Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.


Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture



We are experiencing the biggest building boom the planet has seen, but despite this mass of architecture, it's hard to articulate what it is that we are trying to construct - to identify the narrative thread that links together the masses of new studio apartments lining the waterways of ex-industrial areas, the elaborate towers, the billions of pounds worth of new schools and hospitals, the sheer number of Wilkinson Eyeresque bridges signalling regeneration, developer housing offering a vast array of lifestyles, social housing whose ambition outstrips its budget, the airports stations and infrastructure.

Awash with opportunity and money while rushed off their feet, architects have been understandably too saucer-eyed to spend time polishing their position. But strangely critics haven't been interested in articulating the narrative vectors either. Maybe they aren't up to it anymore. Despite all these new kinds of buildings, and new ways of putting stuff together, we haven't had a new label yet. You could spin this as a sign of maturity, a kind of post-Jencks third way beyond the Punch and Judy arguments that characterised the 1960, 70 and 80s. But on the other hand, it might mean that nothing worth naming has happened. Not one new 'ism'. Perhaps its because throughout this period we failed to produce a single architectural idea.

Instead of ideas we have made architecture pragmatic, un-difficult, user friendly, skinned in a sheath of contemporary effect, eager to please, soft to the touch, which slips down easily. If you were paranoid, you might even feel that there was a determined effort to bury ideas.

The backstory to British architectures success is the story of what it had to give up: the strange baggage it had to check in, the flammable liquids and the sharp items confiscated at the gate.

Pretty much all of this success is a direct consequence of the twin figures of Foster and Rogers. They have not just have excelled in a particular kind of work, but demonstrated and demanded engagement. Rogers has amazingly bored through the bureaucracy to the heart of political policy, forcing architecture onto the agenda in Town Halls and back rooms of Whitehall, linking the notion of architecture to political buzzwords such as inclusion, sustainability and quality of life. Meanwhile, Foster has demonstrated the commercial possibilities by producing remarkable architecture to make money with, in, and for. While doing this, they have also delivered concentrated moments of exceptional design.

So prolonged and convincing has this double headed pincer charm offensive been that it has sidelined royal taste, seduced politicians and partnered with high finance - and it rolls like a snowball down a mountain side, becoming ever more convinced of its logics and benefits. Architecture has become symbolic of both social progression and status to an exaggerated extent. Buildings act as markers of political delivery and prestige in transforming the skyline of financial districts into your own image.

It was no mean feat given the state of the profession in the 1980s.Fosters and Rogers defined a role for architecture in Britain at a time when the ground was slipping away from the profession: at a time when faith in architects and belief in their value had rapidly eroded.

Their influence has formed a slipstream into which the rest of the profession has fallen - following their lead and benefiting from their drag. Their gravity has reformed the shape of the history from which they emerged. It has become a force that pulls offices into particular shapes, forms the manner of our response and prefigures our clients expectations.

British architecture would have been very different is it were not for two untimely deaths and an early retirement which simplified and clarified the architectural agenda. Would Rogers and Foster have dominated the UK scene so powerfully and so completely if Jim Stirling hadn't died at his mature professional peak? Or if Reyner Banham had been around to direct and refocus the architectural approach which had been spawned by the pen of his cultural criticism? And what if Archigram had defended their position in relation to High Tech – especially that dark, poetic wing of Archigram - if David Greene hadn't retired in a conceptual act sometime in the early 1970s.

These figures and their associates were links to other ways of thinking, offering different ideas about what architecture should be, what kind of cultural act it was. Something much more difficult to contain and more problematic to sell: Bloody-minded, perverse and almost always provocative. And without these multiple voices, British architecture became simpler, more streamlined and compact.

If Stirling, Banham and Archigram had survived, would they have led us to different conclusions? Provided alternative models? Kept open rich seams in British architectural culture that now seem boarded up like a Klondike gold mine? Would they have held back the success story that followed?

Its also interesting to not that the focus of British architecture moves from the cultural realm of the university to the boardroom. Banham, Stirling and Archigrams connection to education is far stronger than that of those who followed. By sidestepping the petty politics of positioning which characterises institutions, it avoids any critical debate. And because of this it becomes increasingly blinkered, and because of this it is in perennial danger of becoming a dead end: the result of other peoples speculations. The High Tech followers ably demonstrate this problematic tendency by failing to move the language, ambition or concern into any new arrangement.

Success can be a curse as British architectures recent purple patch shows. If it's all been so great, then why is it so ... boring? It's the kind of boredom derived from the good and the safe. Predictable because it doesn't challenge the expectations of the market. The Faustian pact that was - perhaps accidentally - struck between architects and the client bodies was to drop the peculiar, the difficult, the overly culturally engaged, the provocative, for a streamlined, frictionless, easy fit.

If one firm is to characterise current vogues in British architecture, it's Make. Their hand-in-glove fit with developers is obviously successful - and success has its own fascination. Beyond this accelerated shimmer of newsworthy-ness is a strange crossbreed of architecture. It is characterised by funny shapes that apparently represent notions of 'contemporary', 'high design', 'signature architect' and other desirable qualities. However, the shapes are not quite as odd or perverse as those designed by the architects from which they have been swiped. They are formed without the hardships, perversions, struggles and disappointments of the intellectual Avant Guard that spawned funny shape-ism. Instead, these are thoroughly shallow shapes formed by a desire to be fashionable. Without the backstory, Shape-ism becomes corporate rather than cultural. It is overly expressive, but has nothing in particular to express - a series of empty gestures writ large.

It is an architecture of easiness, a form of liberalism which fails to make any form of distinction, where nothing is wrong. It is endlessly optimistic to the point of recklessness. It is pro-client, pro-market, pro-almost everything (but most of all, pro itself with total absence of self awareness) and lacks any kind of critical distance. An offspring of baby boomer and dot com excess and degeneracy. It is anti-intellectual, anti -historical, anti-cultural. It represents a philistine idea of creativity. It is an architectural approach that operates like a bottle trap with no way out; smooth sided with no means of escape.

It is the most complete response to the British architecture boom and has been sustained by the money that its clients pour into it rather than its own internal drive. Make has produced an architecture which mirrors the inflation of economic value that has sustained the building boom by producing an architecture of equally over-inflated formalism.

Just as the credit crunch revealed economies to be wrapped around bad debt, this kind of architecture seems somehow hollow. Which is why - despite its attempts at formal invention - it comes across as anaemic. It's Alsop without the late nights, booze and fags, Zaha without the insane vision, Foster without the ruthless clarity of thought, and Rogers without the social concern.

By accident, High Tech became the summation of post-war British architectural culture - the heritage of Archigram and Banham, the Independent Group and so on wrapped up in a genre based architecture. It lead these ideas from the margins to the centre of commercial and political arenas – but on the way polishing and brushing off the more interesting elements: the idea of culture, the engagement with popular culture.

Success came with a heavy price to the profession. Gaps opened up between practice and academia which now seem like chasms. We have lacked a critical figure, someone able to cast a narrative over our architectural product and speculate on its future direction. These factors mean a lack of checks and balances which hand the justification architecture over to the architects own press releases.

Perhaps this era of British architecture will disappear with the credit crunch - as the money dries up, this kind of architecture might well shrivel with it. Perhaps new factions are already emerging - the New Moralists, the New Pop-ists (or the New Pop Moralists) will thrive in the New Austerity. These are firms which argue for architecture as an act of wider culture, who are able to operate on small budgets and are socially and culturally engaged. Tendencies among the younger offices picking up the frayed ends of a golden thread that seemed to have been cut sometime during the Banham-Stirling-Archigram era. It is as though they are re-running history in an effort to explore the alternative conclusions of British architectural culture: The return of the bloody-minded, perverse, pretentious, culturally minded architecture of resistance wrapped up in the future we never had.



Posted by anothersam at May 13, 2008 3:03 PM.

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Contents:

More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon

Trace

What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

Swingball

Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension

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