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 sam at May 13, 2008 3:03 PM

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