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

I recently shared a platform at the Yale Centre for British Art with Ed Jones and Robert Maxwell. We were there representing architects in a conference about architectural history. Specifically, our brief was to address how architects use history. Between us, I think we managed to offend everyone in the room. Why? Because as Robert Maxwell confided to me, academic history is a deep and narrow subject, while architecture is very wide and incredibly shallow.

Any architect brave enough to mention the impression of history or the gravity of tradition upon their work is likely to alienate pretty much everyone. Historians because they will be appalled by such amateurish ignorance, architects because of their blind attachment to an idea of 'contemporary-ness'. Mention history and you will find yourself summoning the spectres of Architectural bogey-men such as Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry.

According to Reyner Banham, Modernism owed it all to the Futurists. And it's that 'Theory and Design in the First Machine Age' historical trajectory that is used as the background to High Tech architecture. Its incredible success has hijacked Banhams legacy: the gadgets, the engineering, the thrill of the machine and the child-like glee of bolted together infrastructure - all of this is used to explain the historical inevitability and universal contemporary relevance of High Tech.

But there is an alternative story to British architecture. One where the relationship between the past, the present and the future is far more complex. It's an idea of modern architecture that is distinct from continental Modernism. One where the role of history and tradition is significant in the creation of the future. It means that progressive - and sometimes radically utopian - architecture comes wrapped up in historical reference.

It's what we see in the proto-modernism of the Arts and Crafts, in the intentional Luddite nature of medieval revivalism in the face of the industrial revolution. William Morris proto-socialist social progressivism and fit-for-purpose simplicity. Perhaps this back-to-the-future view is best seen in Morris' novel, 'The News from Nowhere' whose scenario reads like a Sci-Fi B-movie: a future London filled with people in bright, homemade clothes, the Houses of Parliament turned into a dung heap, Kensington Gardens a forest where children are sent to educate themselves.

Nostalgia is the language which disguises the essentially rationalist/futurist vision of the Garden Cities. Ebenezer Howards infrastructural and economic blueprint was interpreted by architects such as Unwin and Parker into something whose references were far from contemporary - in fact, these references were little more than collages of the architects most recent holiday sketchbooks. But the references serve an important architectural service. They extend the Howards equation of the Garden City: (City - disease + poverty + crime)) + (Country - (unemployment + isolation)) into a terrain of pleasure.

The relationship of nostalgia to technology and infrastructure continues as the suburbs roll out of the cities along railway lines - escaping from the post industrial city. Its important to remember that the suburban expansion was bright fresh and new. It was utopian and bristling with new technology.

Perhaps it is this relationship that Archigram - children of the suburban pioneers -accelerate and amplify. Ron Herrons 'Tuned Suburbs' might well be surreal and hip, but they are also made in tribute to the suburbs utopian pleasure principle.

Archigrams pastoral-futurism is seeped in nostalgia. Technology is used to return us to a more innocent state. It's perhaps the sentiment at the heart of David Greenes Rok and Log Plugs and in Cooks 'Hedgerow City' - high tech pieces of naturalistic landscape - what one might describe as a techno-picturesque.

Are Archigrams concerns of history and technology the same tendencies that find architectural fulfilment in Jim Stirlings Staatsgalerie? Are they linked - via Banham, the Independent Group and Denise Scott Brown to American Pop and Postmodernism? The questions being asked in these projects are about history in relation to the full machinations of contemporary culture. The importance of this is that it directly addresses issues of identity and attempts to examine the effects of technology and globalisation upon culture. To this end, nostalgia is a powerful tool: it can be used as a battering ram, a protective shield, a means of delivery and a way of communicating.

This trajectory through modern British architecture avoids the cul-de-sacs of pastiche, of simple historical re-creation. History is used not as an accurate model, but as cultural reference. By doing this, it places the architect with a wider social and political landscape and sites architecture within broader culture. In fact, rather than providing a protected harbour against the raging sea of contemporary-ness, it challenges the exclusive dialogue within the profession. It also involves tremendous leaps in imagination: of remaking the past as well as the future. Far from being safe, it is unsettling, challenging and sometimes radical.

Posted by sam at November 30, 2006 2:26 PM


Hi Sam,
Felt compelled to comment. I think you're broadly right, but conflating Stirling and Archigram is where it all goes a little too far, i think.
Archigram is interested in history insofar as it represents a nostalgic retro-futuristic consumer utopia, as you suggest. I visited Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie for the first time earlier this year, and what is striking is its desire to communicate in a mediated and yet unironic way. This is not pop art appropriation of iconography (despite the architrave lampshades), it is the desire on the scale of the city to reclaim symbolism as a relevant area of architectural enquiry. The stepped rotunda, in particular, is an extraordinary gesture of pragmatic sophisticaton, but it's meaning is not ironic. The steps really are a place of procession and peacock-like public display, a highly mannered interweaving of publicness and high culture. I think that the NS is a postmodern project, beset by double-coding, but cultural in its capacity to communicate through culture.
I think your thesis here is a little too concerned with imagery. Stirling's buildings are very much about the city. Archigram's projects are removed from it, walking above it, or sealing the individual body from the environment. In this respect, Archigram is just modernism - obsessed with mobility and hygiene. Stirling is not nostalgic - he believes just as much as Lutyens did in the contrinuing relevance and power of the rotunda, arch or obelisk.
Have you read Gaving Stamp's book about the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme? There is nothing nostalgic about this project - it is a powerful adn contemporary authorial statement, in language. As Danish architect Jan Olav Jensen said to me the other day (when talking about his extraordinary new Cistercian monastery in the north of Norway - a true postmodern project) - "telling the same stories, but using somehow different words."

Posted by:
Fallow on December 14, 2006 12:09 PM


Perhaps the Staatsgaleries tone is not ironic, but instead it could be filed under a neighbouring and little used catagory: "musings regarding the differences between now and then". It's more poetic than ironic, using the dialogue between construction technique, material and historical expectation. In this much it is "theatrical" with explicit narrative - for example where the stone cladding falls from the wall as though a ruin, revealing a car parking level (or some such).

I think Stirling is nostalgic, but importantly, not sentimental. Perhaps the difference is similar to Ruskins definition of 'high' and 'low' Picturesque: where 'low' is sentimental and 'high' aware of and in sympathy with the misery of the worker in the field, the ravages of time, the isolation of the countryside and so on.

There was an essay recommended to me by Bob Maxwell - who had been sent a photocopy by Mary Stirling - about some early housing by Stirling & Gowan whose subject was the nostalgia for working class terraced housing. I think this essay, by Mark Crinson, stresses an unsentimental nostalgia. Here is a link to an abstract

Your right of course to question the relationship I suggest between Archigram and Stirling - definalty a point held together with string and chewing gum in my original piece. In my defence, there is a large Stirling shaped hole in the middle of British architectural culture. Perhaps this will be addressed by the show that is currently being assembled between Yale and the CCA - due in 2010, I think.

Again - you are right to say that here I'm obsessing about imagery. And you are right to foreground the urban role of the Staatsgalerie. Equally impressive in a similar vein, is - to introduce another British protagonist - Mackintosh's industrial-baronial handling of spatial organisation where one slips between typologies ancient and modern with alarming ease: from Great Hall to Factory.

In this previous essay, which I've posted here, I was attempting to address the issue of the uses of historical architectural language. Off the top of my head, I think I was borrowing a concept from Seamus Heaney: the 'word hoard'. He used this term relating to a kind of cultural language resource that we reach into. That might be image, but could be most anything else too. What it really represents is culture. And language is the mechanism through which one addresses culture.

Posted by: sam on December 17, 2006 8:17 PM

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