Architecture

It’s time for another opinionated rant. This one’s a biggie, and deeper than my usual stuff. Please extinguish your cigarettes and fasten your safety belts.

So what is it this time? A bit of background. At university, I studied music. A lot of the stuff we had to read was by a certain type of author — high-and-mighty beard strokers called ‘modernists’ who thought they and their tweed wearing buddies were ‘special’ and knew better than “the ignorant masses” because they had great ‘theories’ or ‘concepts’ behind their music. These included join-the-dots written music, playing instruments backwards, dropping things, turning mathematical algoritms into melodies, 4 minutes of silence, etc. These writers really annoyed me, because despite how clever they thought they were and how much effort they apparently went to, the ‘forward thinking’ music they advocated was always bullshít. Let’s make no mistake here — even if you read the liner notes it still didn’t make any sense and was just as offensive. It was obvious that they were only prepared to give credit to works that were significantly “different” from anything else already done – anything else was snobbily dismissed as “derivative”, “backward-looking”, “kitsch”, “sentimental” or “pastiche”, as if its very existence was theft or mockery of others’ ideas. Complete scorn toward and rejection of the past was a core modernist belief. This meant that unless a work WAS a jumble of random noises, to these academics it was worthless.

So, that’s modernist music: repulsive. But at least it can sit happily in archives for eternity and not bother anyone. But unfortunately, some architects had been going to the same lectures. When the war destroyed a lot of our best buildings, the modernists saw their chance to impose their stupid vision on us in the form of architecture. Go into town and look for the nearest 1950’s/1960’s/1970’s concrete monstrosities (like London’s National TheatreIsland Block and former Home Office Building, Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, Sheffield’s Park Hill EstateCumbernauld town centre, and countless others). Beautiful, aren’t they? Aren’t they? That’s ‘modernist’ architecture for you. The use of undecorated, unpainted concrete as the dominant material was appropriately termed “brutalism” (couldn’t agree more). The same academics who were falling head over heels imposing their visions of concrete cathedrals in the middle of our otherwise historic and attractive towns and cities were the same folk as were oohing and aahing over piles of disjointed notes in the world of music. And just like modernist music was seen as hideously ugly, so was the architecture. And both still are.

Crikey, this is turning into an essay, and I left University years ago.

Anyway, even though concrete fell out of favour, there still seems to be this ‘cult of modernism’ in British architecture. If a new building isn’t made of lots of glass/metal/untreated wood and shaped like a penis, which is the current modernist flavour of the month, it gets the same critism reserved for non-modernist music — it’s “pastiche”, “derivative” or “of little architectural value”. Any architect that hasn’t followed the ‘guidance’ of Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier (the ‘gods’ of modernist worship) is described as “lazy”, “unimaginative” or just plain “incapable”. This all-pervading cult is exactly the same as its counterpart in modern visual art — look at some of the dreadful eyesores that won awards last year from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and spot the parallels between them and the Turner Prize nominations.

Where modernist architects have got it wrong is that architecture is NOT just another medium for artists to innovate for the sake of innovation, get brownie points from academic institutions or experiment with fanciful ‘concepts’ — that’s the trap that conventional art has fallen into. Architecture is MUCH more than just an artist’s canvas. It’s something locals have to put up with every day, and they have to be proud of it. It has to be in harmony with everything else near it or it looks out of place. It has to respect local styles and materials, or it strips places of individual character. If people find a building they have to work or live in ugly, it has negative effects on their lives. If its appearance or unusual layout discourage people from using it, it’s a failure. And one lesson we must learn about concrete eyesores: if locals hated them when they were new, they will still hate them decades later.

But all is not lost. There’s a new movement called ‘New Urbanism’ that recognises modernism’s shortcomings and strives to revive the lost art of building beautifully. It’s the complete opposite of modernism. Prince Charles is one of its high profile supporters, and just under a decade ago he started building the new village of Poundbury on his Dorset estate. Check out the pictures and see what you think. When I first saw it, I realised just what architects COULD do should they disregard the modernist clique and just build the buildings people want to live in. At first glance, it looks like a genuine “old” country village — but look a little closer and you see that it’s brand new, and very well planned. But somehow, knowing it’s new doesn’t matter. It doesn’t look like a museum, or a carbon copy of another ancient place. There are perfectly proportioned open spaces, comfortably narrow streets that wind about, and a liberal intermixing, rather than strict separation, of residential and commercial properties. No two houses are the same. Hundreds of people have flocked to move in, architects and town planners organise tours to go see it, and apparently civic pride is strong. And surprise surprise — the modernists HATE it.

Stephen Bayley, from the above website: “…Poundbury, Prince Charles’ own experiment in building an ideal community… the architecture is lazy and intellectually sentimental… lifeless, artless pastiche… a bad copy of a jobbing Georgian builder’s original.”

My my. They really ARE threatened by it. Well, naturally — the lid’s finally off on the truth — their buildings suck. Take a look at some of the college art projects masquerading as houses he advocates— I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to want to flock there in their droves, so his opinion’s pretty worthless.

This is why I’m so annoyed with these egotistical, arrogant, holier-than-thou academics (“but I’m an artist don’t you know”) who dominate the upper echelons of British architecture: buildings are MUCH more than just artistic statements.

– Firstly, just because a building imitates an earlier style does not make it “artless” or “pastiche” — if so, surely the hordes of concrete eyesores are ‘concrete pastiches’? It does not even make it a “bad copy”; history is chock full of examples of imitations of styles that often came thousands of years before, e.g. gothic style, classical style, greek style, oriental style, etc. The year of construction should not matter — just because a style was predominant in the past doesn’t mean it can’t still be employed in the present. You don’t have to make buildings radically different just for the sake of it, if an existing style is both beautiful and popular, and when you can still build something totally original within the style’s boundaries.

– Secondly, buildings are part of an organic, human environment and have to respect human needs and sensibilities, or they are simply sculptures, not buildings at all. If you build something in the middle of a town or city, where existing buildings dictate a style whether you like it or not, you have to respect the environment and build it for the people who live there, NOT disregard everything else and design for your own aggrandisement in architectural circles.

– Thirdly, and most importantly, publicly visible buildings are as much about politics as they are about anything else. If there’s one lesson we’ve learnt from the concrete carbuncle era, it’s that modernists can build in whatever style they like, but if they build stuff they know full well the public will hate, they can only expect the same public to be cheering in a few decades’ time when the bulldozers move in.

You may now unfasten your belts and exit the aircraft. Have a pleasant day.