Before and after: The transformation of Cité du Grand Parc, Bordeaux

Adapt and survive

Fans of Modernism should accept sensitive redevelopment

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The clamour that greeted the awarding of the Pritzker Prize — architecture’s Nobel — to the French practice Lacaton & Vassal in April this year was near universal throughout the architecture world. A rare thing indeed. Lacaton & Vassal represent that elusive thing in contemporary architecture, a combination of sheer talent and a strong sense of historical mission with the political implications that implies.

It is telling, however, that the practice probably didn’t win the prize for their new-build work, though it is certainly exceptional. The FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in Dunkirk is a fabulous structure, based on the renovation of an old boat warehouse in the dock area. By building a copy of the first building to the same dimensions, the architects confer an eerie symbolism. Which is the ghost — the original or its simulacrum? The dead industry or the result of cultural regeneration? It is a profoundly poetic structure: part Arthur Koestler, part Rachel Whiteread.

But most of the commentary from around the world focused on other projects; the transformation of three blocks of social housing in Bordeaux and another 1960s-built block in Paris. A new social mission for architecture appears to be coalescing around these buildings. “Their work provides a response to the climatic and ecological emergencies of the time, as well as to the social emergency, in particular in the field of housing,” ran the Pritzker jury citation. Lacaton & Vassal have created an “architecture as powerful in its form as in its convictions … as transparent in its aesthetics as in its ethics.”

Architects are always in search of a meaning and a reason to exist. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that ever since the demise of Modernism, the profession has been in search of a grand purpose: a mission that would give justification and validity to the architect’s role in deploying vast resources and in transforming places. Lacaton & Vassal offer a tantalising prospect: architects can now cast themselves as custodians of the infrastructure of the post-war welfare state. The heroism of that era may not be open to them, but they can as surely look after what was built then and adapt it for the present day.

The building which best sums up the sociological shifts of Britain in the late twentieth century is probably Tate Modern

And what an example Lacaton & Vassal’s project seems to offer. They doubled apartment space in the Paris block by creating platforms adjacent to the original structure. By allowing residents, who clearly love their new building, to remain in their homes as it was refurbished, the architects avoided the often deliberately disruptive act of “decanting” whereby inhabitants are moved to other parts of a city never to return, thus losing social cohesion and mix. Sometimes we forget the sheer scale of both of Modernism’s success and of what was completed in the post-war years.

Tellingly, in their 34 years of existence, Lacaton & Vassal have only managed to adapt three tower blocks. That’s one a decade, and never for the same client. We are not witnessing the wholesale revitalisation of France’s housing stock, but admiring some expensive, symbolic one-offs. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Given the disaster caused in London with Grenfell Tower’s slipshod renovation, we must seek better alternatives. And regardless of outcomes, what Lacaton & Vassal have done is highlight a key intersection of culture, infrastructure and politics which determines our age.

The FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais project

It has been estimated that the volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold between 1900 and 2010. Let’s set aside the fact that most will have been built without an architect’s contribution, as was the case prior to Modernism, and note instead that Modernism was the pre-eminent architectural style for much of this period. Thus we have a whole lot more Modernism than any other kind of architecture.

Adaptation is, of course, an understandable response. The building which best sums up the culture and sociological shifts of Britain in the late twentieth century is probably Tate Modern: a singular amalgam of industrial Modernism and neo-gothic monumentality converted into a cultural repository. We adapt and shall have to adapt more. There is a post-industrial, post-pandemic imperative to this as well as existing office stock is converted to residential use.

To take it one step further, there is a strong intellectual and artistic argument in favour of adapted modernism being the aesthetic tenor of our age. Witherford Watson Mann won the Stirling Prize — the award for the best building in Britain — in 2013 for their adaptation of Astley Castle. They placed a modern home inside of a thirteenth century ruin. They have since gone on to adapt a Victorian pumping station into a visitor centre and revitalised part of the Barbican modernist housing scheme in the heart of London. William Mann, one of the partnership’s directors, differentiates this new approach to “the modernist and/or paternalist-totalitarian agenda of correcting people, or liberating them by shaping their environment”.

If we take the example of large scale housing projects built in Paris or London in the 1960s, they often fail to address the changing needs of their inhabitants. “So you get into the imperfect capacity of buildings to be responsive to needs,” Mann adds. “But that can be a positive capacity — a resistance to control, however benign — as well as a frustration. The adaptation of existing buildings becomes about the human condition, not just about embodied energy or historical references.”

What Mann is proposing is a rethinking of the timeframe in which architects operate. He looks to France for an example, tellingly to the ninetenth century architect Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc, who restored many of France’s medieval buildings.

“This is what architects used to do,” he says. “As Viollet-le-Duc wrote: ‘The architect must learn how to finish what others have started, and start what others will finish.’”

Of course, it seems obvious that re-using what we have is a way to prevent the unnecessary expenditure of resources. But despite their solidity, buildings and architecture are vulnerable to social change. Without radical intervention, Modernist buildings, which were built quickly and are in desperate need of upgrading, become quickly redundant. Much housing was built for very specific social conditions. Reusing for the sake of reusing will invariably impact on the less fortunate. Adaptation must allow for further adaptation.

The timeframe of climate alarmism, however, blocks off this generosity in terms of possible future evolution. In his recently-published book, Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, Dr Barnabas Calder dismisses the idea that well-made buildings are a sound investment of resources.

Even if they are not demolished before their time, the argument goes that many of buildings may be washed away by the rising seas before they have time to recover their initial carbon investment.

The problem with this position is that this impending disaster is a figment of the alarmist imagination. Do not build for the future because in my imagination it will not exist is a strange perversion of the Modernist creed and not a highly scientific one. You will search long and hard to find the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose words on these matters are oft quoted, predict a cataclysmic flood.

In the last decade we have witnessed the greatest period of construction that the world has ever seen, with the urbanisation of China (the high point of China’s CO2 emissions was reached in 2013 and is now declining). Even then, the carbon dioxide produced by cement production is only 3 per cent of the global total. To systematically resist the demolition of unneeded buildings based on the fact that carbon dioxide was once used in a building’s construction is illogical.

Buildings are not latent pools of CO2 to be released. They are resources and tools for human development. We are moving into a more literal phase: post-Modernism as opposed to Postmodernism.

The Chester Road Hostel, Camden

Discussing and debating how we do this is difficult. Any discussion, either in general or with regard to specific buildings, takes place within a slow-burning culture war, where those deciding what happens to our built environment can co-opt either side on a given day to justify a decision.

On one side there are the Twitter Trads: an unholy alliance of new right shitposters, young fogeys, government ministers pandering to tastes that their predecessors helped gerrymander and a few gobby house builders. Arrayed on the other side are the brutalist instagrammers, architects and the Socialist Worker types who view the demolition of a provincial leisure centre as if it were in a continuum with the siege of Stalingrad. These unhelpful groupings are mapped vaguely on to old notions of right and left.

Radical adaptation — not just changing a building’s use but preparing it for future changes — faces stern opposition, not just from those who have a problem with Modernism but also from apparent sympathisers. This is exacerbated by the fact that the system we have of conserving buildings is unsuited to changing requirements, even though staffed by knowledgeable and well-intentioned people.

Conservation emerged as a response to the unplanned destruction of historic buildings during the march to industrialisation. When William Morris and Philip Webb wrote a manifesto for the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, they called on their confrères to “put Protection in the place of Restoration … and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands”.

Although Morris’s essentialist position still dominates our understanding of the built environment, the world has changed radically. Whilst Viollet-le-Duc’s attitude of accumulation and adaptation formed in France, our instinct in Britain has been to protect — an approach that has been seized at key moments to change attitudes. The Victorian Society campaigned successfully to protect St. Pancras Station in London and Albert Dock in Liverpool in the mid-1960s. These two key moments arrested — it seems impossible to believe this today — the general disregard in which Victorian architecture was held by the cultural elite.

There is an attitude among those whose job it is to conserve Modernism that all they have to do is wait until tastes catch up with those of the aficionados. The problem with this approach is that it underplays the power of advocacy by figures such as John Betjeman, who explained the aesthetic value and wider cultural worth of the buildings he championed in an embracing, rather than a combative way. It also fundamentally fails to understand the impact of the move from a quasi-amateur system that governed conservation up to the 1980s and the established, legislatively-defined bureaucracy of today.

With each individual case of preservation judged less by popular opinion, and more by administrative process, advocacy bodies such as The Twentieth Century Society, who “campaign to save outstanding buildings and design that have shaped the British landscape since 1914” have apparently adopted a strategy of requesting listing whenever it can. It seems like a win-win. Chuck in a request for listing for anything. English Heritage might go for it. The local planning authority will have to listen. However, this opportunism fails to take into account social needs and other important democratic imperatives.

Take an example. The Twentieth Century Society attempted in late 2020 to get English Heritage to list Chester Road Hostel in Camden because it had been part of the Highgate New Town development designed by Bill Forrest of the Camden Architect’s Department: an entirely commendable but familiar episode in the history of British Modernism. It’s a decent building which provided shelter for the homeless for years, but is now sadly unequal to the task required of it. By campaigning to list it, the 20th Century Society was preventing it from being extended so more homeless people could find shelter.

Their reasoning was that the council could have placed this facility elsewhere: a telling remark and the clarion call of the NIMBY. Is it for a conservation body to decide where a homeless facility is best placed, or is it a matter for the democratically elected local government? One would think the latter. In addition, conservation advocacy bodies such as the Twentieth Century Society are now coming up against bodies like Priced Out; a volunteer group which argues for development as a means of addressing our housing shortage. They successfully pushed back on the listing request in the case of Camden.

In this complex landscape formed by the need to house our population, the Twentieth Century Society’s apparently harmless pursuit of listings on historical grounds can often be vexatious. Their campaign to protect an anonymous office block in the outskirts of Swindon because one of the predecessor systems to the ISBN was invented there looks a bit kooky on first glance. Look closer and the listing would block a major housing development. On utterly spurious grounds, the Society is blocking housing in the vicinity of Trellick Tower in west London despite being in accordance with the original plans of the architect Ernst Goldfinger. They are in danger of becoming a convenient ally of NIMBYs.

Test cases loom large. The civic guts of most cities in the red wall are Modernist and need addressing

And Modernism IS different. The sheer scale of it as a project; its total ubiquity in road transport and social housing infrastructures mark it out. It was conceived as a means of granting the widest possible material benefits to the widest possible constituency. Those who despise Modernism, for the radical way it changed our city and society, must forever live also with the scale of this generosity.

So one simply cannot argue, say, for a structure to be preserved in its totality because of its historical contribution to public health if conservation prevents the delivery of better public health today. If we want a situation where we adapt the legacy of the past, we have to be true to its spirit rather than to its literal fabric. If we want to look to France for an example, we should forget Lacaton & Vassal: we need to be more like Viollet-le-Duc than William Morris.

So let’s not sweat the small stuff. Go in big for the important ones. It may seem galling to make the case for Modernism all over again, but we must: everything from the pressing needs which quickly-erected tower blocks addressed and why brushed concrete is in fact a luxurious material. We must do so in terms the public and potential political opponents understand. Hhousing and local government secretary Robert Jenrickmay be a philistine, but like all politicians he’s susceptible to broader democratic voices. The terms of the debate may have been decided by the government as “beauty”, but this should be a gauntlet that the apostles of Modernism should be more than capable of picking up.

The case needs to be made for beauty in Modernism. If the market is to lead, we need to legislate and encourage. If we are moving out of a neoliberal phase of history and the state is to take a role in development, then the reductive culture wars need to be dropped in favour of an appreciation that like it or not, Modernism is the default style of our modernity.

Test cases loom large. The civic guts of most cities in the red wall are Modernist and need addressing. Lacaton & Vassal’s victory highlights the fact that as a society we are soon going to have to demolish, adapt or re-use a lot of Modernist architecture. We need to stare down both the lazy descriptions and essentialist fetishisations and make a claim for architectural merit as a means of ordering our decisions.

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