18 JANUARY 1957, Page 21

Contemporary Arts

Rebuilding London

LONDON'S architectural pros- pect is far from encouraging. We have neither the economic resources nor, it would seem, the social dynamism to trans- form the present mess, the outcome of war and of the addition of new pressures to an existing chaos, into some- , thing both workable and seemly as, for example, Pittsburgh has done. We have no architect of commanding authority, vision and achievement to inspire and educate; we have not, I believe, a man as gifted in this art as Henry Moore is in sculpture. We do not seem ready to learn from the great architectural thinkers and practitioners in other countries. The interested public are all the more ready therefore to be led by the nose by that Duke of Plaza-Toro among our architects, Sir Albert Richardson, who commands opinion from behind, 200 years be- hind, and flatters the public blimpishly in their misunderstanding. There is a formidable weight of spoken and unspoken prejudice and received ideas: the determination dogmatically to preserve an informality of planning, as being the English way, when laissez-faire would be a more accurate epithet; the habit of thinking historically while only learning from history the most superficial and inappropriate lessons. In many influential quarters the spirit of conservatism prevails over that of creation. Most passion and energy is spent over the saving of some unexceptional tower.

The bells of victory are rung when an imagina- tive scheme like the New Barbican is subdued with a plethora of expedient cliches. The symbols of governmental attitude are the dismal hulk still arising between Whitehall and the river and the projected home of the Colonial Office., The lessor blocks are an old wound which time will never heal. At the heart of this situation is the gulf between the best official scientific and social thinking—Calder Hall or the Duke of Edin- burgh's study conference on the Challenge of Change—and ideas on architecture, the most obviously social and scientific of the arts. It is against this background of muddle and nostalgia that the emergence of new buildings in London must be seen. Three recent ones deserve particular attention. The National Farmers' Union have recently moved into new premises facing the park near Hyde Park Corner. The leaden word 'premises' is suitable for this spiritless manipula- tion of a giant order, neo-Georgian brickwork and muddled ornament which speaks with a voice of intolerable pomposity and affronts its excellent site. It would be the proper headquarters only for a community of backward 'gentlemen' farmers, and one can only hope that the Fellowship in Agricultural Architecture recently created by the NFU will involve'looking intelligently at our oast- houses and windmills and not at this pink and white elephant. The TUC have promoted a build- ing of very different quality in a most difficult and discouraging site between Bedford Square and New Oxford Street. David Aberdeen's block looks one of the best London buildings for some years. I would also recommend all those interested —and all of us should be—to visit the new office building in New Cavendish Street recently com- pleted by the firm of Gollins, Melvin, Ward, American-derived certainly, but none the worse for that and with an elegance we seldom see. They might well indeed look at two recent architectural publications which, apart from their intrinsic interest, comment indirectly upon some of these questions. Henrique Mindlin's survey of Modern Brazilian Architecture (Architectural Press, 84s.) describes a situation which, in spite of profoundly different climatic and geographical conditions, is subject to economic difficulties and historical prejudices comparable with our own. What such Brazilian architects as Niemeyer, Costa, Reidy and others can offer—and their extraordinary achievement is the work of twenty years—is a dynamic and collective enterprise, a sense of national pride which is not nostalgic and a readiness to consult the ideas and accomplish- ment of the great figures of the modern move- ment. They have approached the problem of fitting large new buildings into already congested cities with an admirable flexibility of mind and great structural inventiveness. They have, for example, learnt from Le Corbusier, whose visit to the country in the mid-Thirties was powerfully to influence the course of events, the value of raising buildings upon stilts so as to clear the ground for other purposes at street level. The London prob- lems can only be solved by just such an exploita- tion of modern engineering. The situation in Western Germany since 1945, the subject of a book by Hubert Hoffman (Architectural Press, 65s.), has been even closer to ours, confronted as that country was by shattered cities and the need for six million new dwellings. If the work repro- duced is not so dazzling as the Brazilian examples there is at least a similar will to re-create and the encouraging example of such illustrious pre- decessors as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.

Next year Berlin will be the scene of an Inter- national Building Exhibition with the replanning and reconstruction of the Hansa quarter as its centre. Le Corbusier, Saarinen and other foreign architects are contributing to a scheme which is bound to have a great influence upon official and public opinion. It is, I am afraid, too much to hope that anything like that could happen here.