.

After a long introduction during which Hatherley stakes out his underlying argument, the book essentially takes the form of a travelogue, full of passion and anger at what he finds, very much (and self-consciously) inspired by the tradition of J. B. Priestley and Ian Nairn. The cityscapes Hatherley surveys are, it would be fair to say, ones which the reader is unlikely to have visited, and in any other work would be unlikely subjects of architectural criticism. Generally, the book is engaging and well written; Hatherley’s acerbic wit is a welcome antidote to the insipid optimism at the heart of the Urban Renaissance. The odd sweeping, unsubstantiated remark, betraying Hatherley’s inner Trot, jars (the quote above about ‘outgoing regime’ is a minor example), as does the odd reference to the high theory of Deleuze et al., pretentious in a work so openly journalistic. The book is, however, far too long; the origins of its episodic structure as a magazine serial are obvious. It is also rather under-illustrated. Photographs by Hatherley himself make an occasional appearance but they are small and reproduced in low-quality black and white, losing any impact they might have had. I suppose in a way it would be odd to reproduce the photographs in high-fidelity; part of what Hatherley is railing against is the glossy vacuousness of how architecture is so often represented in photography: blue skies, perfectly aligned views, no hint of actual human presence. However, some kind of compromise could have been reached, and the book would have been better for it.

Despite these criticisms, it is hard to disagree with Hatherley’s analysis; he is an acute, often witty, and impassioned observer, and most of what he argues is quite compelling. The book runs into problems, however, when he attempts to offer solutions to the current predicament. He suggests that they can be found in ‘previous urban alternatives’, and therefore, betrays his ideological prejudice towards the post-war modernism, and the social programmes with which it was inextricably linked.

Certainly, as Hatherley passionately argues, social architecture – public housing, new schools, libraries, etc. – of the 1960s and 1970s could be and often was more humanising than much of the architecture being built today. However, while the best of it was truly excellent (Hatherley cites the Byker Estate in Newcastle, the Barbican and more dubiously Sheffield’s Park Hill estate as particularly fine examples), a great deal of the housing of this period was poor, ill-thought out, badly built, unappealing then and now and most often designed without the involvement of those who would actually be living there. This was, in the vast majority of instances, top-down, imposed architecture. The considered, iterative design process for the Byker Estate, which brought local people into the fold at every stage, was the exception and is the key reason why that estate works and so many others did not. Poor maintenance was and remains a big problem, although this has been exacerbated by cheap and unsuitable construction methods. However, at the root of these estates’ failure is that in almost every regard they were far too undemocratic. Not only did those living in them not buy into the utopian ideals which at root underpinned these endeavours, but the wider public did not either. Put bluntly, without wider public support there were simply no votes for paying out significant sums for the continued maintenance and update for buildings which few had a personal stake in. Moreover, the architectural excesses of this period – one immediately thinks of the high-handed intellectualism of Alison and Peter Smithson’s Brutalism – have, one can reasonably argue, irreparably damaged the progression of modern architecture in Britain. Brutalism’s excesses have prejudiced many against all forms of modernism, which they perceive as being ugly, overbearing and the product of arrogant architects more concerned with bolstering their egos than with such apparently prosaic concerns as designing a decent building at a reasonable cost. This populist sentiment is exactly the one Michael Gove has invoked with his repeated attacks on architects.

What Hatherley fails to see or refuses to admit, is that pseudo-modernism is the logical product of this situation. No-one with money to spend is likely to buy a flat in yet another debased, discredited ‘concrete monstrosity’, no matter how spacious, pleasant and well-built it might be. The logic of the market therefore dictates that the aesthetics must change (even if the differences in structure and construction between a 1960s block and one going up down the road right now are fairly minor). The marketing is certainly objectionable, riddled with clichés about being ‘aspirational’ and ‘designer’, and the cladding and barcode façades, as Hatherley rightly identifies, mask small, shoddily built flats, which are nevertheless prohibitively expensive (even with the few concessions to a percentage of dwellings which are forced conform to some bizarre, relative notion of ‘affordability’). Despite all this, these flats are still being bought. There are plenty of ex-council flats available which on the whole are more spacious, better-built, comparably or better located, and certainly much cheaper. They are, of course, cheaper for a reason: they are in lower demand. What developers (and their architects) have realised is that what people want are flats in buildings which look new, shiny and bright. Pseudo-modernism, then, is the symptom rather than a cause of paucity of so much contemporary architecture, and arguing that a return to Brutalist forms, however beautiful to an architectural historian’s eye, would in any way alter this situation is wholly counterproductive.

In many ways this gets at the heart of where Hatherley’s book, for all its impassioned vitriol and inspired incision, ultimately fails. The long opening chapter contains Hatherley’s main argument, the succeeding chapters of ‘trawls’ are then used as evidence for his earlier assertions. There is little in the way of a conclusion or of an argument that is built up and pieced together as the book progresses, all of which would have resulted in a view which is more nuanced, easier to defend and much more convincing. What we are left with, then, is a polemic, a piece of journalism where it appears Hatherley does not wish to let anything as unimportant as actual evidence get in the way of his preconceived outlook.

Thus, the book offers little in the way of positive solutions to the problems Hatherley identifies. He does, however, suggest hope may lie in three possible groups: trade unions, students and the young unemployed. Each group has made recent interventions in urban space though in fundamentally different ways. The new Unison headquarters on London’s Euston Roads is a decent, if unremarkable building which Hatherley reads as offering some clues as the ways trade unions are adapting themselves to changes in the economy and working relations. More immediately interesting things are happening in our universities. Students have been among the strongest hit by the coalition with huge fee increases, and felt the rise of pseudo-modernism more acutely than most through the proliferation of shiny yet exorbitantly expensive new halls of residence. Over the last few years we have witnessed 1968-style occupations at a number of universities and several imaginative interventions which aim to challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying our higher education system and, indeed, society itself. However, given the coalition’s rather naked attempt to ‘consumerise’ students, the future of such student-led actions is unclear.

So far, so predictable. However, it is with the third group that Hatherley strays into uncertain territory; the young unemployed’s recent urban interventions were, of course, the riots of August 2011. London has always congratulated itself that it has no banlieue, no ring of socially and racially segregated areas around a more affluent city centre. What it does have, however, are people of vastly different levels of wealth living in very close proximity, sometimes even side-by-side, yet with little if any social or economic interaction. It was during the riots and their aftermath that these two cultures came into focus. The damage caused by the young rioters, the majority of whom were born and bred in the areas they ransacked, was cleared up the following day by a predominantly white, middle-class, affluent group of people, mostly originating from outside London. Gentrification and the reification of social stratification it has led to certainly played a part in the riots’ outbreak, but the broader causes are, it would be fair to say, rather more complex. For Hatherley, however, the riots were simply the inevitable result of these urban conditions created by subsequent governments, indeed, by capitalism itself. He rails against the Cameron mentality that the riots were ‘criminality pure and simple’, arguing if we ‘pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at palliation … then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than looting an entire economy’. Yet, on one level Cameron was right, and a lot of people agreed with him; these were acts of criminality, particular choices made by individuals. However, despite the move rightwards of the Conservative party over the last few years, even the most hard-nosed Tory would have to admit in the face of evidence that crime does have more causes than personal choice and that these can only be understood in sociological and economic terms. By equating the looting of Foot Locker with that of an economy, Hatherley is guilty of the type reductive reasoning the right so loves. But while the coalition’s equating household finances with those of the state, for example, has, despite its false logic, masterfully brought public opinion round to their right-wing economic agenda, Hatherley’s comparison is alienating, painting himself as an extremist when in many ways he is actually speaking for the mainstream and the majority.

The way Hatherley allows his ideology to trammel over his usually reasonable and well-made observations is without doubt this book’s main weakness; it is detrimental to his argument and by marking off its author as a left-wing ideologue prevents the book from being as transformative as it might be. Rather than preaching to the choir, what our current situation requires is for people to look at their surroundings and understand how they are related to and reflect the economic and political system. That the book invites the reader to do just that (though it could go further) is its great strength. Indeed, much of Hatherley’s actual argument about postmodern urban spaces is familiar, recalling, as Will Self has noted, Rem Koolhaas’ now seminal essay from 2000, ‘Junkspace’. Koolhaas essentially contends that after modernism ran its course, a caricatured modernism emerged, one which is hollowed out, turning on its head the human progress modernity was supposed to herald. This description perfectly accounts for both pseudo-modernism and the still emerging icons of high architecture. What is different in Hatherley’s case, however, is that he is a non-architect. He speaks from outside an extremely inward-looking, often navel-gazing profession, and is not concerned with promoting a ‘good design’ agenda, which is really about architects’ professional interests, but the basic material conditions of people’s lives. The popularity of his books reveals there to be huge dissatisfaction with our urban environments, an eagerness to discover more and learn how to analyse our surroundings critically. It is only through this process, I would argue, that alternatives can be sought. It is clear that modernism’s principal lesson in retrospect – that architecture cannot change social conditions, it can only reflect them – still holds; it cannot and should not be unlearnt. But getting people to look critically at architecture, as Hatherley’s book tries to do, will in turn lead them to look critically at the system through which it is created, and, perhaps, do something about changing it.

Notes

1. Merlin Fulcher, ‘Gove: Richard Rogers won’t design your school’, The Architects’ Journal, (2 February 2011), [accessed 20 October 2012]

2. ‘London Rent Watch: Rent inflation and Affordability in London’s private rental market’, commissioned by Shelter, (March 2012), [accessed 22 October 2012]

3. ‘MP calls for more affordable flats on estate’, BBC News, (25 October 2012), [accessed 26 October 2012]

4. ‘England riots: Cameron says police admit to wrong tactics’, BBC News, (11 August 2011), [accessed 26 October 2012]

5. Will Self, ‘It hits in the gut’, London Review of Books, Vol. 34, No. 5 (8 March 2012), pp. 22–24

6. Koolhaas is also interested the effect the assault on post-war public housing especially is having on our individual and collective memory. The concerted destruction of these buildings eases their erasure our memories, leaving the sense that these great projects, the result of huge communal will and collective action, are now impossible. He explored these ideas, as well as the coterminous rise of the urge to preserve in an exhibition entitled Cronocaos, first shown at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

How do you make an architecture exhibition?

This post originally appeared on the Royal Academy of Arts website on 11 February 2014.

Curators of art arguably have an easier time. An artist’s finished works – be they paintings, sculptures, photography, installation or video – take pride of place. There might be preparatory drawings, sketches or studies if we’re thinking about an Old Master exhibition, for instance, but almost without exception, the focus for the visitor – as it is for the curator – is the finished the work, the real thing, the very apogee of an artist’s practice. But with architecture, you have a few problems. An architect’s finished work, the thing by which they are judged as an architect – and I’m talking, of course, about an actual building – is almost always absent. It has been a convention, therefore, for architecture exhibitions to concentrate on an architect’s working methods and reveal the ‘design evolution’ of a particular building through drawings and models. The buildings themselves are illustrated through photographs and, latterly, CAD renderings (computer-generated images of the building as it might appear in real life).

There are ways one can get around the absence of the finished article, for example, by mounting an exhibition of an architect’s work in one of their buildings. This was done most spectacularly with the Palladio 500 exhibition in 2008, which was shown in Vicenza in Palladio’s Palazzo Barbaran da Porto and in London in early 2009 (as Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy), at the Royal Academy, whose home, Burlington House, is one of the earliest examples of eighteenth-century English Palladianism. This solution is, of course, not always possible and very rarely in the ways managed for the Palladio exhibition. Nonetheless, despite this apparently almost existential constraint for architecture exhibitions, some have helped to redefine the discipline at particular historic junctures and have helped shape its future direction.

Arguably the first of these was the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition that took place at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1932 before later touring across the US. Organised by the historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and architect Philip Johnson the exhibition thrust Modernism onto the global stage. Including work by figures such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud and Walter Gropius alongside the Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, Johnson claimed their work as a new ‘International Style’, which was ‘probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic’. ‘Today’, he claimed, ‘the style has passed beyond the experimental stage. In almost every civilised country in the world it is reaching its full stride’. While Johnson’s claims were rather bombastic, the exhibition not only served to unify and codify a particular expression of Modernism, but gave it the wide exposure and institutional backing that helped establish it as a truly ‘International Style’.

Over five decades later, another exhibition at MoMa proved similarly influential by bringing to the fore a number of architects who had then built little but whose names are now very familiar. Featuring the work of Frank Gehry Hon RA, Zaha Hadid RA, Rem Koolhaas, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind Hon RA and Bernard Tschumi, 1988’s Deconstructivist Architecture was again curated by Philip Johnson, this time with Mark Wigley. The rather ungainly title derived from an assimilation of Russian Constructivism and Deconstruction. The latter was the particular brand of Post-Structuralist linguistics associated with the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, that in architecture was seen to be manifested in fragmented forms, bricolage and complex relationships to context and site. The link to Constructivism, meanwhile, alluded to the influence the abstract, geometrical languages formulated in Russia during the 1920s exerted on Hadid and Koolhaas especially. It was also fitting in a further way, because many Deconstructivist projects were, similarly to their Russian forebears, often confined to paper; given her subsequent success, it is hard to believe now that Hadid’s first building only came in 1994. Although its subjects were quick to evade the categorisation the exhibition’s title had made for them, the exhibition was remarkable in bringing together a group of architects who, almost without exception, have been at the forefront of world architecture for the last twenty years.

Not to be out done, the Royal Academy has had its own share of important architecture exhibitions. The most notable was New Architecture: Foster, Rogers, Stirling, put on in the Main Galleries in 1986. It took place just at the moment when its three protagonists were cementing their positions on the world stage, helping to establish the global reputation of British architecture. Even the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue, which depicted Norman Foster’s HSBC building in Hong Kong, Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building and James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, was illustrative of both the scale and significance of these architects’ work and its global reach. As well as showcasing recent work, the exhibition also offered each architect a platform for new ideas and provocations. The most famous was Rogers’ ‘London as it could be’, a huge model for reimagining the centre of London, reintegrating the city with the Thames and engineering the primacy of the pedestrian over the car. Real water was used for the Thames in Rogers’ model, and a story goes that at the exhibition opening Stirling smuggled in a live goldfish, which he added to the flowing model river! Given that today the Thames is as clean as it’s been for decades with fish returning, partly as a consequence of the regeneration that Rogers and others have advocated, Stirling’s playful act was unintentionally rather prescient.

Part of ‘London as it could be’ was exhibited as part of the recent exhibition, Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, which ran at the RA over summer 2013. That exhibition focused on Rogers’ influential ideas on architecture and cities, arguing, perhaps above for all, for architecture as something that is absolutely fundamental to how we live. It is this idea, though quite differently manifested, that links directly with Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. This exhibition argues that the direct experience of the buildings and spaces around us is central to our understanding of architecture. It is a welcome antidote to the global prevalence and proliferation of the weirdly-shaped ‘iconic’ building, and helps get us back to the real essence of architecture. It is hard to predict the influence, if any, an exhibition will have, but Sensing Spaces might just be an exhibition that’s looked back on at least as something that was bold and a bit a different, breaking new ground and going against the grain.

The forces shaping London’s skyline

This post originally appeared on the Royal Academy of Arts website on 23 April 2014.

The planning system in Britain is a mess. We see the results everywhere: from out-of-town retail parks that force everyone to drive and thereby clog up the roads while stripping our high streets, to the wanton inadequacies of new housing and proliferation of over-sized towers shooting up all over London. Britain has no shortage of first-class architects, but so often they are curtailed by the commercial priorities of private developers after a quick buck from London’s overheated property market. 

For those lucky enough to be on the property ladder, it’s not unusual to go out to work and find that over the day your flat has earned more than you have. For young people on anything less than an investment banker salary or without help from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, the hope of owning your own home is a distant and increasingly forlorn one. Buying a house is usually the biggest financial transaction any of us make in our lives, but with fewer and fewer ever likely to make that leap, property ownership is becoming one of the main drivers in the seemingly ever widening chasm between the rich and poor. The debate about planning is, therefore, far from being one of aesthetics – it’s an argument about the sort of society we want to live in, indeed, whether we believe in society at all.

This is why I have some reservations about the recent ‘Skyline’ campaign launched by the Architects’ Journal in partnership with The Observer. The campaign’s aims are laudable enough. They seek to draw the public’s attention to the imminent transformation of London’s skyline by over 200 buildings more than 20 storeys tall. But the campaign’s objections are couched in terms of these new towers being ‘grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline’, their ‘mediocre architectural quality’, and their ‘generic designs’ that ‘threaten London’s unique character and identity’. It’s hard not to disagree when you look at some of the examples the campaign cites: the proposals for the Shell Centre just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, and the area around Vauxhall that is already plagued by some of London’s very worst architecture. However, the pièce de résistance of this crass collection of interventions on London’s skyline has to be the Doon Street Tower. It promises to ruin views not only of the adjacent National Theatre but, because of its colossal size, it will be visible over the Somerset House courtyard and destroy one of London’s greatest architectural compositions. It’s not necessarily a bad building and Doon Street is certainly ripe for development, but it has to be one of the worst places in the whole of London for a building that tall to be placed – a disastrous failure of planning.

The ‘Skyline’ campaign rightly notes that these towers have been waived through with little or no public consultation. But the argument still boils down to one of aesthetics: the individual and collective impact of these towers on London’s skyline. It should be so much more. These buildings will have a detrimental impact on London, for sure, but they are the consequence rather than the cause. We should be aiming to treat the cause of this plague upon London’s skyline and not the symptoms. The unerring power of the market aided by the lack of a coherent planning strategy makes buildings of this sort – machines for making money – nothing short of inevitable. 

It was interesting, therefore, that the launch of the ‘Skyline’ campaign coincided almost exactly with the publication of the Farrell Review. The background for this is that a year ago the architecture minister, Ed Vaizey commissioned Terry Farrell, one of Britain’s leading architects, to look into the state of architecture and planning in Britain and to produce a series of key recommendations for its improvements. The result is an impressive and wide-ranging document. Farrell’s recommendations are nicely varied, from broad brush, long-term proposals to the particular and – dare I say it? – easily achievable.

One of the most ‘common sense’ recommendations is that architecture be taught in schools and there be much needed reforms to architectural education. An emphasis on ‘place’ recurs throughout the Review with the most striking proposals deriving from it. They include the appointment of ‘civic champions’ to act as advocates for the built environment in local areas; linked this would be the creation of  ‘urban rooms’ in each town so people might better understand the past, present and future of their area; new PLACE review panels (an acronym standing for Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation, Engineering) to take a more holistic view of a building’s impact than is often done so currently. 

Farrell also suggests a new role of a government-appointed ‘chief architect’, to mirror other professions. It’s here though that the Review’s biggest weakness comes very obvious – and it’s nothing to do with the Review itself – it’s the reliance on government to take notice, let alone any appropriate actions. Let’s hope, then, that the Review’s impact is more than simply mollifying those profession insiders who’ve now had their voices heard and it doesn’t end up on a Whitehall shelf like so many reviews before it.