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How can we solve a problem like modern architecture?

We must look rather than argue

I dislike concrete buildings as much as the next sensible person. It remains a mystery to me why otherwise intelligent people congratulated themselves on making the aesthetic breakthrough of creating buildings that weren’t pretty or beautiful. All that gloomy, shapeless, pockmarked brutalism. How clever! To make something neither attractive nor appealing!

But this isn’t good enough. We cannot dismiss a movement for not being to our taste. That would be as myopic as taking a thirty-five acre area of Blitz-wrecked London and deciding to raise everyone’s spirits by erecting the Barbican from the ashes. And how much of this stuff is there really? Aside from the Barbican, the Southbank, the Brunswick, the Standard Hotel, the Royal College of Physicians, central London is hardly overrun with concrete. 

These buildings are now part of history

These buildings are now part of history. We can’t go back to the time before modernism, concrete, and the incongruous inescapable block. It’s true that Centre Point is a permanent disgrace to sight and reason. But on the whole, you can walk for a long time and never think of brutalism. These buildings appear like objectionable relatives at births, deaths, and weddings. You feel the sharp edge of their arrival like something nasty being slipped between your ribs, but then you realise it’s only a temporary discomfort and you are free of them until the next nasty surprise. 

Having a clutch of these buildings is now an act of preservation of the sort of time and place London used to be. London without the National Theatre is as unimaginable as London without Blackfriars Bridge. And these buildings divide opinion, which is far preferable to all the buildings no one has any strong feelings about. Cross London Bridge to enter the City and you face a very ordinary 1920s office. It has a cupola, for which special permission was given as it exceeded height limits at the time, but the building is hardly impressive. As Pevsner says, “a cupola alone does not make a big building monumental and worthy of an outstanding site.”

This is hardly unusual. Does anyone really think that Globe House earns its prominent place on the river bank? Does One Lancaster Place really hold its own opposite Somerset House? I find the new Bloomberg building and Cannon Street station insufferable. This sort of prize winning rubbish is an affront to City architecture. But such is life! Much of what we walk past everyday doesn’t even rise to the level of offensive. I am always surprised to find a Lutyens office, as unnoticed as a pedestrian with their head down. He rewards attention but never compels it. Yes, Cannon Street station used to look like Charing Cross, in full fussy Italianate glory. But the Bloomberg building replaced the utterly repulsive Bucklersbury House — it is difficult to imagine a more incongruous pair. The hotel was  shattered wreck from the Blitz and was pulled down a few years after Bucklersbury House went up. It is in the nature of London for its buildings to be at odds with each other. 

And not just in modern times. We might find it anathema that the Leadenhall Building (known as the cheesegrater) is right there next to St. Andrew Undershaft, a sixteenth century church. But if you go to the Guildhall, a splendid fifteenth century building that keeps the true gothic style alive in London, you will see a large porch of Portland stone stuck on the front, a joyfully eclectic design with gothic points, classical arches, and Indian inspired decorations. It is pretty out of keeping with the Guildhall but it somehow fits right in. It was a remarkable way to treat a building that survived the Great Fire of London. For all our modern impositions, I doubt we’d have the gall to do something that stunning today. Yes we put a concrete block next to the original. But would we stick such a thing right on the front of an ancient building? There is nothing else quite like that porch and it is simply wonderful.

Architects used to do this all the time. St Katherine Cree, a rare early seventeenth century church, had a door and cupola added a hundred years later, quite out of keeping with the original. Plenty of Wren’s churches were “restored” by the Victorians to a state quite out of keeping with the original. Some of the worst outrages were perpetuated against the interior of St Paul’s. In Dulwich, there is a street of early Georgian townhouses that was simply stuck onto the existing town, an incongruous addition we now find it unthinkable to remove or alter. Can we really pretend that Hawkmoor’s churches fit in naturally with their surroundings or with anything else? I am startled by St Mary Woolnoth every time I leave Bank station. There was a movement to demolish it in the nineteenth century but it was defended as “striking and original”, words you could use about many modern buildings. 

We have to accept that although the buildings we want to preserve may be prettier or more beautiful than modern buildings (although I raise my eyebrow at the suggestion that St. Mary Woolnoth is beautiful) we cannot simply revert to older architectural forms. Christopher Wren, England’s greatest architect, was no conformist to history, arguing for St Pauls to be modern as well as magnificent. The English baroque that followed him was eventually dropped for being decidedly unEnglish. Whenever its influence has revived, the results have been eclectic and dramatic, and usually out of keeping with their surroundings. Indeed, Queen Anne Revival Style, that most English of architectural schools, is always incongruously eclectic. That is its charm.

This is why I want to keep those horrible concrete buildings scattered around London. I have learnt to feel a hint of the sense of romantic sublime under the columns of the Barbican just as I can sense the dramatic imposition of St Alfege in Greenwich. Hawksmoor combined the Tuscan with the Doric on the east front of that church, and cut an arch through the pediment for good measure. If it wasn’t so old it would be easier to see how odd it is. For similar reasons, I would rather live with London’s Victorian almshouses, baroque revival libraries, and Georgian parades when they are set off by modern buildings. Everything in moderation and everything jumbled together. City buildings work best as a messy evolution of styles. 

Something must be done about the future. We cannot carry on as we are. We can’t keep everything and we can’t go back. Architecture has declined from the controversial to the ignorable. The modern box style that is now perpetrated everywhere like an unstoppable glitch is good for building nothing more than cheap hotels. Our skyscrapers are a pathetic exercise in using silly shapes. But rather than ask for revivals of styles past and wish away the modern, as if architecture were a fairytale and the past weren’t as mishmashed as the present, I contemplate the Minster Building, whose jagged gothic points arise in polished postmodern granite. It marries old and modern to make something strangely compelling; it is curiously in keeping with the madcap gabled gothic office round the corner on Eastcheap. Unlike the boxes, the Minster Building has style. Like St Mary Aldermary, those fantastic towers keep an almost musical presence in my imagination. 

Gavin Stamp wrote in Anti Ugly, modern classicism is disappointing because it works against the zeitgeist and becomes “pedantically striving and unsophisticated.” The originality of the Minster Building comes from the fact that it worked with the spirit of the times. It is the sort of imaginative design that has to be the way architecture gets back to being a public utility and an aesthetic pride. It sets the tone for the way forgetting ornaments like gables might be revived. 

We need to forget the argument between classic and modern, box and spire, and aim once more for buildings that are striking and original. We must look rather than argue. That is the only real way to honour the past.

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