7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 24


The master builder

Gavin Stamp

'Bofill is the greatest architect in the world', once claimed Giscard d'Estaing an opinion which may not commend Ricardo Bofill to Spectator readers who may recall the architectural tastes of the late President Pompidou. But to a critic tired of having to dismiss so much modern British architecture as either cheap copies of American buildings or as ludicrous selfindulgent exercises in 'High-Tee', the work of this Continental firm is very refreshing.

It should not be surprising that some of the most interesting and imaginative architecture today comes out of Spain, for it is a country with independent Romantic traditions and Bofill is from Barcelona, the centre of Catalan nationalism and the city which produced the extraordinary Gatedi, whose architecture Bofill sometimes attempts to emulate in plasticity, inventiveness and eccentricity. On this side of the Atlantic, Bofill is the current hero of so-called 'Post-Modernism', for his architecture goes far beyond orthodox sterile Modernism and also has roots in the pre-Modern past. And, very important, his work seems to be popular.

Until recently, Bofill was little known in this country. What first impressed me was a' photograph of an astonishing pyramid of stone and rubble, surmounted by a strange monument, next to a motorway near the Franco-Spanish frontier. It combines the emotional impact of monumental Classicism with 20th-century abstraction; I still do not know what it celebrates, but it is very powerful and beautiful. Then, in and near Barcelona. I discovered Bofill's housing blocks, such as 'Walden 7': a richly modelled, complex and dramatic pile which evokes strange ancient cities and, not least, Gaudi himself, An architect who can design and get built such modern structures so charged with metaphor, traditional overtones and Romance must be remarkable indeed.

However, in the last few years Bofill has taken up the current fashion among young architects: Neo-Classicism, or, rather, NeoNeO-Classicism. After the failure of Modernism and the individualistic confusion of what 'Post-Modernism' there has been, it was perhaps inevitable that architects should look again at the Western tradition which both provides discipline and has meaning for ordinary people. But they do not look so much at Renaissance Classicism that would be too difficult and demanding but rather at the austere, abstracted geometry of Neo-Classicism, which is both easier to do and also satisfies the latent megalomania of architects. Ledoux and Boullee were heroes for Troost and Speer; they are heroes for students today.

In this new style Bofill and his large team of designers are masters. They propose great blocks of flats with clever façades like perverse simplified versions of Selfridge's and whole housing schemes with symmetrical vistas and formal spaces squares, circuses, crescents. This modernised BeauxArts manner is on a big scale, possibly too big, but perhaps it has to be and the use of the Orders may I hope humanise the buildings for their inhabitants. At least Bofill remains, at heart, a Romantic.

Of course, Bofill's Classicism (unlike that by our own Quinlan Terry) is not good enough. The essence of 'Post-Modernism' seems to be the mannerist breaking of rules which are not properly understood in the first place. but at least these designs recognise that public architecture must take note of popular expectations. They also show architects the expressive possibilities of working within a style rich in symbols and, thank goodness, bring modern architecture back in harmony with the great European tradition.

But Neo-Classicism has bitter enemies. In the mind of the conventional Modern architect it is associated with 'fascism' a mischievous confusion of style and politics which has been used endlessly to justify the moral superiority of insensitive, arrogant Modern Architecture. This prejudice seems to linger longest in Britain and poor Sr Bofill encountered our provincialism at the opening of his exhibition at the Architectural Association. To hear the ageing English avant-garde (usually only on paper) com placently indulging in moralising condemnation of Bofill's recent work was a peculiarly sickening spectacle and an irrelevant one. Bofill has in fact managed to de-politicise Neo-Classicism. He apparent ly has an impeccable anti-Franeo back ground and yet does not think the NeoClassical a style.only favoured by dictators of the Right. It worries me a little that some of his designs so resemble Stalinist blocks of of the 1940s, but very possibly those were better and more successful than the terrible industrialised blocks of modern flats promoted by Krushchev. What worries me much more is the arrogant, overblown scale of much Neo-Classical modern design and that it ignores the rich possibilities of texture and craftsmanship suggested by other European building traditions.

The exhibition at the AA is entirely of drawings, which is a pity. Interesting and accomplished as they are, they will pander to the architectural student's unhealthy obsession with drawing rather than with the practicalities of building. Yet the remark able acievement of Bofill is that he manages to get his designs built . unlike the fashionable Post-Modern Americans, who do pretty drawings with keystones and arches and sell them for high prices in New York galleries. By getting clients to pay for his complex and unusual schemes, Bofill demonstrates that architecture is more than a paper art.

Bofill is, in fact, an impresario; glamorous, intolerably handsome 42-yearold public relations man for his design team, or 'Taller', in both Barcelona and Paris. This team is truly international and includes not only an Englishman (Peter Hodgkinson) but even 'philosophers, poets and other stimulators' (to quote from the catalogue) a degree of wordy pretension seems a necessary element in the Continental avant-garde. Bofill not only offers designs but whole planning and develop ment schemes and he manages to work successfully with politicians and administra tors, He has succeeded in establishing himself in the most culturally xenophobic country in the world; although he failed to realise his scheme for Les Halles owing to vicious politics, he is now actually building two huge Neo-Classical housing schemes near Paris: at St Quentin and at Marne la Vallee. This last is being built with pre-cast, concrete Beaux-Arts details hoisted up to cover 18 storeys of flats; the result promises to be interesting if nothing else. That Classicism can be industrialised may explain the present revival: Peter Hodgkinson argues that Today's developer (promoter) is aware of every penny; he must have complete confidence in the professionalism and capabilities of the designer he selects to stay within the cost brackets and produce a fine and attractive building.' Anyone wishing to keep up with modern architecture and to see what animates today's students should visit the AA on the west side of Bedford Square (until 14 February). This exhibition, incidentally, is but one in a regular series yet the AA is entirely self-supporting and has to rely upon foreign students. A British architectural student can only secure a grant if he attends one of the mediocre statesupported institutions elsewhere and is effectively denied entry into what is now the most lively and catholic — if also the most pretentious — architectural school in the country. This is a scandal which 1 hope the Department of Education will soon end.