Le corbusier

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

Is Thomas Heatherwick the best person to preach about modern architecture?

It needs a big personality to answer a big question: why is so much new building so very bad; why are our cities so ugly? Thomas Heatherwick is that big personality. He is the Jamie Oliver of architecture and design: personable, blokeish, smart, tele-genic, extremely successful, nearly demented with ambition, and, one suspects, inclined to petulance if crossed. He is a visionary with several blind spots. To extend the Oliver comparison, there are times when Heatherwick serves up a delicious dish with his thumbs stuck in the bowl. His flair comes with flaws. As a designer, his Boris Bus for London was charming, but functional problems led to its withdrawal

Architecture for all occasions

Architecture is a public art, but public intellectuals tend to engage with more abstract stuff. The style-wars ructions excited by our new King nearly 40 years ago have been settled by gravity, but intelligent discussion about what makes a great building is still a rarity, especially in the Ministry of Levelling Up, where there is muddle. On the one hand, ‘generic’ is anathematised; on the other, ‘design codes’ and building regulations which stifle the original thinking necessary to good design are encouraged. Perhaps the Ministry should put in a therapeutic bulk order for Hugh Pearman’s About Architecture. ‘If these be the times, then this must be the man,’ as Andrew

The genius of Iannis Xenakis

This year is the centenary of the birth of Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer-architect who called himself an ancient Greek stuck in the contemporary world. His instrumental music at times suggests an alien species trying to communicate with us through our musical instruments, his electronic music a distressed animal on the receiving end of amateur dentistry. For his part, Xenakis said that music ‘must aim… towards a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous and perfect’. Of all the post-war European firebrands, Xenakis remains the most influential today. ‘Xenakis opened many fields of inquiry that are still vital, undiscovered, and brimming

Houses of ill repute

Architects and politicians have a lot in common. Each seeks to influence the way we live, and on account of that both, generally, are reviled. But architecture is more important than politics. Unless you are an anchorite or a polar bear, it’s unavoidable. And it lasts longer. The best architecture affects our mood. Exaltation, if you are lucky. And the worst influences our behaviour: a riot with burning Renaults, if you live in a French banlieue. But, as a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection suggests, architecture may also, in one way or another, affect our health. At ground level, this is quite obvious. Damp, foul air, extreme temperatures, bad

Living the highly expensive life

It was Le Corbusier who famously wrote that ‘A house is a machine for living in’ (‘Une maison est une machine à habiter’). But it was a visit to a masterpiece of his great rival among modernist architects — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — that brought home to me how literally accurate that celebrated aphorism was. His Villa Tugendhat at Brno is one of the great monuments of early modernism. To run smoothly, however, this luxurious dwelling required almost as much machinery as a small ocean-liner. The building has been restored with rigorous scholarship to look exactly as it did when its first owners, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, moved

Concrete cuckoo

The Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council provides a salutary example of a tiny ‘elite’ foisting ‘anti-elitist’ practices on the ‘non-elite’ — and coming a cropper. Vatican II’s dates are important. The Council was convened in 1962 and concluded in December 1965. These were the high years of the most uncompromising architectural modernism and, just as pertinently, of the craze for theatre-in-the-round, whose champions considered the proscenium arch to be an authoritarian (very possibly ‘fascist’) instrument inimical to ‘participation’. Rome’s neophilia left much of the clerisy bewildered. It was admitting temporal fashions to a spiritual domain. Maynooth’s head was spinning. The Council’s bias was towards the Liturgical Movement’s long-hatched plans for

The original and the copyist

Architecture is sometimes described as the second oldest profession, but often — in both theory and practice — it competes with the first. In his splendiferous office in Manhattan’s Seagram Building, Philip Johnson confirmed this when he told me, ‘Remember, son, I’m a whore.’ True to his vocation, this was a line he had often indiscriminately used. Architects need to have big personalities because their responsibilities are so huge. Frank Lloyd Wright said that surgeons can bury their mistakes, but architects have to live with them. And so do the rest of us. Few of us have ever met a reticent, self-deprecating architect. In the middle of the last century

Gaudy! Bright! Loud! Fun!

In any epoch most of what is built is mediocre, though we may not realise it at the time because our neophilia persuades us of merit where there is none. Equally, we may fail to distinguish the few exceptions — those instances where architects and builders have ascended to a higher standard of mediocrity or have even escaped its dulling clasp. It takes time for public taste to catch up with architects’ taste. Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit

Dying of the light | 25 February 2016

Finding St Peter’s is not straightforward. I approach the wrong way, driving up a pot-holed farm track between a golf club and a wood until a fly-tipped sofa blocks my way. Beyond the sofa, behind padlocked security fencing, stands an old stone bridge. Someone has sprayed ‘Go Home’ on the pillar. I prowl through the wood, hoping to find a way in, and scramble across a gorge to the rear edge of the building. More security fencing, through which I see tantalising glimpses of brutal, and brutalised, architecture. Two workmen appear, dressed like crime-scene investigators in blue hooded overalls, and I lean nonchalantly against the fence and talk about the

Big is beautiful: A crushing case for brutalism — with the people left out

First things first: this is one of the heaviest books I have ever read. Eventually I finished with it resting uncomfortably on my knees, as I perched on the edge of my bed. It reminded me of when I met Jennifer Worth (of Call the Midwife fame) and she showed me her hardback copy of my own substantial tome Austerity Britain — neatly spliced in half to make two separate manageable entities. Reluctantly I can now see her point; but in the case of Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism, the doorstopper’s doorstopper, I doubt if I would have the strength to do the same. The physical inconvenience of Harwood’s

Dedicated follower of fascism?

The ‘revelations’, 50 years after he drowned, that Le Corbusier was a ‘fascist’ and an anti-Semite are neither fresh nor startling. Indeed they’re old hat. And it defies credibility that the authors of three recent books about this tainted genius were ignorant of what anyone with even the frailest interest in architects’ foibles and tastes has been aware of for years. Not that this has deterred them; nor has it deterred newspapers from filleting the books for supposedly sensational titbits. What next? The hot news that the cuckold Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover? That Jean Genet has been discovered to have been, you know, on the light-fingered

The only way is Essex University

We are told this is now a ‘knowledge economy’. Strange, then, that there are so few recent educational buildings of note. An expansion of universities has not led to much enlightened architectural patronage. Rather the opposite, in fact. The university visual trope remains those dogged dreaming spires. And London’s skyline is punctuated not by grand monuments to learning but by the swaggering, leering one-liners of the global plutocracy. These are thoughts that come to mind on the occasion of Essex University’s 50th birthday, a much more interesting anniversary than it first (rather bleakly) sounds. It is the subject of an engaged and engaging booklet, Something Fierce, and an on-campus exhibition

The camera always lies

Everyone knows about architecture being frozen music. The source of that conceit may be debated, but its validity is timeless and certain. For all its weightiness, architecture plays with ethereal proportion, harmony, resonance and delight: the stuff of music. But architecture is more fundamentally about the management of light and space. Or, at least, that’s how architects see it. So photography makes better sense of architecture than any other medium does: there is something congruent between the fixed optical geometry of a camera and the way we perceive buildings. And because images are more readily accessible than travel to remote sites, everyone’s experience of world architecture is, at least initially,

Modernism’s dreams – and nightmares – at the Venice Architectural Biennale

An eccentric English aristocrat who constructed a 20-mile network of underground corridors to avoid coming into contact with his fellow humans on his country estate; a Japanese dentist who has amassed an enormous collection of decorative details from buildings spanning a century, retrieved from Tokyo demolition sites; the German inventor of ‘Scalology’, who has spent 60 years studying staircases; and Inuit soapstone carvings of a Cold War early-warning station and of an airport terminal are among the surprises offered by the 14th Venice International Architecture Biennale. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is this year’s artistic director. With his team of researchers, he has not only composed a fascinating show —

What Quique Dacosta knows that Picasso didn’t

Chefs have a problem. Think of much of the best food you have ever eaten. Caviar, English native oysters, sashimi, foie gras, truffles, jamon iberico, grouse, golden plover, properly hung Scotch beef; Stilton, the great soft cheeses: all have one point in common. They require minimal intervention from the kitchen. With the assistance of one female sous-chef, even I could roast a grouse. The chef would come into his own over pudding, and indeed with Welsh rarebit, but one can understand why this does not provide enough outlet for creativity. There are always the great French bourgeois dishes, which few of us eat often enough. Navarin of lamb, blanquette de

Le Corbusier was ashamed of the house he built

On the outskirts of La Chaux-de-Fonds, an industrial town in the Swiss Jura, stands one of the most beautiful houses I’ve seen. Elegant and understated, La Maison Blanche is the kind of house you dream of living in. Wide windows overlook a wooded valley. The rooms are bathed in silver light. The ambience is serene and timeless, more like a temple than a townhouse. You’d never guess the man who built it was the bogeyman of modern architecture — the man who began a movement that replaced terraced streets with tower blocks. In this lovely house, and the art-nouveau villas he built beside it, you can see the traditional architect