Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A guide to the not so modern buildings of London




















So, Elly brought a pile of old architecture magazines into the office the other day. There is something interesting about the architectural obsessions of previous decades, something that helps to put present concerns into perspective too. This is particularly true of the recent, but not too recent past. 

This particular recent past was the late '70's and early '80's, a period of intense ideological differences in architecture when the modernist consensus began to fall apart and rationalists, post-modernists, late modernists and high-techists were disputing what form architecture should take. It's hard to imagine the Architects Journal of today tackling major trends in global architecture with the seriousness and depth of their 1982 issue called Architecture Now. That's not meant as a criticism of the AJ particularly, more of architecture in general, which has long since floated up its own alimentary canal of introspective relativity. 

In amongst the magazines was this guide to recent buildings in London. It  struck me  particularly because it offers a snapshot of British architecture at exactly the point when the certainties of post-war modernism began to fall apart. Douglas Murphy has called the typical British architecture of this period  'Brutalomo', a transitional style where the muscular, sculptural qualities of Brutalism start to be inflected by post modern references and neo-classical ordering systems: think James Stirling at Runcorn or Gillespie Kidd and Coia at Robinson College, Cambridge.





















AD's Guide To Modern Buildings In London (1965-1975) takes the form of a pocket book, complete with maps and routes for the hardcore architectural trainspotter (me). When I began studying architecture one of the first books I borrowed from the college library was Christopher Woodward and Ed Jones' A Guide to  the Architecture of London, which I read slavishly while traipsing around the city inspecting more or less everything in it.  This guide - written by Tom Jestico and Charles McKean - has an immediately familiar tone then, where the patrician tones of people convinced of the noble values of modern architecture are tinged with doubt, aware of the looming backlash. Unlike Woodward and Jones' book, it only features building built over the proceeding decade though, making it a  revealing snapshot of a specific moment in British architectural history.

One of the big questions provoked by flicking through it now though, some thirty five years after it was written, is which buildings featured would make it into a contemporary guide. And for what reasons. There is, for instance, a large amount of very positive coverage given to Thamesmead, now largely a lazy byword for failed utopian aspirations. Neave Brown's Alexandria Road housing and Patrick Hodgkinson's Brunswick Centre receive pretty unequivocal praise too, as you might expect. although these buildings have been re-evaluated (and gentrified in the case of the Brunswick) of late. In general it was still a period of heroic social-housing schemes and mega-structures, a time when Lyons Israel and Ellis' Queen Elizabeth Hospital building on Hackney Road could be described as 'ingenious" and the East Wing extension of the Natural History Museum as "decorative".





















Norman Foster's career was in its infancy as well and two of his early buildings - a warehouse in Thamesmead and the Fred Olsen Centre in Millwall, are featured. Impressively, the former seems to have actually invented the generic industrial shed aesthetic if the text is to be believed. "Its bright blue corrugated skin is simply wrapped over a steel frame' say the authors, "doing away with the traditional elements of roof, walls, eaves etc." Is it true that there were no crinkly tin wrap around sheds before this?

James Stirling's Gloucester Avenue housing (described here as a "functional, but ugly block of flats by a famous architect") merits a brief mention but has since fallen off the map entirely  As to a large extent have the rash of architect's own housing built in Camden in the '70's. Take a walk down Camden Mews today and you can experience a similar impression to the one created by this book, a sense of architecture unaffected by any desire to be cheery or even particularly immediately accessible, but also losing the confidence to map out a future. The neo-vernacular was creeping in, manifested in small scale, low density, bricky housing schemes and in the slightly terrifying Hillingdon Civic Centre, a building that I still can't quite get my head around.





















The London of this book looks slightly dour, a little glum and probably all the better for it. Big buildings built of brick and concrete, heavy mass and dark shadows predominate. Odd ones by Foster and the formative Farrel and Grimshaw partnership point to a flashier, less substantial future, where architects try much harder to be liked and where commercialism becomes more or less completely unchecked. This in a way is architecture's post-punk period, a period of invention and the pursuit of divergent strands of interest after modernism's various major convulsions. After it came more corporate visions counteracted by the powerful hallucinations of nostalgia.

12 comments:

owen hatherley said...

Re: Woodward and Jones' Guide, I was looking at that yesterday for the first time in ages, and while it's a great book (the bit about flats in St John's Wood is especially choice) I found it a bit dispiriting how often they repeat late 70s anti-modernist cliches, on planning rather than style - space must be defensible, nothing must be 'institutional', local authorities are bad, traditional street is always best and anything else is 'alien', and so forth. Hence, Thamesmead, Churchill Gardens, Neave Brown and even the usually unimpeachable Darbourne & Darke get dissed. It sometimes has that unpleasant tone of guilty dogmatism so characteristic of ex-modernists getting into the appalling Alice Coleman, the slightly less appalling 'community architecture' and whatnot, which is especially curious given one of them helped design Robin Hood Gardens. So it's nice to see something from a similar era that sounds less hand-wringing.

Brutalomo as Post-Punk is an odd one, though. You're going to have to 'unpack'.

Charles Holland said...

Unpacking will be attempted in another post.....

I think those Camden Town houses are interesting in that they are the beginning of that defensible space, low rise, bricky vernacular thing. I will have to re-read Jones and Woodward now though....

Murphy said...

I have been searching for an image of Foster's Fred Olsen centre for ages! Thankyouthankyouthankyou...

Charles Holland said...

Anything to oblige. I'll send you a bigger version of it if you want......

Matt Tempest said...

I disagree on the Murray Mews being the foretaste of the "defensible space" mindset.

They're a domesticated miniature of the Goldfinger fascist-fortress aesthetic, sure, and in more homely materials, but still generous with space, light and amenable access. They flatter to deceive with the fortress thing, as Goldfinger did, and surely owe more to the GCK confidence in sculptural massing and shape, not to mention the Eric Lyons of Twickenham housing, World's End and Mornington Crescent estates?

owen hatherley said...

Goldfinger, Fascist? I think not, either aesthetically or politically. Otherwise agree with the above; Brutalomo does lots to differentiate dwellings, give impression of complexity, etc, but is notably unbothered by 'defensible space' - think that doesn't really come in until Jeremy Dixon's terraces and such in early 80s.

Charles Holland said...

They are indeed like little bits of much bigger schemes, domesticated Brutalism, but they are also introspective, super private and tend to turn away from any active engagement with the street. Maybe that's different from defensible space which is more formally traditional in its relationship to the street. Nash's Portland Place being the ultimate bit of defensible space in that sense where you have a virtual moat to protect your front door. Anyway, I digress....

Matt Tempest said...

@FatCharles Good point re Nash terrace moats.

@Owen Don't mean literally fascist, but their is a Third Reichesque submission-through-inhuman-repetition aesthetic going on with Balfron and Trellick. Complete softy on the inside, though, with generous double-height maisonettes and hand-design light switches and doorknobs.

Murphy said...

Hmmm. Agree with Owen here. If the word 'fascist' is going to mean 'aestheticised equality' then the word might as well not exist.

Steve Parnell said...

Now you know why I love the old mags. I didn't know about this book, though - is it really an AD book? I should find it if so. Thanks.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, published by Academy Editions....here is one in fact: http://amzn.to/dIvpoW

MM Jones said...

from the czech embassy entry: 'but time has shown that Victorian stucco is more successful than modern concrete in standing up to British weather conditions.'

Ooooh! Definitely have to get a copy of this.