The proposed cities of the future look anything but modern

California Forever is an American 21st-century utopian vision, a new city to be built on 60,000 acres of dusty farmland 50 miles outside San Francisco. This latest plan for ‘safe, walkable neighbourhoods’, unveiled late last year and yet to be approved, is financed by Flannery Associates, a consortium of tech venture capitalists led by a former Goldman Sachs trader. Despite its ultra-modern backers, California Forever looks nothing like a modern city. Its promotional material is pure English nostalgia, something close to Metroland, with dreamlike vistas, charming streets, rowing boats, bicycles, sunrises and endless trees. If renderings are to be believed, the future is Blytonesque. This idyll is the latest expression

Mother’s always angry: Jungle House, by Julianne Pachino, reviewed

Jungle House is not the sultry tropical tale you might expect either from its title or from its vivid, palm-strewn dust jacket. Instead, Julianne Pachico’s third novel concerns AI. This is not immediately obvious, and although there is an appealing directness to the writing, it means that no time is spent setting the scene or allowing readers to get their bearings fully. I could have done with more explication of the circumstances in which a young girl, Lena, comes to live in an AI-controlled house. At the book’s opening, Lena has her work cut out: There’s fishing and mushroom-gathering and swimming in the river. Five days a week are for

I’m not convinced Thomas Heatherwick is the best person to be discussing boring buildings

Architects are often snobby about – and no doubt jealous of – the designer Thomas Heatherwick, who isn’t an actual architect yet still manages to wangle important building commissions. And he knows this. In his documentary for BBC Radio 4, Building Soul, where he examines what he calls the ‘blandemic’ in today’s architecture, he asks to interview fellow Spectator writer Jonathan Meades, who responds: ‘The last person who should be doing a series on urbanism is a designer.’ Heatherwick wears this as a badge of honour. Indeed, qualifying as an architect is no guarantee of quality – check out the past nominations for the Carbuncle Cup, the now defunct prize

Fast cars, minimalist design and en suite bathrooms: the real Rachmaninoff

The train from Zurich to Lucerne tips you out right by the lakeside, practically on the steamboat piers. A white paddle-steamer takes you out of the city, past leafy slopes and expensive-looking mansions. Tribschen, where Wagner wrote the ‘Siegfried Idyll’, slides away to the right as you head out across the main arm of the lake. At the foot of Mount Rigi, shortly before the steamer makes its whistle-stop at the lakeside village of Hertenstein, is a promontory where – if the sun is coming from the west – a yellow-coloured cube shines among the trees. This is the house that Sergei Rachmaninoff built between 1931 and 1934: Villa Senar,

What Japanese cities can teach us about architecture

There are three things that occur to you when you travel the length of Japan: that kimonos are surprisingly good for any occasion; that the country’s reputation for cruelty may partly derive from breakfasts comprising tea porridge and prawn soufflé; and that the hordes of camera-wielding Japanese tourists taking thousands of snaps – a comic trope in the 1980s, at least – were really just ahead of their time and the rest of us are only now catching up thanks to our iPhones. First impressions of Tokyo might persuade you that you’ve accidentally fallen into a dystopian future: the march of skyscrapers and mesh of streets sprawls greyly on for the best part of

Policed conviviality: Serpentine Pavilion 2023 reviewed

As I sat down at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, I overheard a curious exchange. ‘You mustn’t create art within art,’ said an invigilator frostily. He was telling off Fred Pilbrow, an architect, who had been taking in the Pavilion’s sociable atmosphere with friends and painting a watercolour of the scene. They proceeded to enter a perverse negotiation as the invigilator struggled with the theoretical parameters of his orders; apparently the watercolour may stain the furniture but dry media like pencils aren’t allowed either; actually, all art-making is not allowed in any of the exhibitions, ‘but photography is OK’. The timber structure has been stained in a shade of brown that

The architecture of the Elizabeth Line

There was much to celebrate last year on the architecture front – the end of the pandemic brought the opening of long-delayed projects ranging from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Hollywood to the Taipei Performing Arts Centre in Taiwan. But there was one construction project that stood head and shoulders above the rest in size and ambition, and that was the transport link formerly known as Crossrail.  The Taipei Centre may have been seven years late and the Academy Museum (now home to Judy Garland’s red slippers and R2D2, among other artefacts) more than a couple of decades in gestation, but that is nothing compared with London’s Elizabeth Line, which was

Gorgeous Georgians: the timeless appeal of Regency properties

In the early years of the 19th century, the extravagant, spoiled and hard-partying Prince Regent had a surprisingly good idea. Encouraged by pals like Beau Brummell, and with the financial backing of the property developer James Burton, the future King George IV hired the architect John Nash to design a new London neighbourhood. His vision was for a series of magnificent streets, many in terraces styled like modern sugar-coated palaces, on Crown-owned land just north of central London. These ‘Regency’ homes would encircle a brand new park which, modestly, the future King would name after himself. The first major Regency streets – including Cornwall Terrace (which was designed by an original nepo baby, Decimus Burton, son

How King Charles saved Cornwall

I’m a 30th generation Cornishman. I’m so Cornish my mum can make Cornish pasties blindfolded, my maternal grandmother was employed aged nine to break rocks in a Cornish tin mine (she was a ‘bal maiden’), and my second cousins founded Cornish Solidarity, which is the very-lightly-armed wing of Mebyon Kernow (the Cornish Plaid Cymru). Nonetheless my visits to the county are infrequent, probably because I am not overly fond of rain.  However, on my most recent visit I noticed that something in Cornwall has changed. Perhaps I noticed it because I only go down to the see the folks once or twice a year, so I am made suddenly aware

Hot property: 10 buildings to look forward to in 2023

Every year produces a number of ‘firsts’ and ‘mosts’ in architecture – and 2022 was no different. Most obviously, at least for residents of New York, the world’s skinniest skyscraper, with sixty storeys of single apartments stacked to a height of 435 metres, was completed on ‘billionaire’s row’ in Manhattan, perhaps becoming the ultimate example of ‘form following finance’ in the construction annals. But while that was dispiriting for so many reasons, there was much to celebrate too – not least the pleasing restorations of Marcel Breuer’s Armstrong Rubber Company headquarters in Connecticut, which has become a hotel, and the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin, an old department store that has become

Is this Britain’s most historic house?

Hyperbole in estate agents’ brochures isn’t unusual – but when it comes to a write-up for Great Tangley Manor, which has gone on the market for £8.95 million, overkill is almost impossible. Believed to be the UK’s oldest continuously inhabited property – its Saxon foundations date from 1016 – the Grade I-listed moated manor house, in the village of Wonersh in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, comes with an extraordinary roll call of associated famous names. From the spheres of royalty, art, literature, garden design and even America’s Gilded Age, all have played their part in shaping secluded Great Tangley into a country house with a compelling story.  The

Battles royal: how Charles has influenced British architecture

It is the evening of 30 May 1984. The country’s leading architects have assembled at Hampton Court to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the body that represents their interests, the RIBA. It is a sea of black polo necks, masculine chit-chat and clinked glasses. Given that the ‘R’ in RIBA stands for ‘Royal’ – albeit an honour actually awarded by William IV in 1837, three years after the Institute of British Architects’ founding – it is perhaps no surprise that a royal has been drafted in to politely murmur some congratulations over dinner. Yet what happened next was most certainly not expected. With no warning, the man who was then

The hateful sterility of new-build houses

Where do you stand on new houses? You know, the little red boxes you see massed along the sides of motorways or clustered on what used to be flood plains? They’re hateful, aren’t they? Now, I know many people (my mother included) who own perfectly lovely new houses – and these houses are indeed all very lovely, and I bow to their pragmatism in putting basic necessities such as effective heating and draught-free corridors above the concerns of taste or aesthetics. But I can’t do it. Whether it’s down to the fact that the windows are a funny shape and as impossible to open as those on an Airbus, or

Why I admire Saudi Arabia’s monstrous new city

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants me to know that it is building a new city. Its adverts follow me around the internet. ‘Imagine a traditional city and consolidating its footprint, designing to protect and enhance nature.’ I’m imagining. Their city ‘will be home to nine million residents, and will be built with a footprint of just 34 square kilometres. And we are designing it to provide a healthier, more sustainable quality of life’. According to its website, this new town ‘is a civilisational resource that puts humans first’. Which all sounds vaguely nice, if also nicely vague (although as I happen to be a human myself, I do appreciate

The enduring appeal of Arnos Grove station

It’s not in Whitehall nor Westminster; not on the central London tourist trail. Instead it’s ten miles away, on the wrong side of the North Circular, an obscurity in the suburbs, rarely visited for its own sake. But Arnos Grove Tube station is one of the masterpieces of 20th century British architecture – and this week it celebrates its 90th anniversary. Until September 1932, the northern branch of the Piccadilly line ended at Finsbury Park. Then five new stations were built: Manor House, Turnpike Lane, Wood Green, Bounds Green and, finally, Arnos Grove, all commissioned by Frank Pick and designed by Charles Holden. Suddenly it was only 20 minutes to

The rise of the ‘neo-Geo’ country pile

The Queen’s wedding gift to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986 was a brand new 12-bedroom house in the Berkshire countryside. Sunninghill Park was an unfortunate mash-up of architectural styles, from its Tudor-ish chimneys to its vaguely Arts and Craftsy roofline and the monumental columns flanking its entrance. And how we laughed. It was the first time a royal had lived in a new build since Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert moved into Bagshot Park in Surrey in 1879. The Duke and Duchess of York’s property was instantly nicknamed ‘SouthYork’ thanks to its resemblance to Southfork, the Ewing family ranch in Dallas. Back then, newly built period-style houses were

Sixteen cathedrals to see before you die

There can be no clearer illustration of the central role that great cathedrals continue to play in a nation’s life than the outpouring of grief that greeted the catastrophic blaze in Notre-Dame in 2019. President Macron described the building as ‘our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments’. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of any major European city without a cathedral at its heart. Emma J. Wells has written an accessible, authoritative and lavishly illustrated account of the building of 16 of ‘the world’s greatest cathedrals’. Her subjectivity is evident in that only seven feature among Simon Jenkins’s top 25 in his

How the quarrelsome ‘Jena set’ paved the way for Hitler

Today, the German city of Jena, 150 miles south-west of Berlin, is the world centre of the optical and precision industry; but in the 1790s it spawned an even more marketable commodity. It was then a small medieval town on the banks of the river Saale with crumbling walls, 800 half-timbered houses, a market square and an unruly university. Here, in the philosophy department, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a young professor inspired by Immanuel Kant and the French Revolution, proclaimed from the pulpit his theory of the ‘Ich’. ‘A person,’ he roared, ‘should be self-determined.’ In an age of absolute power and the divine right of kings, the idea of free

The lost charm of London’s St Giles

London’s architectural landscape is changing at such a pace that it’s hard to remember what’s been lost beneath the acres of tarpaulin. Buildings I must have walked past a thousand times and that I could have sworn were important landmarks have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Despite the devastation there appears to be little in the way of pushback from harried, post-pandemic Londoners. How quickly we forget what our eyes once took for granted; the familiar razed without a second glance. The area known as St Giles, just east of Charing Cross Road and south of New Oxford Street, has suffered more ignominy than most. Once a bohemian enclave

Why Merseyside is the natural home for a Shakespearean theatre

Prescot is a neglected little town in Merseyside noted for having Britain’s second narrowest street and for its Brazilian waxing salon. It’s now also home to Shakespeare North, a game-changing new theatre. This handsome, modern brick building overlooking a Jacobean church has a light, airy, unfussy interior – a stairway to heaven. You leave the modern world and enter an octagonal cocoon, modelled on a 1630 playhouse, built of slowly splitting green oak, the limbs all pegged together, not a nail in sight. The seats (two tiers) accommodate between 320 and 470 people, depending on the configuration of the stage. Its acoustic is spot-on and it feels cosy but not