According to legend, St George, a Roman knight, freed a Libyan town from the attentions of a sea-dragon by killing it. Any public figure who has since dared face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies has similarly been branded a ‘dragon slayer’. This week, in honour of England’s patron saint, we’ve asked various of our contributors to nominate the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword.
Should modernist architects be involved in the rebuilding of Notre Dame? Yes, absolutely they should… they’d make fantastic gargoyles. After all, no one does ugly better.
If you walk through a city – almost any city – and fix your eyes on the nastiest building in your field of vision, it’s almost certainly in the modernist style. The most beautiful building, on the other hand, probably isn’t – more likely it’s some gutsy survivor from an early age.
A word of warning, though: if you wish to maintain your cultural respectability, it is absolutely essential that you don’t say any of this out loud. If you must make a point about the deficiencies of the contemporary urban environment, then make sure that you blame the planners or motorists or just about anyone but the architects. After all, you wouldn’t want to end up like Sir Roger Scruton, would you?
The code of silence of the haute bourgeoisie has served the professions well, and the architects most of all. It’s why our politicians are so reluctant to talk about beauty – and why, when they occasionally do, they quickly lose their nerve. What the worship of ugliness can’t do, however, is make beautiful buildings disappear or stop the rest of us from gathering in their awesome presence. When our untutored eyes behold the greatness of Notre Dame and then flick to, say, the Pompidou Centre, the combined might of the cultural establishment cannot stop us from drawing the obvious conclusion.
Any other profession would be embarrassed to be overshadowed by the accomplishments of their forebears. Imagine if medical treatments had been more effective a hundred years ago? Today’s doctors would be mortified. Or what if the computers and mobile phones of the previous decade were considered to be faster and more fashionable than today’s gadgets? The alpha-geeks would blow a fuse.
Today’s architects, however, have to endure the general public’s enduring love – indeed, reverence – for buildings built centuries and sometimes millennia before the modern age. And it’s not as if this appreciation of old architecture is limited to its historical value. People will pay tens of thousands of pounds extra to live in a Victorian or Georgian house as opposed to contemporary dwelling. If Le Corbusier was right and a house really is just “a machine for living in”, then it seems that the architects of old built better machines than their 21st-century counterparts.
That’s not to deny the very real advances in construction technology. Thanks to modern materials and computer assisted design, we can throw up buildings to unprecedented heights, with remarkable speed and in just about any shape that can be imagined – from the top-heavy mass of London’s Walkie Talkie to the pencil-thin towers now exalting the rich above Manhattan.
We can build just about anything we want and we’ve got much more money to do it with than in any other era of human history. Therefore this should be a golden age for modern architecture – but it’s not. Indeed, many within the profession believe that architects are being squeezed out of the design and development process (for instance, see here, here and here).
Ironically, they’ve become victims of the technology that made modernism possible in the first place. With the right software a developer can rustle up a workable, structurally sound blueprint for a major project without the need for an architect. The building or buildings may be supremely bland, but for a volume builder that’s a plus – by standardising the ‘design’ every aspect of the development, from finance to the planning process to the supply of building materials, can be streamlined and costs cut to the bone.
The result is a variation on the modernist style that I’ve seen described as ‘spreadsheet architecture’. I’m not sure who came up with the label, but it’s an apt one. For a start, the monotonous grid-like form of the buildings do look as if they’ve been designed on a spreadsheet application like Excel. The rows and columns might be resized or offset, but there’s not much else to break-up the monotony.
You may have discerned I’m not the biggest fan of 20th-century architecture. Yet the other day I found myself staring at a piece of 1960’s brutalism with something like nostalgia. It was a hideous building, undistinguished even by modernist standards; but the squat concrete edifice still had a presence, bearing the mark of an intelligent, if misguided, designer. Spreadsheet architecture, on the other hand, looks exactly what you’d expect a computer to produce. Just type in a few parameters and off it goes: a plan for the maximum amount of rentable floor space with a minimum of thought for anything else you might want a building to be. Spreadsheet architecture clearly cares only about the bottom line – and if that can be done without paying an architect, so much the better.
The core architectural modernist principle is “form follows function” – a phrase coined by Louis Sullivan, the so-called ‘father of the skyscraper’. When form does follow function as opposed to precedent, architects are free to break with tradition in the pursuit of other priorities.
Though presented as rational and progressive, this approach is in fact divisive and self-centred. Precedent and tradition are things shared across a community, but function is not. There is a literal and metaphorical difference in perspective between those on the inside of the building looking out and those on the outside looking towards it. The insiders are those least affected by the impact that the building has on everyone else. Functionalism – and its implicit disregard for beauty, balance and harmony – discounts the outsiders’ perspective.
Spreadsheet architecture is the ultimate expression of this mindset – and perfectly suited to the speculative development of our cities. As the primary function of all such development is to make money, its form must follow suit. It conforms to the needs of its most powerful users, i.e. investors who may never actually see the building with their own eyes. The radical uniformity of the design is just what a globalised property market demands – a fungible asset that is basically the same wherever one builds it.
We’ve been conditioned not to resist or to imagine anything better: the architect knows best, we’re told; aesthetic judgements of the general public count for nothing. However, with the rise of spreadsheet architecture the issue has become disintermediated. The licensed taste-makers have been pushed aside and the clash of interests between the developer and the host community made plain for all to see. It’s time for the community to take back control. Local people must be equipped and empowered to set out a positive vision for the growth and development of their neighbourhoods – as opposed to exercising limited powers to block the worst proposals.
It can be done. The power of the developers can be systematically resisted. It already has been done with respect to conservation of culturally significant buildings and neighbourhoods. We’ve declared whole swathes of our cities off limits to the cold, commercial logic of the developers. Through the listed building system and conservation areas, we’ve decided that in many locations the old is more valuable than the new no matter how profitable it might be to redevelop it. Our ancestors would be amazed, because with a few exceptions – sacred buildings, monuments and the like – they happily tore down their old buildings confident that the new ones would be better. That we have lost this faith in the modern age is the most damning indictment of its architecture there could be.
But having defied the dragon of modernism to protect the best of the past, we need to do the same to achieve the best possible future. If developers aren’t allowed to wreck our historic neighbourhoods, then why should their short-term, selfish interests prevail in those locations where a city has the chance to reinvent itself? The opportunity for placemaking, to create streets, to bequeath the best of us to generations we’ll never meet, is simply too precious to waste on spreadsheet architecture.