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Moving on

19 May 2006

5:21 PM

19 May 2006

5:21 PM

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Twenty years ago, Britain was gripped by an architectural battle of styles. The Lloyd’s building in the City opened, representing the hopes for a resurgence of modernism, while Quinlan Terry’s classical Richmond Riverside was beginning to emerge from scaffolding like a vision by Canaletto. Since 1986, a great deal has happened, but readers of Roger Scruton’s article in The Spectator of 8 April (‘Hail Quinlan Terry: our greatest living architect’) would know nothing of it. In a similar vein, articles by Thomas Sutcliffe in the Independent and Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, responding to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A, present a harsh opposition between two irreconcilable positions, both of them repeating the chain of derogatory associations that modern architecture still trails behind it.

This wave motion of ironclad prejudice breaks through a complacent assumption that ‘modern’, whatever it means, is an unmixed good, while another cycle of magazine pieces promotes the Modernism exhibition chiefly as a shopping opportunity. It is a horrifying but nonetheless fascinating spectacle, as each side thrives on misrepresenting the other.

Dr Scruton’s polarisation, in which Lord Rogers plays the demon king to Mr Terry’s archangel, will appeal to all who prefer simplicity to complexity, regardless of their position. Several aspects of this polarisation are simply false. In imagining the future of cities, Lord Rogers, and the rest of the ‘modernist’ establishment in this country, have long renounced the destructive aspects of comprehensive redevelopment of which they are accused. In the same way, no contemporary classicist would wish to implement the dreary classical wartime Royal Academy plan for London, with its boulevards slicing through the historic street plan. Everyone has changed their mind, and the ‘cappuccino in the piazza’ quality of Richmond Riverside is actually pure Rogers.

Classical detailing remains, as Dr Scruton rightly says, a matter of life and death dividing the two sides. A strange cause to die for, one might think, yet this one seems unbridgeable. Halfway positions exist but only tenuously. The architecture of the new Paternoster Square shows, like Italian fascist architecture, the rather frigid outcome when architects come to the edge from the modernist side without daring to jump. At least nobody automatically labels classicism as fascist any more, although it has found its home largely among conservatives. Post Modernism in the 1980s, conversely, showed what happens when you leap without looking, and only a handful of 20th-century architects, such as the Slovenian master Jose Plecnik, have shown how creative the middle ground could become.

Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who are still invoked as figures of hate on the part of architectural conservatives, both practised classical architecture before 1914, but many in their generation felt that the life had somehow gone out of it, and whatever was carried forward from it should be abstracted so that direct references were lost. More influential since 1986, however, has been the quizzical figure of Adolf Loos, a great advocate of ‘English’ restraint. Even Lutyens, Britain’s cleverest and most poetic exponent of modern classicism, did not disprove the difficulty of making classicism live, since the details are largely incidental to his purpose as a designer. Quinlan Terry is at his best when composing architecture as a sort of mannerist stage scenery, for he comes across as a romantic and picturesque designer at heart, who nonetheless would like to be a Platonist in pursuit of pure form.

The Moderns, conceiving architecture in spatial terms, are the real Platonists. They benefited from breaking the rules of composition and the pre-industrial constraints of structure to create new interior effects, even while presenting blank elevations to the outside world. ‘Seeing’ space as architects are taught to do probably cuts them off from the rest of us, and they are seldom able to put their understanding into words that are anything other than self-referential. Their fascination with space can militate against the practicality of their designs, for they are far from utilitarian in this respect, but, by the same token, this remains a large part of their potential value.

Dr Scruton claimed sustainability for his side of the argument, but he speaks as if nothing had happened since 1986, when standard building practice mostly ignored these issues. Now legislation has done much to change the situation, carrying even the most insensitive architects along. Beyond the performance of buildings in energy terms, which is no guarantee of good looks, part of the great relearning among architects since the 1990s has been an increased awareness of the pleasures of materials and skilled building, where it can still be found. While this has a long way to go, neither side can convincingly claim to be the greener or the more sensitive.

Surveys of public taste reveal that a strong resistance to Modernism persists, but it is a threat that mainstream architects seem able to ignore, even if it means that they have largely excluded themselves from contributing to the improvement of housing design in the private sector. If their convictions were to have shifted permanently towards a more representational or traditional form of architecture, the period 1986–96 was the time when it could have happened. Even were it possible to force them to design like Quinlan Terry, however, they would not produce a better world. The more tolerant and pluralistic climate that developed before the Millennium was a better solution, but this has noticeably chilled again. The reversion may be attributed partly to the genuine if one-sided renewal of architectural creativity in Britain, but it is also down to a failure of critical thought and language, and ignorance of the range of possibilities represented in the architectural past, or fear of responding to any but a few approved themes.

It is now quite possible for a representative of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, speaking recently on Radio Four’s Front Row, to condemn ‘derivative’ design of new country houses, unaware that today’s modern architecture is usually derivative, and much the better for it. Simple categorisation, facing either way, is an evasion of the proper judgment of quality. Dr Scruton and the currently ubiquitous Alain de Botton are right to point out the shortcomings of some modern architecture, but frontal opposition will no more succeed in forcing a change now than it did in 1986. Real differences do exist, and are a cause of rancour, but for one side to be right does not mean that the other has to be wrong.

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