Friday, 12 June 2015

The debasement of architecture

However, more than music or art, it is debasement of architecture that has had the most impact on society since, as it forms part of our everyday surroundings, it is something that none of us can ignore. Britain’s architectural heritage must be one of the greatest in the world. The richness, diversity and comprehensiveness of the amazing range of buildings that we have inherited from previous generations is quite staggering. Just about every village, town or city in our island can present urban settings which are a joy to behold. As John Betjeman perceptively observed 'good buildings are an art gallery for all to enjoy free of charge'. Because of its pervasiveness many take for granted the excellence of our townscapes without thinking too deeply about how they have come about.

The reason why our traditional buildings are of such good visual quality is because those in the past, who managed our nation’s affairs, both locally and nationally, had a deep sense of what was aesthetically harmonious. This applied equally to those who commissioned and built them. The same qualities were also present in the best literature, art, design and music. As a nation we played a full part in the long era of western cultural enlightenment, striving for self-improvement and refined taste. Unfortunately, gradually, little by little since the time of the First World War this ethos has broken down. It has been replaced by the acceptance of the mediocre, the worship of the sensational and the slavish acceptance of the new regardless of any intrinsic merit, by a self-appointed liberal 'artistic' elite. Regrettably, architecture has proved no exception to this depressing trend.

Reduced to the most simple of terms, architecture in Britain can be divided into two main stylistic traditions. These are Classical and Georgian in one group, and Gothic, Tudor and Victorian in the other. The former is noted for its symmetry, harmony, dignity and elegance, whereas the latter is appreciated for its variety, eclecticism, unpredictability and homeliness. Both camps have their devoted adherents, which in the past has sometimes led to vitriolic arguments. This all seems rather sterile now, as both traditions have produced buildings of great magnificence. During the inter war period a new style, art deco, appeared, which although breaking with earlier design traditions, nevertheless maintained high aesthetic standards. Under skilful architects it produced such fine buildings as the De La Ware Pavilion, Arnos Grove station, Broadcasting House and the Sun House, Hampstead. Unfortunately, an offshoot of this approach, the international style, seduced an architectural profession dazzled by the concept of modernism. The effect of this blind obsession was calamitous for our urban landscape.

From the end of the last war to the early 1970s, the international style was embraced by the architectural profession with a fanaticism and fervour that brooked no opposition. The belief that 'form should follow function' and that buildings were merely 'machines for living in' was rigorously enforced and all previous historical styles were thrown into the dustbin of history. Huge numbers of these stark, characterless buildings started to blight our urban landscape. Some cities such as Birmingham and Newcastle were particularly badly scarred. Architects were aided and abetted in this process by the arrogance of town planners and the greed of property developers. Popular protest against this desecration started to mount but architects took no heed. As professionals they knew what was best, the rest of us were just ignorant philistines incapable of appreciating their esoteric insights.

In reality these pathetic 'slabs' and 'shoe-boxes' were what all buildings would look like if architecture did not exist. They were purely functional and utilitarian and their 'design' reflected engineering rather than architectural principles. They failed even to provide the higher densities which 'building high' is supposed to deliver, since they were surrounded by wide expanses of open space. However, nemesis came when in 1968 an East London council tower block Ronan Point partly collapsed following a gas explosion that claimed several lives. This triggered a wide-ranging debate on what was popularly termed 'modern architecture'. The ensuing discussions covered not only aesthetic shortcomings but also structural and sociological concerns. Eventually architects finally got the message – these buildings were a disaster and few were built to this style after the early 1970s. Once the international style had become discredited, architects were in something of a fix as to what should replace it. So much of their faith had been invested in modernism that any successor style would inevitably appear a poor substitute. What followed has become known as 'post-modernism'. It avoids the starkness of modernism and places more reliance on traditional form, and employs a greater use of brick rather than concrete. However, the results are deeply unsatisfactory buildings that travesty earlier styles without understanding what made them attractive. Even architects themselves do not seem to believe in their new creations, and appear more concerned about trying to make 'ironic' statements.

One of the most beneficial measures taken by government to protect the urban environment has been the creation of conservation areas. These allow local planning authorities to prevent the construction of unsympathetic new buildings, to exert greater control over changes to the appearance of existing buildings, and refuse consent to the demolition of buildings which contribute to the character of a neighbourhood. Another great gain to conservation has been the enormous growth in the number of listed building of architectural or historic interest. Actions such as these are proof that government intervention can be beneficial, a point of view regrettably not shared by all on the Right, some of whom continue to be obsessed by a purist approach to market forces and individual rights.

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