I love buildings. All sorts. I think I’ve communicated my passion for the delights of Art Deco, Most recently in Napier in New Zealand. And there was the fabulous Oxo Tower on the south bank of the Thames. There are geniuses out there creating fabulous, sometimes unbelievable structures still. If you look back, across the sweep of history we’ve been blessed by some incredible beauty. I went to York recently and enjoyed the fabulous cathedral that is York Minster. Just one of many Anglican confections both large and small.
But the built environment is not set in stone (groan); building is a continuous process and the more recent the construction the more likely it is to be loathed, hated, despised. Nothing in the last 30 years is any good – at least that’s what is often said. Comparisons are made between, say, some beauteous building from the 1920s and its proposed replacement and pretty much always to the detriment of the modern.
there is no period so remote as the recent past Posner in the History Boys
We don’t see anything so easily if we live with it day to day. Partly we need perspective to understand something completely and partly it’s because there’s a lot of surrounding noise. It’s the same with, say, music and literature. It’s the same with politicians and sportspeople. Today we have everything mixed together – the marvellous and the mediocre, all judgement compromised by fashion and celebrity and the urgency of the now.
But if we look back to the 1990s we recall less detail, we filter and we hold on to the better bits. And the further back we go the less that is rubbish that survives. If you looked at the British Library’s section of books from, say, 1910 there would be some unmitigated crap in amongst the HG Wells, Hardy, Conan Doyle etc. The names that survive in our current consciousness, survive for a reason.
It’s the same with buildings.
A consequence of this, for buildings, is the urge to preserve. In Britain we can statutorily protect buildings and other structures by listing them.
If a building is considered by the Secretary of State (for Culture, Media and Sport) to be of special architectural or historic interest it will be included in a list of such buildings. The designation regime is set out in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990
Once listed the exterior cannot be touched without permission from the local authority; for some really important buildings the interior is protected too (this is by grading: Grade I, Grade II). But if your building is less than 50 years old it is much less likely to be listed. And if it was built of concrete then don’t hold your breath.
Today, I think central London has a wonderful sky line, even if we have this press inspired fixation with giving buildings nicknames. The Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie. I hope some of these are preserved. A new one is due soon – The Helter-Skelter. That too should be worth considering. It is far better then the drab uniformity when I first came to work here in the 1970s. Some don’t like the protuberances; if they add to the character, to the outline, to the soul of the place then yes, do it.
But they won’t be. Too many of the newspapers hark back to the ‘it was better when…’ school of opinion forming. They pander the Heir who has sounded off about architecture more than I for one can stand. Sure some of the proposals were worthy of his ire, but knowing his Mouthiness is against something stops development in its tracks, merit or not. We end up with a safe, boring slab. Or worse, Poundbury, his twee attempt, putting our money where his mouth is, at recreating the world of Thomas Hardy for today’s masses in deepest Dorset. Here are a few of his choice (glib?) statements
a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend
and St Paul’s [will be] dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago
looks rather like an old 1930s wireless
You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble
a place where books are incinerated, not kept
You get the picture. Everyone is entitled to their opinion; not everyone is given the oxygen of publicity quite like Charles.
My point is preserve quality not just old. Preserve examples where otherwise we would have none. But remember building are fundamentally there for their function and their form is a secondary consideration.
This week there is a battle over three buildings in the Strand next to King’s College and Somerset House. They are old. They are redolent of London in bygone age. They are in the way of a new academic building needed for the University. The current (newly appointed) Culture minister has put a temporary block, against the wishes of the owner (naturally) but also the Local Authority and, interestingly English Heritage whose brief it is to preserve buildings of historic worth (to be fair EH would like to see them kept but have accepted the decision to demolish because of the purpose of the replacement and the fact there are plenty of other examples of these sorts of buildings locally).
I know which way I would vote.