Thursday, June 16, 2011

Looking Out Through Green Triangular Windows*

(Drawing of Terry Farrel's Comyn Ching Triangle development, London - by Pablo Bronstein)

Pablo Bronstein's exhibition at the ICA - Sketches for Regency Living - is well worth checking out. I've reviewed it for next month's Icon but I'm a little late to the Bronstein party and have only just come across his fabulous little book, A Guide Post Modern Architecture in London

The guide - which includes hand drawings of Po Mo high-points Charing Cross Station and Number 1 Poultry, as well as a photographic index of Po Mo tropes such as green triangular windows and glazed corner turrets - is introduced by a short but very interesting essay by Bronstein explaining his enthusiasm for an otherwise thoroughly reviled period in architectural history. Reading this essay is a faintly eerie experience for me personally, with its unintentional echoes of the conversations we have had in the FAT office over the years, not least in the perverser-than-thou parlour game of choosing one's favourite horrible building from the '80's.

Bronstein's justification for his love that dare not speak its name is arcane but worth repeating. His enthusiasm is rooted partly in Po Mo's shameless desire to please - all those clip on bits of pop ornamentation - and the thoroughly gauche way it goes about it. Like '80's aspirational pop music, Bronstein sees the bathos in all that straining for an ultimately elusive glamour. The fact that it represents the victory of Thatcherite consumerism only serves to remind us of a time when commercialism still had a fight to win. Post Modernism, for Bronstein, is an earlier, cruder and therefore more likeable form of naked venality. It did at least have the decency to be crass, or, at least, to obviously want to be loved. Since then, commerce has adopted a tasteful, almost invisible hipness that makes it all the more insidiousness.

I'm not entirely sure I buy all of this and my own interest in post modernism is for an earlier and more potentially dissonant form, but what does seem true is the extent to which capitalism has spread its fingers into every area of life since. Po Mo monumentalised a grotesque, grasping commercialism and this, bizarrely, gives its buildings a certain appeal today. They made a virtue of cheap, gim-crack populism in much the same way that Bronstein's other favourite period - the Regency London of John Nash - also did.

(Site plan of the proposed development of Broadgate, the UBS building is shown in red, via @mwhitfield80

All of which is relevant to the recent non-listing of the Broadgate complex, set to be buried under a vast new UBS office building designed by everyone's least favourite architect Ken Shuttleworth. The arguments for and against the listing of Broadgate are, inevitably, flawed on both sides. But like most arguments about listing they are only partially about the aesthetic merits of the building under discussion. So people resistant to the blithe, commercial ruthlessness of the City of London and its habit of threatening to up and leave every time any form of control on its activities is hinted at - find themselves (as Will Wiles has pointed out) supporting the preservation of an earlier phase of privatised, commercial development. 

The architecture of Broadgate has never been considered particularly wonderful but the argument for keeping it is more about urbanism and the relatively generous, public spaces the buildings create between each other than for the architecture itself. In fact, the clip-on stone facades and chunky travertine detailing have been put forward as a reason NOT to list them. In such situations, English Heritage occupies a position not unlike that of the European Union, that is as an occasionally useful balwark against the ambitions of right-wing administrations. 

I'm no tub-thumper for conservationism, but in general I think buildings should be retained if possible. I also loathe the term fit-for-purpose and the dishonest way that it has been used to justify tearing down buildings that are still perfectly serviceable. English Heritage are clearly the last line of defence against a ruthless commercial logic that seeks to extend its opportunities indefinitely and has thus found in this instance, supporters who aren't particularly big fans of 1980's architecture. 

Following Bronstein's logic, Broadgate can be seen to hail from a more innocent age, one where commercialism attempted to conduct itself according to some notion of the common good, or abide by some rules at least. So the (lost) battle for its listing represents a nostalgia for something no one ever expected to be nostalgic about. We are now reduced to mourning the civic values of 1980's architecture....

* The title of this post is taken from Pablo Bronstein's introductory essay in A Guide To Post Modern Architecture In London.

1 comment:

bercton said...

Brilliant sketch photo!!