Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Future of Urban Architecture?

The closure of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale gives the opportunity to consider the representation of the urban condition as displayed in a number of pavilions and installations. The cityscape of the future, and its suburban outposts, are predicted to be weirdly accumulated from commercial products and the grimly repeated repetitive architecture one can instantly recognise as the centres and peripheries of Springfield or even Shelbyville. 

They are cartoons, the timid response of the creative mind to the often hectoring diagrams and statistics which featured in the previous Biennale. Perhaps by the time of the the next opening in the Giardini the city will receive some serious representations and designs which deal with the often difficult reality, rather than the bi-polar visions of utopia and dystopia which fill the present void.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

REVIEW: Owen Hatherley - A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Briatin

Firstly let us agree that any product of architectural criticism which avoids the scylla of boosterism and the charybdis of obscurity is a very good thing. Owen Hatherley's much praised book takes a long look at recent British urban architecture in an extended homage to the legacy of J.B. Priestley, Ian Nairn and (briefly) Beryl Bainbridge. He surveys the topography and landmarks in a knowingly futile search for the genius loci of contemporary Britain. This is a romantic quest because industrialisation, post-war planning and service-sector regeneration have surely corroded the very possibility of discovering it.

So what is the book's purpose? Three years into the credit crunch which curtailed the period of rapid construction he discusses it can surely be nothing more than an essay in retrospect if not nostalgia, especially as very little is offered as a positive product of emulation. The Climate Camp, for example,  offers as little in the form of social architecture as Greenham Common did. Environmentalism will only be truly effective when adopted within conventional society, not as a form of exile from it or a trustafarian hobby. Hatherley's abiding preference, however, would appear to be for the firm smack of top-down planning as expressed in the architecture of the pre-Thatcher era. But that ignores the miseries created for many by the failed deck access utopia of Park Hill or the Hulme Crescents. As Sally Stone's testimonyimplicitly asked in a recent Radio 4 programme was any architectural vision worth being mugged for cat food?

Familiar targets provide the opportunity for a bit of knockabout. Make, Urban Splash, and rather perversely BDP get it in the neck, the last however also praised for Liverpool 1. But a curious absentee from Hatherley's account is the figure of Micjhael Heseltine. The great bogey-woman Thatcher (and her immediate heir Major) would surely have left few architectural monuments behind if he had not been her Environment Secretary, proponent of Docklands development, 'Minister for Merseyside' after the Toxteth riots, and following her fall the minister responsible for the largest wave of pit-closures and the initiation of the Millenium Dome. He, surely, established the competitive jungle which was the British cityscape whence the Blair / Brown projects sprang. But then, of course, it is a standard response on the left to reserve most of scorn for the fellow-travellers on your own side.

Ultimately the book is a document of an era and an attitude. It might be part of the story itself rather than an objective account of the period. But then it is too soon to be able to write that history. One has only to consider the posthumous fate of another 13 year period of government, characterised by conformity, deference and a consumer boom. Despite the disillusion which ended their control, between 1951 and 1964 under the Tories many historians would have us believe we enjoyed a golden period of architectural production, beloved of all right-thinking heritagistas. After current events have played out maybe the architecture of Blair and Brown will appear equally utopian.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

CABE useless aircraft carrier or submarine aground ?

The coalition government's withdrawal of funding from the 'ship of doom' CABE - hardly a surprise given the scale of cuts planned - perhaps draws a line under the products of the Rogers report Towards an Urban Renaissance. The intentions of that document were benign but that would have been the case with any report following the Thatcher-Major years.

So it's back to an existential struggle to claw some aspect of beauty from the cacophonous urban realm CABE failed to prevent. But at least we'll be spared the parade of conflicts of interest dressed up as authoritative and impartial advice. Temporarily. In due course the 'big society' will no doubt realise it needs another quango, and then it'll start all over again ...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

British Attitudes

The British Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale adopts the strategy of whimsy to entice the visitor into its diffident charms. Designed by MUF the rooms and spaces of the pavilion are treated as a series of apparently unconnected displays of sketchbooks, of stuffed birds and a puddle which reappraise the relevance of perhaps the greatest British interpreter of Venice, John Ruskin.

Concerned that his own admiration of the city had led to some grotesque architectural progeny in England from the hands of his followers, the exhibition reasserts the significance of the observation of nature, and its manifestations in art and architecture as the cure for the jaded aesthetic palette. After being exposed to two decades of furious and often gratuitous building it was a refreshing experience to see an exhibition which expressed its commitment through advocating the study of beauty. Observation of the complexity and fragility of the natural world, and its economy of means, might prove to be a very timely practice.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Park Hill: It is what it is ...

I am currently getting to grips with Park Hill in Sheffield, preparing a talk for SUAS in December. After eight years of observing it from the tram platform, and an absence of four years, I cannot say I've grown any fonder. I am still suspicious, despite the self-laudatory rhetoric to the contrary, that such mass scale housing schemes were a form of class war by other means. It's lasting value might prove to be as a chilling totem of the mechanistic provision of the welfare state (for its original aspirations) and, in its current reconfiguration, as the supreme folly of new labour's urban regeneration policies. But then at least they had a policy ...

Its pleasures seem largely to be aesthetic, a certain yearning for the spartan muscularity common to many branches of British social life from the public schools onwards. This is probably why I find it repellant despite decades of being told to admire it, normally by people whose social origins would prevent them from ever needing to live there.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Seven points on architectural history

Architectural history does not exist to fill the gap left by the decline in hagiography

Architectural history is a story in which the characters are the buildings not the architectural historians

Architectural history is like the detective novel in that geniuses commit most of the crimes

Architectural history is a form of aesthetic vivisection not another excuse for a cultural post-mortem

Architectural history can only ever be a partial and subjective witness to events and should be celebrated as such

Architectural history depends upon the discomforting experience of architecture not the comfort and security of the archive

Architectural history has no dress-code -  not the tweed jacket, not the black polo-neck, not the collar-less shirt