When Coventry City Council applied to be the UK City of Culture 2021, and won, what on earth were they planning to do with the city centre? As Owen Hatherley has written, ‘of all of the great reconstruction projects of the first decade after 1945, there’s only one city that never seems to take possession of and pride in what it did: Coventry.’
The 1909 Cinematograph Act used the term ‘inflammable films’ in a literal sense – cellulose nitrate catches fire easily – but some local authorities interpreted it to mean ‘morally dangerous’, and it led to censorship. Still, the act wasn’t as confusing as the latest flurry of communication from the British government. One of its requirements was that exhibitors provide fire exits, which led to the emergence of purpose-built picture houses. Many of the buildings are still standing, though few of them are still cinemas.
The officer at the US embassy informed me that my authorisation to travel had been revoked because the ‘algorithm’ had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had travelled (had I recently been in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia or met their nationals?), hotels at which I stayed, or a certain pattern of relations among these things. I was asked to supply the embassy with additional information, including 15 years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s platitudes offer no solution to the UK’s housing crisis. What does it mean to ‘ask for beauty’? The report says that ‘schemes should be turned down for being too ugly.’ But who will be the judge of that? Any volume housebuilder’s sales office will tell you that the house people want to buy is like the one they just saw, ideally the one with the best view and the one they can afford. The market favours the traditional: pitched roof over flat roof, sash window over wrap-round glazing, a tiny porch instead of a doorstep, even – if the budget allows – a chimney in which to lodge a flue pipe. Above all, keep one house away from the next, even if the gap is little wider than an Amazon parcel.
I can’t explain why, in the face of all the seductive images and lyrical descriptions of the new Tintagel footbridge, I’ve become fixated on a small incision slashed through the surface of the walkway in the middle of the bridge. I know it’s technically the meeting point between the two cantilevered segments, a 40 mm expansion joint in an impeccably engineered structure. But it struck me forcibly that the seemingly reassuring surface connecting clifftop to clifftop, strung in tension over the dizzying void below, had been cut. It gave me a nervous charge. Was this an actual moment of the sublime?
The fire in Notre-Dame de Paris was extinguished in the small hours of 16 April. But residual heat from the blaze has left several brush fires smouldering.
Notre-Dame is meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse.
The images of the Glasgow School of Art going up in flames again were like a bad dream. The glowing orange inferno, caught on mobile phones, brought back memories of the fire four years ago which destroyed the most beautiful space in the building, the library, surely one of the most remarkable rooms in the history of architecture. But this time the damage has been more far reaching. It looks as if the entire interior has been gutted. The building was being restored but now seems to have been utterly destroyed. All that remains is the masonry shell which will have been dangerously damaged by the very high temperatures.
Jonathan Meades’s eulogy was read at Gavin Stamp's funeral in Camberwell on 25 January by Otto Saumarez Smith. There are millions of people who feel deeply about the depredations of the construction industry; who feel deeply about architects wantonly exposing themselves like red-rumped macaques in the hope of attracting central Asian tyrants; who feel deeply about the environmental, social and aesthetic iniquities visited on this increasingly sick, increasingly corrupt little country. But, as Thom Gunn noted, ‘Deep feeling doesn't make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of a help.’ Most of the millions do not have a way with language. Gavin did have. For poetry substitute polemic; substitute philippic; history; panegyric. Gavin tirelessly articulated the discontents of the many whose lives are screwed by the cupidity of the few. Architecture and buildings are political. And Gavin was, among much else, a political writer – a political writer in disguise, but a supremely political writer.
The Festival of Britain showed postwar Britain what it might yet be. The crowds flocked to London to see the Skylon and visit the Dome of Discovery. Peter Laszlo Peri’s concrete Sunbathers writhed on a wall at Waterloo Station (recently found lying in a hotel garden in Blackheath, they are being restored after a crowdfunding campaign and will soon return to the South Bank) as the visitors came off the trains in their thousands. Rowland Emmett’s toy railway was the main attraction at Battersea Pleasure Gardens. More seriously, the Living Architecture exhibition in Poplar, the Lansbury, though still largely under construction, offered a prototype for modern New Town living. The estate caught the local imagination, showing how enlightened planning, social policy and architecture could be harnessed.
‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.’ Caitlin Murray quotes this in her introduction to a new collection of the artist's writing. Like everything I’ve read by Judd, it's matter of fact, utilitarian – plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work.
Unesco is currently evaluating Asmara’s bid to be made a World Heritage site. The Eritrean capital’s argument is strong. It lays claim to some of the finest Futurist architecture on earth, built during the period of Italian colonial rule. Many of these buildings – and Asmara’s infrastructure more generally – are threatened by neglect, a resource-poor economy, and the effects of time.
Artists’ impressions of yet-to-be-made architectural designs show impossibly pristine buildings, their materials innocent of wear and tear, the images (let alone the weather and the light) adjusted, enhanced and cropped into submission. In this honeymoon period, no one questions performance, or durability, or if the architecture will necessarily deliver the desired outcome. (In the early years of her career, as she shifted from constructivist imagery to international practice, nobody nudged the apparent limits of the possible more consistently than Zaha Hadid, who has been awarded the 2016 RIBA Gold Medal.)
Derek Sugden, the dean of acoustic engineers, who has died at the age of 91, remained perpetually surprised that architects could be so concerned with every aspect of the building they were designing ‘but not really with what it sounded like’. According to Sugden, ‘the sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space.’
Plans of the 1815 New Bethlem Hospital in Southwark included in the Richard Dadd exhibition at the Watts Gallery, Compton, show complete segregation between male and female inmates. The ground plan consisted of two identical halves, except for the outlying women’s criminal building, which was considerably smaller than the men’s. There could be no chance meetings between men and women in a secure home for the ‘criminally insane’.
Battersea Arts Centre, badly damaged by a fire last Friday, started life as the town hall. In the spirit of late Victorian civic pride and aspiration, the capacious porch is decorated with figures representing Labour, Progress, Art and Literature instructing the infant Battersea, who looks remarkably confident about the likely benefits coming his way. Built in 1892-93 to the designs of E.W. Mountford (the architect of the Old Bailey), the imposing exterior anticipates Edwardian Baroque while the interior is tinged with the dawning of art nouveau, most strikingly in the great coloured glass dome, painted with tendrils of golden foliage, like a giant Tiffany lampshade.
In 1958 the leonine young German architect-engineer Frei Otto made a public attack on the new, American-funded Berlin Kongresshalle. The building’s clunky bivalve form meant it was already known as ‘the pregnant oyster’. On a public platform alongside the architect, Hugh Stubbins, Otto fumed that it was a cumbersome, essentially fraudulent structure: ‘Can a suspended roof be a symbol of free speech?’ In 1980 he might have enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude when a ring beam collapsed and the Congress Hall had to be rebuilt.
Nairn’s London has just been reissued by Penguin, with an afterword by Gavin Stamp. On Sunday, the Routemaster bus that appears on the cover of the 1966 edition (registration number CUV 217C; Ian Nairn leaning jauntily from the cab), took fifty of Nairn’s devotees on a tour of his London.
The Open House weekend, when buildings across London open their doors to visitors, gets bigger every year: the most recent, its 23rd, featured more than 800 buildings and 2600 architect-led tours. Part of the pleasure lies in discovering so much of the city that is hidden from you: 10 Downing Street, the Cheesegrater, banks, halls and bell-towers; it's like walking onto a movie set, or into another life. It also indulges your nosiness about how other people live (and where): who knew there’s a three-bedroom flat at the top of St Pancras Station's clock tower, or that Lewisham has a whole cul-de-sac built on stilts?
People get uber-tombs when we don’t want to forget them, or when whoever’s in power wants us not to forget them. They’re a way of making sure that the dead don’t fully die, architectural avatars of the values that belonged to the person pickled, withered or wrapped inside. Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, as Gwendolyn Leick points out in Tombs of the Great Leaders: A Contemporary Guide, is a prime example, though its look – squat, windowless, Lego-like – had more to do with Stalin’s take on Lenin’s values than Lenin’s. When Lenin died in 1924 his widow wrote to his successor:
A quarter century after the Mauerfall, much of Berlin is still a building site. Hoardings often enthuse ‘Wir bauen um!’ ('We're rebuilding!') to an inconvenienced public, as if construction projects were never simply means, but always ends in themselves.
‘Poor Tate! It seems to get the rough end of every stick,’ Ian Nairn wrote in Nairn’s London, trapped in its ‘pompous, confused building’. The early 1960s had no patience with 1890s histrionic classicism, the work of Henry Tate’s more or less in-house architect, Sidney Smith.
Perhaps the best thing about Birmingham’s newest civic building on Centenary Square is what they’ve called it. No beating about the bush, no equivocation: it’s a library. After all the weasel words – ‘idea stores’, ‘learning centres’, ‘discovery centres’ – it’s cheering to see the book is back. Though the loudly trumpeted opening, set against what the Library Campaign reckons is a 25 per cent loss of public libraries since 2009, just the beginning of a terrible cull, bears out the questionable orthodoxy that, as with hospitals, bigger is better.
I hope Michael Gove has been reading the obituaries of Colin Stansfield Smith, Hampshire’s county architect between 1974 and 1993. Firmly supported by the leader of his (conservative) County Council, he made the quality of design of schools, libraries, fire stations and other public buildings something to be proud of.
In 1857 Prosper Mérimée went to London to see Anthony Panizzi’s new Reading Room at the British Museum. As the head of the commission charged with transforming the Parisian national library, Mérimée was hugely impressed by what he saw: the top lighting, the drum-form and the integrated, orderly systems, all designed for a general reading public, not just a few clerics, rulers and their acolytes, the previous users of the great libraries of Europe.
One night in early 1961 Tom Driberg stood up in the House of Commons to appeal against the imminent demolition of the listed London Coal Exchange. An early Victorian Pantheon in iron and glass, it stood in the path of the proposed Lower Thames Street:
Ever since I read about Oscar Niemeyer’s death last week I’ve been wondering where his only British building has gone. In 2003, at the age of 96, he was given the commission to design the Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilions built each summer in front of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are strictly temporary and it is said that the sale of each helps finance the next one. The invitees are all world-class architects who have not yet built in this country.
They are pulling down the 19th-century Lermontov House in Gudiashvili Square in Tbilisi. The historical association Tiflis Hamqari have been protesting against the demolition since Sunday, sounding off with whistles and horns and holding placards – ‘If you destroy this building you destroy us’ – while the process of stripping out fretwork balconies and roof timbers, smashing stair banisters and ripping out floorboards goes on behind them. The work is being carried out on behalf of the Georgian office of an Austro-German developer, Magnat, whose head office is in Frankfurt.
David Cameron has been playing fast and loose with the term ‘Garden City’, almost as if he didn’t know that its origins lie in Victorian utopian socialism. The First Garden City (that is, Letchworth) was the realisation of ideas that Ebenezer Howard had set out in a small book in 1898, Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow. The following year Letchworth Garden City began to take shape, about thirty miles north of London. Every citizen who came to First Garden City Ltd was a shareholder; everyone in town was to be a part-owner of a large and valuable estate. One of the first investors was George Bernard Shaw.
The former Saddam Hussein Gymnasium stands on the east side of the Tigris in Baghdad, next to Iraq’s national football stadium. It was built between 1973 and 1980 to designs made by Le Corbusier in the late 1950s. He also planned a giant stadium and other facilities in advance of a mooted Olympic bid, but only the gym was built. His designs for the Olympic project were on show at the V&A a few years ago, but City of Mirages: Baghdad 1952-82, at the Center for Architecture in New York until 5 May, puts the work in a larger context.
The only colour on Margate seafront in February comes from the hoardings marking off the Dreamland site. The text and images tell of past glories and high hopes, and of how popular entertainment in the resort (starting in the 1860s and grinding to a halt some ten years ago) could yet come back to life. This was once the amusement park that beat all competition. For now, the hoardings mask an immense backland site stretching virtually from the railway station to the edge of the Old Town.
I arrived in Tbilisi in the small hours of the night. (I was on my way to the Tusheti to go trekking, partly in aid of the Roddy Scott Foundation.) The road from the airport passes a blazing, undulating glass building. My taxi driver made me guess what it might be. A skating rink or art gallery, perhaps? But no, it was the new Interior Ministry and Police Headquarters, which, for all the symbolic transparency, has a solid, blocky core. Next, on a hilltop dominating the Georgian capital, comes the Presidential Palace: a crude White House lookalike topped by a glazed dome borrowed from the modern Reichstag.
I can see the Shard from my bathroom window. I can also see it from my bedroom and from outside the front door of my office. Millions of other people can see it too as it rises next to London Bridge station. That is the famous thing about it: it’s big. When completed next May it will be, at 310 metres and 72 storeys, the tallest building in western Europe, a fact on which its website and its architect, Renzo Piano, harp relentlessly. It is impossible to overestimate how much size, in the simplest, crudest, mine’s-bigger-than-yours way, matters in architecture. The Strata Tower at the Elephant and Castle enjoyed the not especially impressive title of ‘tallest building in Southwark’ for a few brief months. Now it is eclipsed before it is finished and sulks within sight of its rival, its rooftop turbines (which apparently make too much noise to switch on) sullenly immobile.
On the same day that the architect of the Gherkin announced the death of the skyscraper, it emerged that Little, Brown have paid a ‘high six-figure sum’ for a romance, set in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, between an out-of work-architect and a recently retired banker. So while we live through the consequences of the credit crunch – the Sure Start centres closing, the paramedics being sacked, the libraries disappearing – it seems we want to relive the moment in a cosy rom-com mode.
The modernist mantra that form follows function is best suited to industrial buildings. Even the great cooling towers of coal-fired power stations, visible for miles around like the funnels of land-locked ocean liners, can be celebrated as functional architecture. But the inscrutable form of the nuclear power plant gives nothing away. The events at Fukushima are a terrifying reminder of what those innocuous-looking boxes actually contain.
When I was a student I lived over a shop, just off the Edgware Road. Four of us squeezed in, and the cobbler and his wife (no, this wasn’t the 19th century) kept a kindly eye on us before heading home in the evenings to Purley. These days, as I wander the high streets of towns, small, medium and large, with an eye cast upwards, alert to any signs of life, I rarely see anything more than mountains of cardboard boxes or clothes racks. A campaign, LOTS (Living Over the Shops), which might have been a lot shriller, for years tried to draw attention to this wasted space, accommodation that doesn’t appear in the national estimates of empty housing – written out in favour of ‘guesstimates’ of the soaring need for more housing ‘units’, especially in the south-east.
I’ve been more or less living out of a suitcase for several months now, so when I saw that one of Europe's first geodesic domes was for sale I rushed to bid for it with the last of my savings. The Aviodome, as the former National Aviation Museum at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was known, was designed by R. Buckminster Fuller and completed in 1971. With 2700 m2 of floor space, a radius of 34.14m and height of 23m, the aluminium dome at Schiphol was the largest of its time.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has had its funding withdrawn in the quango cuts through which the Coalition is saving the country from bankruptcy and shame. But does this mean that no one's going to bother about what we see? Just a week after the quango's abolition, the Foundation for the Built Environment has very kindly made an offer to take over the job and give design advice on projected plans. HRH the Prince of Wales is the president of the foundation,
The US embassy brouhaha can be looked at in two ways: as a spat between two countries and their differing architectural cultures, or as part of a time-honoured process whereby London’s north bank shifts its problems and its detritus over the river onto the poor, long-suffering south bank. The cultural issues are not perhaps so absorbing. Following a thirty-year period from 1945 when American architecture led the world, its reputation has since declined. Almost all American buildings are better built than ours, but too many have become bland, safe and stodgy. The dull, all-American competition shortlist made it near certain that London would get something lacking in freshness or charm.
The winning plan for the new US embassy at Nine Elms, South London, was unveiled two days ago. 'Not inelegant,' was the cagey reaction of one architectural critic to illustrations of the new building, which has resemblances to a non-turreted Norman keep, a white version of the Kaaba at Mecca, the base of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, the central stack at Yale’s Beineke Library and the Richard Desmond Children's Eye Centre at Moorfields. Which is to say that it’s a cube with something of a moat and a colonnaded ground floor, and exterior walls that resemble shards of glass.
The Elephant and Castle is an architectural graveyard over which a huge new tombstone is going up in the shape of the 43-storey Strata tower. Things began rather well in 1769, when Robert Mylne laid out the route south from his new bridge at Blackfriars and joined it to the old turnpike road with St George’s Circus. This was the first ‘circus’ in London, predating Piccadilly, the capital’s first roundabout. Since then almost every new idea in town planning – high-rise, low-rise, shopping precinct, pedestrian underpass and ever bigger roundabouts – has been imposed on the Elephant, with singular lack of success.
From my desk I can see the Lakanal flats which caught fire so catastrophically on Friday. I've looked at the modernist slab block, end-on, almost every working day for the last three years. On Friday afternoon there was thin grey smoke coming from one window. As I went out into the street a woman from across the road told me that she'd just called the fire brigade. While we watched the smoke turned black and then with a muffled sound, somewhere between a thud and a roar, flames burst out of the front. Glass and burning debris started to shower down. After twenty minutes or so I left. I wasn't doing any good. People were running towards the estate but by this time the police had tape up and were holding them back. Lakanal, named after Joseph Lakanal (1762-1845), the French revolutionary educationalist, is part of the Sceaux Gardens estate.