Friday, August 13, 2004
UK Gov Promotes Modern Mansions / UK Gov & Riba Adopt New Urbanism / Lord Rogers Rejects New Urbanism
Britain, of all places, announced this week that it would ban new construction of Traditional country houses, while promoting construction of "innovative" and "ground-breaking" Modernist country houses. If there's one thing the BBC and Miramax have taught us, it's that Brits and Anglophile tourists love Traditional country houses. And two polls in the last two years have shown that on the whole, Britons don't like Modernist architecture. So why for the first time in its history has the British government decided to ban an architectural style?There are many signs that we're reaching a tipping point for architecture and urbanism. For 50 years, we've been in a stage where Modernism was king in Europe and America. But now it's clear we're coming into a more eclectic stage, in which Modernism and Traditionalism will coexist.
(Click here for a Guardian article on the ban.)
What that means is that Modernism as an ideology is over, because part of the essence of Modernism, at least in the eyes of its practitioners, was that it existed in opposition to Traditionalism. And that choosing Modernism over Traditionalism was a moral choice. But that will no longer be true.
We can see this is in the sheer amount of energy Modernist practitioners feel compelled to spend defending their shrinking turf. And the result can be confusing: strange juxtapositions and stranger actions pop up in increasing numbers. At the same time, the dictums of the old lions of Modernism like Sir Norman Foster and Lord Richard Rogers appear antiquated and underline how far we've come from the conventional wisdom of just a few years ago. The work of the Modernist Old Guard can still be very good. But their ideological pronouncements and prohibitions increasingly make them look like dinosaurs at Jurassic Park.
Some of those odd juxtapositions and actions came in England this month: the UK Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, moved forward with his plan for Britain to build Traditional new towns and houses for the middle class and the poor (see here, here and here); his Minister of Planning and Housing, Keith Hill, released Planning Policy Statement 7,* which effectively banned the construction of Traditional country houses for the rich at the same time it promoted Modernist country houses for the rich (see Guardian article, here); the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), George Ferguson, put urban and New Urbanism at the center of the institute's mission (Guardian article here); in response to the Riba announcement, Labour architecture and urbanism advisor Lord Richard Rogers attacked New Urbanism in the press (here); and Prescott and Ferguson started working with the Prince's Foundation to advance their mutual goals (here).
Taking just the last point, it's good that the Labour government, the Riba (the strange new abbreviation for what used to be the R.I.B.A.) and the Prince's Foundation should all work together. But it wasn't long ago that a previous President of the Riba and the Labour wing of the Modernist Old Guard worked to force the more ambitious predecessor of the Prince's Foundation — the Prince of Wales's Institute for Architecture and the Building Arts — out of business. And now we have the historical oddities of a) Modernists fighting for housing for the rich and against housing for the poor, and b) the first historical instance of the British government banning architectural styles.
Of course it's ironic that Britain, of all places, should ban the new construction of Traditional country houses, while promoting the construction of "innovative" and "ground-breaking" Modernist country houses. If there's one thing the BBC and Miramax have taught us, it's that Brits and Anglophile tourists love Traditional country houses. And two polls in the last two years have shown that on the whole, Britons don't like Modernist architecture.
So why for the first time in its history has the British government decided to ban an architectural style? It's hard to say, but many people think behind-the-scenes actions by Sir Norman and Lord Rogers are responsible. Sir Norman is known to have had a meeting about the ban with the Planning Minister responsible for it, while Lord Rogers is an official advisor to the Labour Mayor of London, and an unofficial advisor to the national Labour party. In 1998, a year after Tony Blair's New Labour government was elected, Lord Rogers published an interesting small book called Cities For A Small Planet, and he has served as the de facto urban and architectural advisor for the government ever since. And both Foster and Rogers are outspoken in their opposition to any form of Traditional design.
Responding to Riba's embrace of New Urbanism, Rogers wrote in a letter to the Guardian that,
There is little new in this movement except for its blending of well-established urban design principles with a romantic neoclassical style that often tumbles into tawdry pastiche. This is no leap forward in the 21st century.The important point here is that it is the Modernist Old Guard, not the New Urbanists, who are "squabbling about style" — and banning styles they don't like.
Instead of squabbling about style, we should focus on the need to restructure our professional education.
New Urbanists work in many styles. Their urban design principles are timeless — the princples of cities which have been proven to work — and those urban principles come before architectural style. Instead of being ideological about the style of the buildings which make their towns and cities, New Urbanists accept whatever works. (And why are architectural principles originally sold to us as part of the Zeitgeist of the early 20th century now "a leap forward in the 21st"?)
"Whatever works" includes Modernist buildings, but not always the sort that Rogers wants to make, which is part of the problem. Deputy Prime Minister Prescott supports what he calls the Wow Factor, by which he means exciting buildings like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
New Urbanists have no problem with Bilbao, but they recognize what Congress for the New Urbanism President John Norquist calls the Bow Wow Factor — all the ugly, anti-urban buildings made by less talented architects trying to emulate Gehry's Starchitecture model. If the making of the city and the public realm is more important than the individual building, than the creation of all these monuments to the "genius" of the wannabe Starchitects are a problem.
Moreover, while Rogers' book about cities is a good one, buildings like his Lloyd's of London tower (pictured above) and Sir Norman Foster's infamous London Pickle (known to the British as the "Erotic Gherkin" and pictured on the left — click on the photo for a larger image) are also problems, for two reasons.
One is their inhuman scale. That is not just a problem of size: Manhattan has many beautiful and humane towers, but they are in a city of towers. London is a low-rise, pedestrian-scaled city that is suddenly being overhwhelmed by towers that look like alien spaceships have landed. And Foster seems to be in a one-man race with himself to build the tallest building in the world, surpassed six months later by Foster's next tower. We can only guess what Freud would say about the symbolism of this solitary phallic race.
Just as important is a) the way these towers meet the ground, and b) the scale of their massing and details. Manhattan's best towers, like the Empire State Building, sit on bases which simultaneously tie into the city fabric and have human-scaled and human-based ornament and detail.
In contrast, Lloyd's and the Gherkin continue the spaceship feeling on the ground. Their pure geometries and forms ignore the surrounding city. And their machine-based scale and detail assault the pedestrian.
It's not hard to understand why Foster and Rogers design this way: this is what architects have been taught to do for the last 100 years. Part of that indocrination included the idea that the visionary architect was to lead the public in a top-down reconstruction of society.
They're upset because their hegemony is ending. Society has rejected the idea that we must do what the experts tell us, as well as the idea that Modernism is the only contemporary expression of our culture. Twenty–five years ago there was no need for Modernists to ban Traditional country houses, because there were so few architects who could or would design them. Today in England alone we have Robert Adam Architects, Quinlan & Francis Terry Architects, John Simpson & Partners, Porphyrios Associates and Julian Bicknell & Associates, to name just the biggest and best known offices. And many of these are being given bigger and more important commissions than just houses. These range from new towns to important buildings at Oxford and Cambridge, which had been the exclusive territory of the Modernist establishment for quite a long time.
What's confusing is why the government is suddenly listening now, after 100+ years of Modernist polemic. Fifty years ago, the British government adopted Modernism for all its construction, including civic and residential buildings all over Britain. But it never considered banning a style, until now.
Put it down to the confusion of the changing Zeitgeist, as Modernism loses its cultural dominance to become just another style. And, of course, to the confused Modernists who find they are losing their ability to tell everyone how they're supposed to live.
* The Labour government's Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS7) replaces the Tories' PPG7 (don't ask me what that stands for). PPG7 was a general ban on new houses in the open countryside, but with an exception for houses of exceptional quality, regardless of style. The house pictured above is Great Canfield by Erith and Terry (now Quinlan & Francis Terry Architects), the first house built under PPG7.
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These Modernists are flat out evil.
Posted by: anonymous at Aug 20, 2007 8:48:28 PM
Great Canfield the first PPG7 house? We beg to differ:
Posted by: Austen Redman at Nov 4, 2010 5:35:03 PM