ANOTHER VISION OF BRITAIN
The Prince of Wales is now having an unintentionally bad
influence on architecture. Gavin Stamp charts
the hard-fought retreat of Modernism
That was in 1984. But today it makes no sense to fight old battles, for this obscures the creative synthesis which is occurring between modern methods and a revived sense of history. True, there are some unreconstructed modernists around, but a few of them are good architects and they are making the necessary, if unfashionable point that there was much that was valu- able in the Modern Movement, while the principal effect now being caused by the Prince of Wales is the counter-productive encouragement of a mediocre and unin- telligent Classicism.
To demonstrate that the arguments now being fought in the press are old and tired ones, I therefore present a chronology of the post-war years. What is evident in this is not only that serious criticisms of mecha- nistic modernism were being made decades ago, but also that there was always an alternative, an intelligently pragmatic traditionalism that was largely ignored by
the establishment professional press. It is the enervation of that vital tradition and its replacement by either illiteracy or pedan- try which is one of the real tragedies of the last few years.
1944 The death of Sir Edwin Lutyens, the most respected of the older generation of architects, whose passing was regarded as marking the end of an era. Other traditional architects found themselves working in an increasingly hostile climate after the war which had made the world safe for the Modern Movement, as a younger generation, trained in the 1930s, seized power.
The 1944 Town and Country Planning Act introduced the statutory lists of build- ings of architectural or historical import- ance, a mechanism for protection which was strengthened in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.
wanted something tougher and more rigor- ous.
1952 Publication of First and Last Loves by John Betjeman: 1953 The development charge lifted by the Minister of Housing and Local Govern- ment, Harold Macmillan — 'the people whom the Government must help are those who do things: the developers, the people who create wealth whether they are hum-
ble or exalted. . This was followed in 1954 by the abolition of building controls. This marked the beginning of the great Property Boom.
The term 'New Brutalism' first used in print by Peter Smithson, the architect who, with his wife Alison, had designed the pioneeringly Brutalist school at Hunstan-
ton, completed the following year. Reyner Banham's book on The New Brutalism was published in 1966.
1954 A speech by Nikita Khruschev at the All-Union Congress of Architects in the Soviet Union condemning the tradi- tionalist architectural aesthetics imposed by Stalin's cultural minister, Zhdanov, had an immediate effect on the policies pur- sued by the Architects' Department of the LCC. However, that this change was already in the air had already been shown by the Corbusian slab blocks and point blocks for the Alton West Estate at Roeliampton designed in 1952-53, which were in marked contrast to the earlier, more Scandinavian, Alton East.
1955 Symposium on High Flats held at the RIBA, chaired by Dr (now Sir) J.L. Martin and attended by Dame Evelyn Sharpe, Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. At this influential event it emerged that high blocks were more expensive than low-rise housing of traditional construction while a LCC sociologist admitted that two-thirds of those interviewed would ideally like a 'little house and a garden'. Nevertheless, the symposium enthusiastically endorsed the desirability of building high.
Publication of Outrage by Ian Nairn, originally a special number of the Architectural Review, which attacked the abysmal standard of general public design ► n Britain: 'The Outrage is that the whole land surface is being covered by a creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns.' Counter-Attack against Sub- topia followed two years later.
1956 Approval of New Zealand House in Pall Mall, the first tall building to wreck the scale of the West End, designed by 'obert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners and built in 1960-62, despite the opposition of the Royal Fine Art Commis- sion, which got four storeys lopped off.
1957 The MARS Group, founded in 1934, 'which had been the symbolic forum of the architectural aspirations of the Thir- ties,' as John Summerson wrote, 'volun- tarily extinguished itself'. Creation of the Civic Trust by Duncan Sandys.
1958 Foundation of the Victorian Society.
1959 Completion of Bracken I-louse, designed in 1954, the home of the Financial Times and the last Classical masterpiece of Sir Albert Richardson, resolutely ignored by the professional journals and acknow- ledged only by a hostile demonstration by the 'Anti-Uglies', who also publicly pro- tested in front of the new Kensington Town Hall by Vincent Harris.
Despite the opposition of the Royal Fine Art Commission and many others, approv- al by Harold Macmillan's government of the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, the first tall building to loom over Hyde Park.
1960 Deaths of Sir Ninian Comper, Charles Holden and Sir Giles Scott.
Edinburgh University given permission to begin the rebuilding of George Square and thus inaugurate the mutilation of the Georgian city.
1961 Controversy over the proposed demolition of the Euston 'Arch' by British Railways. Eventually the destruction of the monument was permitted by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
Approval of the plan by Sir William Holford for the comprehensive redevelop- ment St Paul's Precinct (now known as Paternoster Square), first proposed in 1955 and now designed in conjunction with the Church Commissioners' architects, Trehearne Norman & Partners. The scheme was condemned in an editorial in
the Architects' Journal as . NOT GOOD ENOUGH . . the vital question in any scheme for the precinct is, what does it do to St Pauls? Here the bulk of the new tall block is a looming disaster . . .' When the development was completed in 1967, it was widely criticised, but mostly because it was wrongly assumed that Juxon House in Ludgate Hill now blocked the view of St Paul's.
Publication of Townscape by Gordon Cullen.
A design by Darbourne & Darke chosen by Westminster City Council after a com- petition for the Lillington Street housing development off the Vauxhall Bridge Road. This represented a rejection of standard high-rise housing even before the industrialised juggernaut had fully got "going. Construction began in 1964 and was completed in 1972. In 1977 the catalogue to the RIBA exhibition about the architects rightly claimed that they had 'pioneered a new view of living in the public housing sector. It could be argued that what they have done is to middle-classify the council house. . . a healthy architectural victory.'
1962 Consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral by Sir Basil Spence, designed in 1951, which inaugurated what was surely the only period in Britain when people have queued to see inside a modern building.
Controversy over the proposal by Raymond Erith for rebuilding Jack Straw's Castle in Hampstead in a Georgian Gothick vernacular. This clever design was condemned as reactionary by the Borough Council and the same sort of Hampstead resident who, less than three decades earlier, had objected to 'Modern' houses by Connell, Ward & Lucas and Erno Goldfinger being built in precious Hamp- stead. Erith's design was executed in 1963- 64.
Government approval of the demolition of the Coal Exchange by the City Corpora- tion.
1963 Publication of Traffic in Towns by (Sir) Cohn Buchanan, whose Report, Bath. A Study in Conservation, commis- sioned in 1966, increased public disquiet about the activities of road engineers be- cause of the horror of the proposal of driving a 'Cut Route' and tunnels through the historic centre, 1964 Death of Sir Albert Richardson.
1965 Sir William Holford became the first, but unfortunately not the last, ennob- led architect: Baron Holford of Kemp Town.
Deaths of Le Corbusier and Donald McMorran. The completion of the latter's Police Station in Wood Street, one of the finest and most imaginative modern Clas- sical buildings in the City of London, was hardly noticed, but the Architects' Journal had the grace to admit that in younger, angrier days, Astragal would have attacked such a pretentious phoney &sign, with anachronistic rusticated chim- neys and much load-bearing stonework. But McMorran was a sincere and devoted architect who cared passionately about what he was doing. So, crazy though it is, this police station is in another class from com- mocial trash nearby.
Rather more than faint praise.
1966 Publication by the Museum of Modern Art in New York of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by the American architect, Robert Venturi, who dared to praise Lutyens as well as Hawks- moor and Soane and argued that architects can rio longer afford to be intimi- dated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like ele- ments which are hybrid rather than 'pure',
compromising rather than 'clean', distorted rather than `staightforward'. . . .
1967 Publication of Oliver Marriott's highly critical and revealing study of The Property Boom.
After much controversy, and with the memory of the destruction of the Euston Arch much in mind, British Railways' plan to rebuild both King's Cross and St Pancras Stations defeated, partly by the listing of St Pancras Grade I.
1968 Completion of the Cambridge His- tory Faculty building by James Stirling. The full irony of Reyner Banham's extra- vagant praise of its no-nonsense neo- industrial style in the Architectural Review became evident as early as 1983 (see below): 'The sad thing is that Cambridge will eventually accept it as part of "the Cambridge tradition" and then no one will have the guts to pull it down when the useful life for which it was built has come to an end.'
A gas explosion causes the partial des- truction of Ronan Point, a prefabricated high-rise council block in East London, killing five people. This dramatic event focused public attention on the failings of system building and, in consequence, on the whole post-war experiment in public housing. In fact, the Greater London Council had not commissioned any new high-rise housing schemes for several years, but it took another 20 years before, thanks to the persistence of the architect Sam Webb, the full story of incompetence, complacency, graft and shoddy workman- ship which caused the disaster was fully revealed when Ronan Point was finally demolished in 1986-87.
The Town and Country Planning Act introduced both spot listing and means of punishment for people who wilfully des- troyed listed buildings while the Civic Amenities Act of the same year introduced the idea of conservation areas, whose protection was strengthened under the 1974 Town and Country Amenities Act.
1%9 The plan by Lord Llewelyn-Davies, second architect peer, and John Weeks to extend the Tate Gallery by destroying its portico and front elevation aroused strong public opposition.
The centenary of the birth of Sir Edwin Lutyens marked by a small exhibition at the RIBA. The previous year, a proposal to mount a large exhibition at the Royal Academy, foundered through lack of in- terest and financial support. In the centen- ary year, the RIBA Journal chose to publish attacks on Lutyens by Peter and Alison Smithson, but these were later dismissed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as 'condescending and irrelevant'.
Death of Walter Gropius and also of Mies van der Rohe, the German modernist who, two years previously, had designed a tower intended to be erected next to the Mansion House in the City of London when the developers, Rudolph and his son Peter Palumbo, had secured all the neces- sary leases.
1970 Formation of the 2000 Group by Derrick Oxley to campaign for a return to traditional building, the re-evaluation of Classicism and the rejection of 'scientific modernism'. This was either ignored or ridiculed by the professional press.
A red-brick, pitched-roof design for Hillingdon Civic Centre commissioned from Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners after this hitherto modernist firm had been told by the Borough Council that it would not get the job if another `shoe box' was proposed. The architects consequently looked at the character of suburbia and the result was a strange and complex essay in historicism which became the first important expression of 'Neo- Vernacular' and represented a significant and influential reaction against the Modern Movement. Work began in 1973 and the first phase was completed in 1976.
1971 Introduction in Private Eye of the column 'Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism'. The first article, written by John Betjeman, ridiculed a nondescript modern building in Ludgate Hill which had been praised by his enemy, Nikolaus Pevs- ncr.
1972 The Council of Europe's 'Age of Neo-Classicism' exhibition, which occas- ioned a successful petition to the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, to save the Grange, the house by William Wilkins which was about to be dynamited by its owner, the Hon John Baring.
The Annual Discourse at the RIBA by (Sir) James Richards was entitled The Hollow Victory: 1932-72 and concluded that 'the world is in process of deciding that the environment is too important to he left at the mercy of architects'. Another of several expressions of professional self- doubt was Ilk• imIllication in 1974 of Crisis in Architecture by Malcolm MacEwan.
The Government finally announced, af- ter the 1970 public inquiry, that New Scotland Yard and Richmond Terrace were not to be demolished. This repre- sented the abandonment of the 1965 plan by Sir Leslie Martin and Sir Colin Bucha- nan to sweep away most of the Victorian buildings of Whitehall.
1973 The Oil Crisis dramatically exposed the undesirability of the Modern Move- ment's theoretical belief in short-life build- ings and reliance on cheap energy to achieve the well-tempered environment.
Death of Raymond Erith and also of George Whitby, the late Donald McMor- ran's partner and architect of the Central Criminal Court extension, completed the previous year. This sympathetic but soph- isticated design was, arguably, the last good building erected in the City, but all the Architects' Journal could say was that 'the walls of the Old Bailey extension are built not clad. . Perhaps he wants it to look like a penitentiary — he has certainly succeeded. . . .' Discomforted modernists like Professor Colin St John Wilson, architect of the new British Library, now complain of Hitlerian censorship and in- timidation by the Prince of Wales's camp, but once the boot was on the other foot.
Publication of The Sack of Bath •by Adam Fergusson, which was instrumental in bringing the destruction of Britain's finest Georgian city to a belated halt.
After furious controversy, the listing of an additional 245 buildings in Covent Garden by the Secretary of State, Geoffrey Rippon, effectively sabotaged the GLC's comprehensive redevelopment plan for the area first proposed in 1968 (see The Specta- tor for 21 June 1980 for the full story of this). The restoration and rehabilitation of the area followed.
Publication of The Village in the City by Nicholas Taylor, a book which exploded the Modern Movement orthodoxy that high densities could only be achieved through high-rise housing.
1973 Publication of the first Design Guide for Residential Areas, approved by Essex County Council, an influential hand- book which asserted that 'what constitutes a good design has for too long been written off as "matters of opinion" or "taste", with a subsequent cheapening of the visual environment', and encouraged a more picturesque, traditionally scaled vernacular manner in domestic architecture.
Arrest of the architect John Poulson on charges of corruption. 1974 Summerland, a new entertainment complex at Douglas on the Isle of Man largely made of plastic materials, goes up in flames, killing 50 people.
1975 European Architectural Heritage Year which also saw the formation of the influential independent pressure group, SAVE Britain's Heritage.
The Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum by Roy Strong, Marcus Binney and 'John Harris, which drew attention to the threats still facing this building type. It was an exhibition which coincided with a great and not wholly desirable wave of nostalgia about country house life.
Publication of The Rape of Britain by Colin Amery and Dan Cruickshank, with a Foreword by Sir John Betjeman:
This is a devastating book. In my mind's ear I can hear the smooth tones of the committee man explaining why the roads must go where they do regardless of the humble old town they bisect.... I hear words like 'complex', `conurbation', 'precinct', `pedestrianisation' and that other couple of words which mean total destruction, 'comprehensive redevelop- ment'. Places cease to have names, they become areas with a number. Housing be- comes housing, human scale is abandoned.
A comprehensive development plan for the city centre of Cardiff abandoned after its financial unsoundness was pointed out in a television programme.
Abandonment of the London 'Motor- way Box' Ringway plan by the Labour government.
The purely modernist competition de- sign by James Stirling for a new art gallery in Dfisseldorf was replaced by a more urban scheme informed by Neo- Classicism, probably under the influence of Leon Krier. This significant change in style achieved fulfilment in the 1977 highly acclaimed winning design for the Staats- galerie at Stuttgart, completed in 1983.
1975 Replacement of listed Victorian buildings in Queen's Gate by a building for the Royal College of Art by Casson, Conder and Cadbury-Brown turned down, which provoked a letter of protest in the Times from nine modern architects. As Simon Jenkins commented at the time,
The architects' rage reflects insecurity on the part of the older generation of modern architects . . . these men now see the con- servation movement as a threat to their livelihoods . . . they are unlikely to find much sympathy either from clients or from the public.
1976 The 1972 comprehensive redevelop- ment plan for the town centre of Chester- field finally abandoned after a long fight when an alternative, conservative scheme was chosen which preserved the Market Hall and the Shambles. This was the first significant occasion when local opinion defeated the customary alliance between the local authority and a commercial de- veloper — in 1973 the chairman of the planning committee had announced that `the Labour group intends to implement the policy approved by the council and will brook no interference from those who dissent'.
Publication of Save the City. A Con- servative Study of the City of London by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Georgian Group, the Victo- rian Society and the Civic Trust. This had some effect in muting the City Corpora- tion's generally destructive policies.
Publication of an article by yours truly criticising James Stirling and his Cam- bridge History Faculty building in the Cambridge Review, a journal, edited by John Casey, which also published attacks on modern architecture by David Watkin (see below) and Roger Scruton.
Approval of the St Mark's Road housing scheme in North Kensington by Jeremy Dixon, one of the first significant domestic developments in a Post-Modern Vernacu- lar idiom and one which secured critical approval:
Death of a sad and embittered Sir Basil Spence shortly after his design (as consul- tant) for the Home Office in Petty France had been publicly attacked.
1977 Publication of Morality and Architecture by David Watkin, an attack on the self-fulfilling historical determinism of the Modern Movement and, in particu- lar, on the Zeitgeist worship of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. This important book effectively undermined the intellectual authority of doctrinaire modernism.
Publication of the first of many editions of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture by the American historian and critic, Charles Jencks. This manual of alternative styles asserted that
Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Mis- souri, on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruit-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.
(Jencks subsequently admitted that he had invented this date, and that nobody had challenged it.) Exhibition at the V&A on Change and Decay: The Future of Our Churches which drew attention to the parlous and generally unprotected state of what still remains today a most vulnerable building type when enjoying the privilege of 'Ecclesias- tical Exemption' from listed building leg- islation.
Commissioning of South Woodham Fer- rers, a complete town in a neo-Vernacular manner, by Essex County Council.
Foundation of the Spitalfields Trust and the occupation of several early-18th- century houses in Elder Street by conserva- tionists (including Mark Girouard) to pre- vent their demolition.
The controversy over the sale of the contents of Mentmore Towers exposed the scandal of the misuse of the National Land Fund and led to the establishment of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.
1978 Demolition of some of the North Quay Stacks of London Dock, the finest industrial buildings in London, permitted by the Secretary of State for the Environ- ment, Peter Shore, who also happened to be the local MP (Stepney and Poplar) while the remaining blocks perished in fires attributed to what was unfairly referred to at the time as 'Jewish lightning'. 'Fortress Wapping' now stands on the site.
1979 Screening of the BBC television film, City of Towers, written by Christ- opher Booker and directed by Christopher Martin. This was of major importance as the first public critical examination of the utopian planning theories of the Modern Movement which lay behind so much destructive urban renewal. The reaction of the architectural establishment was violent and hysterical, probably because Booker's history was faultless and the film relied upon contemporary footage of architects and politicians explaining their projects. Foundation of the Thirties Society.
1980 The demolition of the Firestone Factory by Messrs Trafalgar House over a bank holiday weekend to pre-empt listing provoked the Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, to list some 150 inter-war build- ings.
1981 The Lutyens Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery visited by over 80,000 people — three times more than the Arts Council expected, and despite severe weather in the winter of 1981-82. The organisers had originally hoped to mount the exhibition at the Royal Academy, whose President, Sir Hugh Casson, did his best to discourage the idea. The wider importance of this event was shown by some of the hostile reviews, such as that by Reyner Banham, which attempted to link admiration for one of Britain's greatest architects with the rise of the so-called New Right'.
Patrick Dunleavy's study, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975, failed to uphold the architectural profession's alibi that the post-war architectural and social disasters were all the fault of politi- cians and contractors, and the author noted how the RIBA was `a firm supporter of industrialised building'.
Publication, in both the USA and Bri- tain, of Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House.
Exhibition and catalogue organised by Academy Editions about Quinlan Ter- ry, the fortunate heir to the Classical torch carried by his (infinitely more talented) master, Raymond Erith.
First deliberate demolition of a tower- block in Britain (at Stratford East).
1982 The Royal Gold Medal for Architecture given to Berthold Luhetkin, an award richly deserved but so belated as to be a rearguard action by the RIBA in defence of traditional modernism.
Owen Luder, President of RIBA, achieved brief notoriety by telling the press that he admired Richard Rogers's design for the shambolic and abortive first com- petition for the National Gallery extension as the architecture of a man who says, "Sod you! this is the way it's going to be!" ' 1983 Death of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.
1984 Approval of the (culpably naïve) Classical theme by Quinlan Terry for developing the controversial Richmond Riverside site.
Death of Sir John Betjeman.
The Financial Board of the University of Cambridge seriously considered whether to demolish the History Faculty Building because, to quote the Cambridge Universi- ry Reporter,
the performance of the building is unsatisfac- tory in many ways apart from the failure of the external cladding, In particular. the building suffers from extensive leakage of rainwater through the external glazing and terrace roofs, and also from the inherent problem of high solar gain during the sum- mer and substantial heat loss during the winter.
In the event, it was considered preferable and less costly to patch up the decrepit and impractical 16-year-old RIBA Award- winning masterpiece rather than start again and build anew.
Public inquiry into the ancient. [967 plan by Peter Palumbo to demolish nine listed buildings to create Mansion House Square
and a tower by Mies van der Rohe caused by the opposition of both the City Cor- poration and English Heritage.
Speech by HRH the Prince of Wales at the RIBA's 150th anniversary Gala at Hampton Court.
This and subsequent speeches by the Prince of Wales did much for the architectural profession in terms of public- ity, encouraged the concept of 'community architecture' and advanced or set back the careers of certain architects. But it is doubtful whether HRH did more than celebrate a victory already won. That the Modern Movement was in retreat was confirmed by the public inquiry into the plan for Mansion House Square in 1984, which provided a forum for the most serious public debate architectural issues yet staged. In the inspector's report, argu- ments about conservation and history triumphed over the once unchallenged imperatives of the Modern Movement and it was owing to considerations quite other than those of architecture that the Secret- ary of State, Patrick Jenkin, reluctantly upheld his inspector's conclusion but in- vited Mr Palumbo to try again with a more up-to-date commercial monument in the City in his decision letter of 1985.
This victory did not mean, of course, that an ideal architectural climate had been created in Britain. The last few years have seen an influx of American architects and American developers' methods that now represent a serious cause for concern, although it is cheering that the architect- ural and social failure of the experiment in non-planning in Docklands is now widely recognised. We also have had a govern- ment, particularly with Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for the Environment, which has not only been malevolently hostile to conservation but is encouraging a revival of the very worst road-building and transport policies of the 1960s. It is for this reason that I, for one, wish that the Prince of Wales would stop hanging on about architecture, for all he is now doing is prolonging an unhealthy and unproductive polarisation in the profession. Instead, he should turn his attention to the most serious issues that face modern Britain, that is, public transport, pollution and the treatment of the environment — issues that transcend in importance the suppression of carbuncles and glass stumps.
'Waiter — there's a flea in my dog soup.'