Architecture, fashion and time

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Pier Head Liverpool, before the Royal Liver Building was built. The original dockland regeneration scheme.

By Kenn Taylor

I once had a pleasant, short lived freelance job researching the history of two twentieth century buildings for a property company. One of them was an Art Deco cinema, Grade II listed and well loved. I was amused to find in contemporary press reports from its construction period, people arguing against it being built. They complained about it being constructed over an old pub, about its garish modern appearance, of the negative impacts of cinemas proliferating in cities – which were opening pretty much week to week in the 1930s.

It made me think of the distaste many in our era have of say, chain coffee shops or supermarkets. It also reminded me of our very limited ability to understand how buildings either contemporary or of the recent past, will be judged in future. Anyone advocating for the saving of say, a Victorian railway station in the 1930s, an Art Deco lido in the 1960s, or a concrete bus station in the 1980s, would have risked being laughed out of the room. But of course, here we are.

I used to joke when talking with people about this phenomenon that, at some point, there’d be a campaign to list a supermarket, which always raised a laugh. Now in 2019, Nicholas Grimshaw’s Camden Sainsburys has just been listed. “Ah, but that’s a rare, quality exception”, you might say. True, but also true that an awful lot of Victorian or post war Modernist buildings were crap and derivative. Far from everything is a good as St Pancras Station or Park Hill. After a certain point, age often confers a degree of grace and ‘authenticity’ on certain buildings even if they don’t have much merit, simply due to the virtue of having survived.

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Sainsbury’s Camden designed by Nicholas Grimshaw

In my native Merseyside, important well-loved, Grade I listed buildings like the Albert Dock and the Royal Liver Building were, in the era they were built, deeply disliked by historians and many contemporary architects, who considered them crass and commercial. Similarly, Liverpool’s attractive Oriel Chambers, the first glass curtain walled building in the world, was memorably described as a “vast abortion” in a contemporary building magazine when it was constructed. Even the seminal Glasgow School of Art provoked upon its completion the suggestion that its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh should be horsewhipped for having “shown his bare arse to the face of Glasgow.” And these critics were often the well-educated and well connected architects, academics and historians who you think may have been able to see past their own prejudices and personal tastes. But, to quote Eric Hoffer, “both the radical and the reactionary loathe the present.”

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Oriel Chambers, which was described as a ‘vast abortion’ upon its completion.

In general, we remain terrible judges of what will be valued from our own time in the future. This is of course why, Dinky Toys from the 1950s are worth a lot of money, while many ‘collectables’ that granny kept carefully in her cabinet, are worthless. Of course, much of this is to do with the unrelenting cycle of fashion, turning every 20, 30 or 40 years, depending on who you ask, which applies as much to buildings and politics as records and clothing. The current generation rejects the work of its immediate forbears and often looks further back for inspiration from a supposed better time. The trouble is with buildings, is they can’t exactly be stored away when they go out of fashion. They remain right there our faces, reminding us uncomfortably of past failed dreams and now crumbling ideologies.

I’m of a generation that in the 1990s saw many concrete buildings as unfortunate reminders that we’d come a long down from the optimism of the 1960s. It was a later generation that could see their beauty. Every age of architecture needs its revisionist. John Betjeman inspired in the 1960s a love for a Victorian era he never knew. More recently Owen Hatherley helped to popularise the architecture of a Sixties era wasn’t born in either.

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Glasgow School of Art before the fires, which has been described as one of the great works of world architecture, but upon its completion prompted suggestions its designer should be horsewhipped.

We need to protect architecture during its period of inevitable malaise, making sure the best of each era is preserved. This is of course why listing was invented, but it remains a flawed system. As highlighted, ‘experts’ don’t always get it right. Yet we must also be careful to protect the urban environment from those who think all change is bad and everything contemporary is awful. Those who now love Brutalism would have nothing to love if the Victorian preservationists, who really began their work as Brutalism was emerging, had wholly got their way.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the Brutalist era, was its arrogance, its desire to sweep away the perceived failure of what went before it. This rose its head again in the Blair era. Much of the architecture of that time now seems overblown and empty, associated negatively with the period I think best described by Sue Townsend as ‘the cappuccino years’. Yet I have no doubt it will be looked back upon more fondly in the future, as the product of a more optimistic age than the one that followed. Like the way we now view some of the decadent buildings from the first part of the twentieth century.

Cities must not forget their past, because they lose something of themselves if they do. Equally, a city which doesn’t change and develop in each new era, is usually a city that is dying, or becoming a living museum. The latter of which in the long term, also often results in the former. Because in the end, even the cleverest amongst us doesn’t know what buildings will be thought important in the future, what that is hated in the contemporary will be considered fit for preservation, or what future monuments haven’t even been thought of yet. Remember, the campaign to save a Costa or an Amazon warehouse is probably just a few decades away.

This piece was published by The Double Negative in October 2019.