Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Drop the piloti

Will Wiles has written an excellent post on the historian Gavin Stamp over at his Spillway blog.  It's a thoughtful, fair and elegantly phrased piece which, Will claims, he has been wrestling with for a few months before posting. Coincidentally, I've also had a half-written post about Stamp sitting in my drafts folder since the new year. In my case, I didn't press 'publish' because the piece struck me as a bit ranty, not particularly well-considered and far from elegantly phrased. It does though come to some similar conclusions to Will's. Given that, perhaps it makes a nice companion piece. 

Apologies for the obvious lack of timeliness as it concerns the Christmas edition of Private Eye and a column that Stamp wrote under his pseudonym 'Piloti'. Despite that, it's pretty much applicable to any column that Stamp writes under his pseudonym 'Piloti', so the dates are pretty immaterial. Here goes...

Private Eye's Piloti has been around so long that he's part of the furniture and therefore generally considered pretty harmless. Once upon a time, perhaps, he had an important point to make, an ability to prick the pomposity and arrogance of developers and architects incapable of seeing value in old buildings. But his columns have become exercises in self-parody, thoroughly predictable exercises in modern architecture bashing.

Piloti's columns are written as if on some kind of antiquarian auto-pilot, if such a thing were possible and didn't make him sound like a steam-punk aviator. Take his latest column*, the traditional Sir Hugh Casson Award for the worst building of the year. It's worth going through it in detail, precisely because the sense of over-familiarity makes you miss some of the more outlandish arguments at first.

This year's recipient of the Casson is One New Change, the City of London office block designed by Jean Nouvel. Piloti's description of this building is so generic and predictable as to elicit almost no reaction at first. That is until you give it a second read, when the mixture of reactionary prejudice and vaguely unpleasant bigotry becomes clearer. 

Nouvel's nationality, for instance, gives Piloti the opportunity to engage in some xenophobic anti-French fun such as calling Nouvel the "Johnny Hallyday of architecture". What could possibly connect these two hugely different Frenchmen apart from the fact that they are similar ages and both, err, French? Obviously there's no meaningful connection, but for a certain kind of Englishman the mention of French pop is itself inherently hilarious. There is also the suggestion that Halliday, is some kind of brylcreemed poseur, which is clearly an affront to Piloti's stoutly asexual tweediness. He also points out that Nouvel is bald - which is obviously funny - and that he wears black a lot. Ah, of course! Architects wear black! Thanks Piloti for that unprecedented observation.

More seriously, Piloti attempts some architectural criticism of One New Change. Nouvel's design is twice described as arbitrary, which is held to be self-evidently a bad thing. But why? And is it true? Elsewhere, the article suggests that the building is anything but arbitrary but has been carefully composed to create myriad reflective views of St Paul's cathedral. (Bear in mind, I don't actually particularly like the building, I'm just pointing out the weaknesses of the criticism). The activities of the building's users are also described with sarcastic derision. Visitors inevitably "gawp" at the surroundings or pursue mundane activities like getting their hair cut, clearly inappropriate within a ten mile radius of St. Paul's. 

Typically Piloti assumes that the architects responsible for selecting Nouvel's design acted out of an immature desire to shock. It doesn't occur to him that for most architects and, indeed, for most people, Nouvel's designs aren't particularly shocking. It's possible too that Richard Rogers and the other judges chose the building simply because they liked it. Piloti inhabits a world where anything produced that offends his tastes is assumed to be so alien and unpleasant that no-one in their right mind could possibly like it. Opponents are always described as acting out of corrupt, malicious or simply ignorant motives.

One New Change's real crime of course is to replace a "decent" existing building. Any building over fifty years is unfailingly described as "decent" by Piloti. For him there are no awful, or even mediocre, buildings in existence that are over half a century in age.  And therein lies the rub. There is always the suspicion that age is the only category worth anything in Pilot's aesthetic worldview, a position surely as philistine as its reverse.

In the case of the One New Change site it was a neo-Georgian office building built in 1953 that was demolished. Now, I generally feel that buildings shouldn't be demolished if possible and I have nothing against neo-Georgian offices, but there has to be a case for the demolition of some buildings, some of the time. Not everything is worth keeping.

In light of this, the column's last line is perhaps the most telling. One New Change apparently "deserves a much shorter life than was granted to its predecessor". Here you have the blindness of the ideologue exposed. If the crime of One New Change is to replace a "decent, useful and civilised" building then why would its subsequent demolition be the answer? Does not Piloti's delighted anticipation of the new building's possible future destruction undermine everything he's previously said?

There remains the overwhelming sense that were Nouvel's design sufficiently old and under threat, then Piloti would be campaigning vigorously for its retention.

* This refers to the Christmas issue of Private Eye. 


Matt Tempest said...

* Johnny Hallyday is Belgian.

Charles Holland said...

Not according to Wikipedia he isn't. His father was Belgian, although I'm not sure it matters much either way.

owen hatherley said...

I'm just waiting for the point when high-tech starts to become Piloti-worthy, when there's a threat to early Foster and Rogers buildings and he is obliged to defend them. He recently wrote one about Rogers' threatened Library in Slough, and you could see some sort of cognitive dissonance going on. It's going to be demolished so it must be good//it's designed by 'Milord Rogers' so it must be shit. He's already reached this point with Brutalism - Preston Bus Station, South Bank, Birmingham Central Library - which is funny given that the entire column was originally 'Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism' and explicitly anti-Brutalist.

The really infuriating thing about Piloti is exactly that, the autopilot - Stamp is so much smarter than this, and yet he tosses it out fortnight after fortnight....

Will said...

Connected with that "if it is to be demolished, it must be admired" point, "Nooks and Corners" also regularly neatly illustrates something I said. He's forever complaining that the Church of England plans to adapt, demolish or dispose of one of its churches, complaining that it MUST be kept for its original purpose. But this generally overlooks the fact that the reason the CofE is doing whatever it is doing is because there are no worshippers, and turning part of the church into a creche or a coffee shop or whatever might be a sensible response to that. Piloti's only real interaction with those facts is the occasional grumble that if the CofE was less trendy and had fewer creches and coffee bars, it might have more adherents. Which I doubt is true. Anyway, that connects with what I said about use being as important as the physical buildings themselves. Preserving the building minus the old use, without a new use, is at best wishful thinking (maybe the CofE can recover!) and at worst denial of reality.

Will said...

Having said all I've said the latest Piloti (well, last week's anyway) says some very sensible things about finding new uses for old buildings.