The AR’s ongoing and often eccentric enquiry into the vernacular found a home in the worlds of pleasure and leisure
When selling ice cream on Bournemouth beach (my first holiday job), I was always surprised how loosely the English could behave, how nonchalant they were about exposing flesh and how fragile their shelter could become. Suddenly we’re free of inhibition – and there is a parallel to this: buildings by the seaside are also permitted to be flashy, tawdry, flimsy, whimsical and, just occasionally, free from the lurking worthiness by which British architecture is beset and loosened by a seasonal rise and fall that subconsciously triggered my own concept of a changeable (Plug-in) City.
For a certain vein of society, messing about in boats or aircraft has also prompted a rather significant but oblique path back into design: with such as Wells Coates interpreting Modernism from the combination of psychological freedom and ergonomic precision that is the boat cabin, through to the apartment and then on to the liner-like Lawn Road Flats (the Isokon building). The Burnham-on-Sea Yacht Club was one of Joseph Emberton’s excursions into popular Modernism, only to be outdone by his buildings for Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which were an even bolder move, suggesting that their distinctly plebeian clientele could quite easily digest a new architecture – so long as it was in a ‘larger-than life’ context.
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By the same token, Erich Mendelsohn brought a certain élan to the context of refined little Bexhill-on-Sea, to counter the tradition of the Grand Seaside Hotels: behemoths that enabled the well-heeled to wade through The Times over a glass of claret surrounded by ferns and white linen while the rain and wind beat up against the glass. All over Europe, in fact, the elite enjoyed the excuse of opulence and exaggeration as the mannerism of any palaces of escape: whether Marienbad, Gleneagles or the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, they depended on a not-too-subtle interplay of the familiar and the ‘over-the-top’. Dreams came true and you could temporarily live in a palace, a castle, a dream.
Such a characteristic coexists with the postures and ambitions of cities, states and companies as they have the excuse to enjoy the rhetoric (a polite way of saying ‘showing off’) of a World’s Fair. People go there to be impressed and only very picky architects, economists or rivals point out the waste or irrelevance of it all. Expositions force designers to overplay their hand, act symbolically, coerce, manipulate – creating a dangerous and often embarrassing territory of self-consciousness and fruitiness – yet tantalisingly close to a thin thread of innovation. After all, it was in such company that Melnikov and Le Corbusier played with people’s minds in the Paris of the 1920s, or Buckminster Fuller became a household name in the Montreal of the ’60s, and I cannot get the photograph of Bel Geddes’s late ’30s GM pavilion out of my head: a giant white cleavage with a queue of hundreds of people streaming out of it.
‘Do we need buildings any more to bring us out of ourselves?’
If you detect a hint of cynicism in all this, it is really only a veil of defence against possible criticism of my schoolboy-like enthusiasm for ‘over-the-topness’. I relish the circumspection and diagrammatic nature of Dutch work being blown open by the Scheveningen Pier of the ’50s, taking one of the classic conditions for free construction further than others. It was a pier – that of Santa Monica, in fact – that prompted Reyner Banham to legitimise the concept of the megastructure: the big deck on which this and that could come and go (and its cousin, Plug-in City, crops up again).
So by a certain loop of thinking I have reached Los Angeles: and it is more than a passing thought that the wealth of ideas and imagination that are loaded into its houses and public buildings and even conversions when in the hands of Lloyd Wright, Lautner, Gehry, Morphosis or Moss, become adventures of the mind; here in tinsel town, ‘practical’ buildings are buildings of escape prompted by the pervading movie-making culture – or escape from the colder east and Midwest.
If we permit ourselves to consider architecture as theatre – and able to manipulate the presentation of atmospheres, features and experience in sequence – we only have to stretch a little to allow it to contrive, deflect, hide, withhold, reveal and celebrate: maybe all in the same building. The recreational building actually has the mandate to do this: it is only our meanness or doctrinaire piety that may restrain our designs.
Perhaps most sophisticated of all was the cinema of yesteryear. Not the current featureless armchairs of the multiplex, but the great Escape Palaces where a layered progression was set up, just as elaborately sequenced as some Assyrian palace. First, the glamour of the street facade, then the creation of expectancy in the foyer and perhaps foyer café and then, the auditorium itself: an unbelievable Palace of Delight in some exotic style. But all is not over: for then the screen itself will transport you further – onwards into the unimagined world of the movie itself.
‘Whetting a budding appetite for architecture, the Big Dipper presented me with a megastructure a piece of Art Deco and a touch of Expressionism’
Only nowadays – with the unimaginable being summoned up in the palm of your hand – can we overlay even more crazy phenomena on each other: blowing our minds by way of electronics. Do we need buildings any more to bring us out of ourselves?
I counter such thoughts with a memory: in that most modest of escape towns, the small East Anglian resort of Felixstowe where I lived at the age of 12, there stood the Butlins amusement park. The timber structure of the Big Dipper flanked the cafeteria building and jostled the Crazy House. Whetting a budding appetite for architecture it presented me with a megastructure a piece of Art Deco and a touch of Expressionism. The memory of them is still strong. Something beckoned. Something intrigued me about all three objects.
Only after years and years of sophisticated immersion into the business did I realise that – indeed – megastructures, Art Deco and Expressionism are anyhow among my preferred mannerisms.
Before the advent of cheap travel, the English took their leisure at the seaside, immersing themselves in its social rituals, sticky pleasures and delightfully folkloric structures. In a seminal seaside issue (photographed and designed by the exiled László Moholy-Nagy), an end-of-the-pier salaciousness prevailed, with daring circular cut-outs revealing glimpses of assorted recreational antics.
Osbert Lancaster provided a social and architectural history of seaside towns, mixing observation with waspish comment. Carousels, promenades, donkeys, bathing machines, tea shops, boarding houses, swimsuits and model railways were all considered fair game, reflecting the AR’s interest in colourful local vernacular.
Expos and the city
The relationship between expos and the city explores the often uneasy terrain between ideal and reality. Incarnated by the original Great Exhibition of 1851, how can the fairground idealism of modern expos, embodied by Montreal, Tokyo and Seville, relate to or transform the messy, dysfunctional reality of the metropolis?
Expo ’67 in Montreal went beyond the standard pleasure park to include experimental housing, but other expos, such as Seville in 1992, now lie overgrown and rotting, though the city did benefit from new infrastructure (an airport and a station). Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, completed in 1997, could be construed as a more successful example of pleasure and its associated architecture harnessed as a wider catalysing force. Piled on a derelict quayside like a mound of giant fish, its shimmering titanium coils (allied to a canny Guggenheim franchise) provided the transforming impetus for an obscure and languishing Spanish industrial city to break the cycle of decline and become a model for post-industrial revivification.
Yet as the city that launched a thousand weekend short breaks (the Guggenheim happily coincided with the explosion in budget airlines), Bilbao is now an exhausted cliché for any kind of cultural-led regeneration.
In 1951, the Festival of Britain famously synthesised a spirit of national rejoicing with the emerging energy of Modernism on London’s South Bank. Grit and gaiety found expression in the set piece of the Festival Hall surrounded by an array of temporary structures.
Since Corb’s espousal of the streamlined ideal of the ocean liner as a precursor to Modernism in L’Esprit Nouveau, the AR has had a modest thing about ships and their interiors, including an entire issue devoted to the design of the QE2.
Even prior to their associations with crisp, pared-down housing blocks, the AR poured over the more domestic, plush interiors of the liners of the turn of the 20th century. Arthur J Davis writes in 1914 how easily the architect could transfer their skills to this new environment, perhaps not anticipating the transference of skills back again a decade later. While today the architect-designed and inevitably bland superyacht inspires cynicism more than anything else, at their height these really were treated as floating buildings, with all of the concerns for style the association brings. And the most important rooms were of course those of pleasure – the ballroom, the smoking room and the pool.
Pleasure by design
The Baroque flamboyance of fairground carousels, as captured by artist Barbara Jones, formed part of the AR’s ongoing and often eccentric enquiry into the vernacular. The study of such rich visual traditions, often illustrated by artists, encompassed both places of pleasure and the pleasure to be found in the mundane and everyday.
The history of pleasure gardens, follies and formal landscapes, such as that at Chiswick for Lord Burlington, constituted another fertile and lavishly illustrated sideline. The history of bathing as a social and sensual pleasure might be said to have climaxed with Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland. It had its origins in the Baths of Caracalla, where the ingenuity of Roman water technology knew no bounds.
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