Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Save us from faux architecture

The Brunswick Centre
An elegant ramble into Bloomsbury yesterday evening for a tonsorial tidy up brought me alongside the Brunswick Centre – now fashionably rebranded as The Brunswick.

This icon of the concrete brutalist style was designed in the mid-1960s by Patrick Hodgkinson, based on studies by Leslie Martin, and was built between 1967 and 1972.

It differs from many brutalist buildings primarily in having been whitewashed, which gives it a slightly gentler appearance than, say, the National Theatre.

Back in the 1990s, I resided there for 18 months, so can say from experience that it is a perfectly decent place in which to live – the brutalism does not brutalise or oppress.

Gherkin reflections
I continue to appreciate its intriguing lines and forms: it’s expanse, seen against a blue sky (yes, rare I know) is bold and varied and not at all intimidating.

Indeed, if there’s any personal mystery for me, it’s why such a building still upsets some people so much.

Mind, that could take us right back to the National Theatre, which was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley, and built between 1963 and 1976.

For all the criticisms of it – including the notorious denunciation of it being like a nuclear power station from that self-proclaimed guardian of our country’s architecture, Prince Charles – it found perhaps rather unexpected fans.

Of all people, that archetypal old pastoralist, Sir John Betjeman, wrote to Lasdun declaring that he “gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St Paul’s to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles ... it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does.”

Camden Town Hall
I have always liked the National – again, lines and angles: shapes that draw you in, that reflect light and absorb shadow to create yet further angles and planes.

These buildings seem to me, even now, to represent a bold and clea/n and optimistic future: I cannot see in them anything to depress.

What is depressing is Paternoster Square and its ilk: both desperately banal and simply desperate – the latter, in its weaning effort to placate the likes of Charlie Windsor and to somehow blend in with Wren’s magnificent cathedral next door.

Yet all it does it to conjure words such as ‘faux’ and ‘pastiche’, just as does Charles’s vanity town, Poundbury, which even includes pre-bricked-up windows designed into the new-old buildings.

Against Wren, they look all the poorer. I’d have given the space over to the likes of Richard Rodgers or Norman Foster and said: ‘go for it’. And then you might have got a world-class, iconic building.

Instead, it’s every bit as bad as those ghastly supermarkets that attempt to ape an old-fashioned look in their attempts to con people into believing that what is inside has some sort of culinary authenticity.

Kemble Tower
But the prime question remains: just why are so many people so apparently intimidated by buildings that divert from suburban convention?

None of this is to suggest that all modern buildings are brilliant, but it’s errant nonsense to suggest that they’re all bad.

And concrete brutalism is no different.

There’s a fair old amount of it around: the Barbican in London is but one more example – another immensely successful one, with its public spaces, water features and gardens giving it a sense of calm amid the wider City.

The Lloyd's Building
That wider City is a fascinating place to ramble if you’re remotely interested in architecture. In a small area, it possesses at once everything that is worst about British modern buildings and everything that is best.

In one tiny area, we have Norman Foster’s glorious ‘Gherkin’ – an elegant, spiraling tower – and his Willis Building, another monument to the power of glass and steel.

In the same area are Richard Rodgers’s Lloyd’s Building and now his new ‘Cheesegrater’, soaring into the sky above.

As architectural competitions go, this is really very good.

On the other hand, only a short distance away is the ghastly ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building and, just over the river, in an isolation that highlights its inappropriateness, the Shard, which now dominates every view over the area.

Willis Building (Lloyd's, to the right)
And for a different take, there is Broadgate, with more of those pretend columns and mock, mock invocations of classical styles.

Why the fear of the new?

The old and the new can coexist and compliment each other perfectly.

The British Museum – now graced with Foster’s magnificent inner court that surrounds and covers the original Reading Room, and soon to see an extension by Rodgera – is one such example.

The new UNISON building on Euston Road, which has sensitively incorporated the old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women into a new structure, is another.

Architecture is ultimately about living and about our wider aspirations.

To desperately try to remain living in the past limits us all.

And to pretend that modern architecture, when done well, cannot hit the heights, is clearly the folly of rather limited minds.

• All photographs © Amanda Kendal

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