Sunday, February 3, 2008

Floating In the High Tech Gene Pool.

The other week I took my daughter to Hackney’s newly re-opened Clissold Leisure Centre. I’ve got nothing against Steven Hodder and don’t really want to add anything to the feverish why did it leak and cost so much debate but my visit did get me thinking about the state of British Architecture. Because this building is curiously British and exemplifies a kind of stylistic cul de sac up which we seem to have disappeared. Why does so much recent British architecture look like this? This strange reduced language of gunmetal grey columns and finely formed concrete and glass? The whole of the Jubilee line looks like this, as do most new office blocks and much of Manchester and, soon, Liverpool. Other permitted materials include: red terracotta tiles (always articulated as a rain screen cladding), blue engineering bricks, glass blocks and stainless steel. These buildings are like sentences without adjectives, or metaphors or similes or shades of meaning. One. Thing. Next. To. Another. Very. Simple. Like.

Tracing the building buildings family tree helps to shed some light on why it looks and feels the way it does. I blame Richard Rogers. And Norman Foster of course, but everyone already blames Norman Foster. But before them you have to blame Archigram and probably specifically Peter Cook and Ron Herron who were the people in Archigram most literal in their love of service systems and frameworks and architecture as a super large wiring diagram. You could I suppose blame Cedric Price too but he always seemed far too sardonic and distant to really be taking it all seriously. Not, that’s not quite fair but you know what I mean. Anyway, beyond them there was of course Fuller and the more flexible, clip it together flat pack school of modernists of which Prouve was probably the most well known. But its taken the Brits with their Anglo Saxon fetish for the detail and their very English fear of appearing in any way pretentious to pare architecture down to this very puritanical strain of thought that gives us buildings like Clissold.

Buildings that are sheds, sophisticated sheds without the rhetorical power of their crude forebears, tend to be the thing in this High Tech gene pool. Plans that are diagrams, fleshed out in this barren set of materials and forms. Clissold is a classic late mannerist version of the kind of high tech pioneered by Roger’s and in turn pilfered from Archigram and Price. Up close its all shadow gaps and silicone bonded glazing. From a distance it is huge aerofoil roof sections ‘floating’ as they invariably say, on glass. Entrances are especially problematic in this genre, as they tend to be associated with old rhetorical anti-functionalist types of architecture, So, they tend to be an absence rather than a presence, a gap in the grid or a missing corner that denotes entry. For this I suppose Louis Kahn must take some of the blame, as he notoriously didn’t like entrances either. Once inside, the purity of the shed is held to be of utmost importance so rooms and interior spaces tend to be pods sheltering within the wider span. All of this adds up usually to pretty bad Urbanism (see everything ever done by Nicholas Grimshaw, but especially the poor old Sainsbury’s in Camden Town) as the big sheds can’t adapt well to circumstance and chilly and banal interiors as all sense of procession, hierarchy, surprise, layering or complexity are shunned.

So it is in the Clissold Leisure centre. A chilly, vaguely dystopian environment of stainless steel guard rails and confusing foyer spaces. But what is most striking is how utterly grim it is. The idea that you are meant to take your clothes off and enjoy yourself in here is preposterous. A moment of total bathos arrives when you (well, if you) get to the toddler’s pool where two brightly coloured mushroom water sculptures stand forlornly within the grim airport ambience of the rest of it, a grumpy nod to an alien idea of fun or gaiety. The building accommodates and accepts these pop coloured intruders the same way the receptionist in a Cork Street art gallery accepts a smelly tramp. And here is the rub; this stuff is meant to be democratic. It’s origins in a critique of the forbidding social etiquette of classical architecture, or even architecture at all, mean that it is somehow meant to provide a home for all. A dim structuralist symbolism that equates glass with institutional transparency and open plans with freedom means we get these buildings that are ideologically against comfort and pleasure.

This isn’t a plea for more humanism or false ad-hocism in architecture. Quite the opposite, I think there’s too much of that nonsense already. I would happily go to an Aldo Rossi designed swimming pool (although that would probably leak too). What rankles is that we have ended up with so much public architecture like this. Grim third cousins to the Lloyds Building without its wit and dexterity, but with its odd obsession with handrails and complicated joints. This has replaced architecture as the point somehow. I don’t think the answer is covering everything in specious decoration a la Foreign Office Architects either but perhaps a sense of architecture as a formal as well as a technical discipline where space can be positive rather than negative, designed rather than avoided.

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