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.