In this feature from the AR Archive, Peter Davey responds to the Prince of Wales, arguing that all of his Ten Principles can be fulfilled within Modernism
First published in December 1990, This issue was devoted to showing that the Prince of Wales’ pleas for humanity in architecture could all be fulfilled within aspects of Modernism, and that a reformed Modernism, being about how to live effectively in the contemporary world, can offer much more than the pastiche that the Prince’s arguments have too often created.
In Britain, the Prince of Wales has had an enormous influence on architecture since he made his first public statement on the subject six years ago. His speeches, television programme and book have greatly increased public awareness of the man-made world and have encouraged debate on all aspects of the environment. All this has been good, and can only be welcomed by anyone concerned about architecture.
But some parts of his argument have been less creative. In particular, the Prince’s dislike of what he sees in most of Modernism, his espousal of Classicism, and to some extent of Neo-Vernacular, have tended to reduce discussion to a debate about styles. Many now see architecture as no more than the art of exterior decoration. This, in turn, has led to an explosion of second rate pastiche buildings and designs that are supposed to be the sort of thing that the Prince will like. He must sometimes feel almost as fed up as John Ruskin, who in his later years viewed with despair and disgust the rash of ill-understood Venetian Gothic buildings that swept over Britain in insensitive response to his Stones of Venice.
Pastiche Becomes Respectable
That pastiche is now respectable in Britain has been a boon to developers and designers who lack imagination. Now they can wrap up their lumpen hulks in thin skins of brickwork, slap on a few columns and top the confection off with a pediment or two and so have a very good chance of obtaining planning permission. The buildings themselves often remain as brutishly insensitive to their context and occupants as the grossest creations of the Modernism of the ’60s. Even in the best and most urbane examples of the genre- Quinlan Terry’s Richmond Riverside scheme for instance- so much effort goes into organising the exterior that the inside has perforce to be neglected, with modern open-plan spaces forced in somehow behind the facades. The resulting offices are if anything meaner than those produced in the worst kind of commercial development of a decade ago.
It has been argued (but not by the Prince) that such compromises are necessary and even desirable because the architect’s main duty is to the majority, the people who will see the building from the outside, and that the people who use the building may have to suffer for the greater good. Even if you can accept the extremely dubious morality of this position, it is difficult not to be sorry for its protagonists who, by choosing the rigidities of Classical design, have forced themselves into a virtual strait -jacket. They cannot imagine architecture that works for people outside and for those inside as well.
It seems strange that 150 years after Pugin so effectively attacked the inconvenience and expense of Classical architecture for modern living in Trne Principles, we should still be having virtually the same arguments. From Pugin’s Gothic Revival, Modernism accepted the tenet that the size and arrangement of spaces and hence the appearance of a building should be determined by human function rather than be dictated by Classical formulae. From the Revival too came the notion that a building should derive its expression from its materials and construction, rather than applied ornament. Application of these and related Goth principles, like respect for place, led to some of the most marvellous buildings of the last 100 years: those of the Arts and Crafts movement and the National Romantics, of Modems like Wright and Aalto, of the German Organic tradition. In the ’20s, Goth ideals were interwoven with German and Dutch preoccupations about Modern space and with industrialisation, which was seen as an instrument to help alleviate the injustices of society. Up to the middle of the ’30s the Modern architectural position was one of immense variety, rooted in the past, but concerned to create a rich future using the most up-to-date technology.
But then came the War. And in the reconstruction period afterwards, many of the original ideals had to be abandoned or severely modified to meet the politicians’ (quite justifiable) demands for fast production of large quantities of new dwellings, roads, schools and workplaces that would make decent societies rise from the ashes .. Human needs were reduced to standard lists of accommodation. Ill-tried industrialised building systems were employed by inexperienced people. Big bureaucracy and big business imposed their standards. Bad architects were only too ready to accept the standards, and produced alienating buildings by the square mile. The wonder is not that so much went wrong, but that many of the housing estates of the ’50s and ’60s have proved successful and are liked by their inhabitants.
Mad Modernist Planning
Added to the problems of trying to build too much too fast was the fact that the buildings were arranged in a mad system by Modernist planning. While a good deal of Modern architecture can be defended, there now seems no excuse for the inhumanity of the planning theories. In the ’30s, the Charter of Athens had laid down the proposal that human activities should be separated into unifunctional areas connected by transport arteries. The immemorial intimate mix of functions that had made the great cities so fascinating and rich to live in was to be thrown away in favour of an arid pseudoscientific dissection of life into its constituent parts. Ironically, European planning was (perhaps by accident) to follow the pattern set by the often totally unplanned cities of uninhibited capitalism in the US.
The formula was eagerly seized on by post -war road engineers keen to advance their discipline, and by non-architect bureaucratic planners who were anxious to exercise their power to make a brave new world. In a time when everything could be quantified, civic design became an extraordinarily outdated and fuddy-duddy concept. And so arose the post -war city of isolated object buildings, indifferent to each other and linked only by roads. Much of the potential inherited from the past was destroyed in unnecessary slum clearance programmes. Most of the new built areas lacked any sense of urbanity and have been the spawning grounds of individual anornie and social unrest.
Rebellion of the Young
By the second half of the ’60s, this was clear to the brighter and more humane young :;.rchitects all over Europe. They were the ftrst to rebel against the policy of putting the working class into isolated tower blocks and to invent geometries for low-rise high-density housing which could provide accommodation for the less well-off on expensive inner-city sites in schemes that had a chance of relating to the traditional fabric. They were concerned to make buildings with specific sense of place and which had resonance with the past. Many of them were concerned to fmd a new role for the individual, family and small group in an age of mass values.
The early experiments of these architects were often very small, and when work was on a larger scale, they often had to compromise with the ruling bureaucratic values of authority. 1here are far too many architects to be listed here but some will be mentioned as examples in the following pages. In the ensuing two decades, their work has grown in understanding, sensitivity and richness. Yet they have never abandoned commitment to Modernism. They use the advantages that industrial production offers when it is appropriate, but they are not averse to incorporating craftsmanship where it can be obtained. They are never afraid of exploiting the spatial freedoms that Modernism offers, yet are not dogmatic about them. They do not flinch from contemporary new building types and never try to dress them up as old ones, but they seek to integrate them with existing circumstances. Many of them are trying to evolve forms of urban design that will offer the richness of the traditional city while catering for the car and contemporary communications.
They have been joined in the struggle to retain the best of Modernism while making it specific to place and people by two decades of younger architects and a considerable body of work is growing up all over Europe. It is very varied and offers the hope, that could be glimpsed in the ’20s and ’30s, of a range of diverse architectures appropriate for function, place, local culture and climate. This reinvigorated Modernism is far more than a style; it is a series of attempts to build for the future, learning from the past within the constraints of the present.
Classicists Creep Out
Just at this moment the Classicists, encouraged by the Prince’s remarks, and by the success of corporate Post-Modern Classicism in North America, have decided to creep out of the undergrowth. They yearn to use their style to order Britain into outward seemliness, no matter what happens behind their pretty facades. They long for an agreeable congruity of taste in which cities will at least have the appearance of the eighteenth century, before nasty things like modern industry emerged. They want to hide the fact that we live in a plural, technological multi-cultural society with many new needs, building types and urban possibilities.
The Prince of Wales’ own position is a good deal more moderate than that of some of his supporters. Though his tastes lie in the direction of Classicism, and he has a strong love of the real vernacular of old England, he is prepared to praise the odd Modern building in his hook A Vision of Britain. Rather than forcing the argument directly into one about style, he presents ‘Ten Principles we can build upon’. And, although the principles are mainly concerned with external appearance, few of us could fundamentally disagree with them. The trouble is that they are mainly illustrated with historical examples which gives the impression that they can only be achieved if we all become pasticheurs.
This issue is concerned to show that pastiche is quite urmecessary; that the principles can be and have been realised within Modernism, particularly that of recent years. And that Modernism has other things to offer, in the present for the future, which can add to and enrich the principles.
In the Prince’s terms, the place is the landscape nature of the specific site, its genius loci. ‘New buildings’, he says, ‘should not dominate the landscape but blend carefully with it’.
This is not an argument that has appealed to all cultures at all times. The Palladians for instance were concerned, among other things, to demonstrate the power of human intellect (and that of wealth) in opposition to the natural world. That their pure geometric creations, set carefully to maximise their impact on the landscape, do not appear to us to be arrogant intrusions is partly a matter of what we are used to. But it is also part of a tradition of man putting the most perfect mark he can make on nature. It goes at least as far back as the Doric temples, or even the Pyramids. In the twentieth century, the tradition has been continued in such buildings as Le Cor busier’s Villa Savoye and in Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house.
But that such a tradition exists is no excuse for the gross and crass intrusions into the natural landscape which have become common since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly since the last War. The tradition sanctions works only of the very greatest refinement. Hence the Prince’s principle that new work should blend carefully into the landscape is not a bad general rule.
The principle has had a distinguished following in some branches of Modernism. Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto are the obvious older masters. For instance, Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona is a building that is made of the desert and grows out of it; Aalto’s Villa Mairea picks up the rhythms of the forest and almost becomes an extension of it. In our own time, Cullinan Architects’ RMC headquarters (AR September 1990) is a prime example of a building that derives its being from an imaginative interpretation of its complex and beautiful parkland site.
In architectural circles, placemaking has come to mean rather more than respect for genius loci. It has often meant making humanly rewarding places in areas which have little or no intrinsic merit. For instance, Ralph Erskine at Byker in Newcastle replaced a grim nineteenth-century industrial slum with a well-loved housing scheme that, by creating comforting enclosure with its great perimeter wall, gives its inhabitants a sense oflocal territory and place of their own. In Paris, Renzo Piano took a run-down factory complex at Montrouge and has created modern workplaces round a great garden which makes a calm focus on the middle of a run-down suburb.
The Prince talks about two kinds of hierarchy: first, the size of a building in relation to its public importance, and, second, the relative significance of the different elements of a building.
The trouble with trying to set up a hierarchy of size according to public importance is that perception of importance keeps changing. From the beginning of architecture, societies have put the functions that they valued most highly into their largest buildings. Naturally enough, those at the top of the power structure want to invest as much as they can into buildings that celebrate the values they hold (pp68-73).
Up to the Industrial Revolution, temples, churches, casdes and palaces were the dominant buildings, and we still love and save these because they are built testimonies to the craftsmanship and the values of the societies that made them. But, given the choice, few of us would like to travel back in time to live in those societies themselves.
In the nineteenth century, the great railway stations, exhibition halls and factories began to rival in size the largest structures of the past and to give cities a wholly ·new hierarchy of scale based on quite different values from those of the past. This transformation of scale has accelerated in our century, with types like the office block and the supermarket becoming dominant. It may be regrettable that (except in the Ivory Coast) God and even the community have far less purchasing power than Mammon when it comes · to paying for buildings, but it is so, and this side of revolution, there is no way of altering things. The heroically revolutionary proposals by Leon Krier for the Prince’s extension to Dorchester (AR August 1989) suggest inserting an elaborate hierarchy of public buildings which will identify the whole community and its constituent parts. Even if the money can be found to pay for them, it is difficult to see how enough uses can be discovered to fill and maintain them.
Instead, most architects have had to turn to other ways of emphasising the importance of spiritual and communal matters. This has been achieved partly by siting and partly by fineness of work. Aalto’ s little civic centre assumes more importance than the factories in the industrial village of Siiyniitsalo because it has been piled up round an elevated courtyard to make a symbolic acropolis. Many of the best recent religious buildings and museums (claimed by some to be the contemporary cathedrals) have been given importance by a similar combination of careful siting and craftsmanship.
The Relationship of Parts
In the early years of Modernism, many architects rejected the idea of an external visual hierarchy as being undemocratic and redolent of past social structures. (In the way for instance that the Georgian town-house elevation is a perfect diagram of the social structure that it contained-and hence is a totally inappropriate model for present -day buildings.)
As a result of this indifference to hierarchy in the ’20s and ’30s, architects of the bankrupt period of Modernism in the ’60s made some of the most faceless and soulless buildings ever built. They are monuments to bureaucracy, both public and private, and the Prince is right to castigate them. But already in those days, young architects were struggling to fmd new ways of fmding hierarchy within buildings. The anarchic approach of Lucien Kroll and the rather more ordered democratic design method of Erskine were both intended to emphasise the individual within the whole.
There is now a new awareness of hierarchy among the best Modern architects, and as the examples shown here demonstrate, seeing the relationship of the parts of a building is no longer a problem.
Scale, in Prince Charles’ terms, is related to hierarchy. He calls for buildings that relate ‘first of all to human proportions and then respect the scale of the buildings around them’. He objects to ‘casually placed oversized buildings of little distinction, carrying no civic meaning’. And he is anxious to see height limitations re-imposed as a means of enforcing appropriate scale. He wants to prevent developers from assembling ‘several small sites, regurgitating them as gargantuan out -of-scale developments that look like Gulliver in Lilliput’.
Whether or not developers should be allowed to amass sites, and even whether they should be compressed by height limitations are political and economic matters over which neither the Prince nor architects have control. Most of us would like to see cities of small buildings and small enterprises, but contemporary business tends to agglomerate in larger and larger units.
The Prince has expressed his dismay over the rebuilding of the City of London as a landscape of tall office towers. But the changes that have happened in the City since the War have been largely organic-the business community wanted to keep what it could as Britain’s economic power declined; the City’s local government wanted to keep business within its boundaries. As one apex of the international financial triangle, with Tokyo and New York, London had to keep going, and growing on limited sites so that the only way to achieve the necessary volume of office space was upwards. London could not have started a new business centre as Paris was forced to do at La Defense because France had to start from nowhere as a financial community. Nor until the recent revolution in electronic communications could the City’s financial activity be scattered round the rest of London.
Had height limits been retained, the City simply could not have coped as a world financial centre. Now you and I can argue that this may have been an excellent thing for Britain and its economy in general, but the Prince cannot, because too many powerful interests would be upset by a semi-political remark from the heir to the throne.
While the City of London has suffered most in England from such commercial pressures, many other business towns have been under similar forces from the scale of contemporary commercial activity -like it or not, it is there and will not go away. Yet the most sensitive Modernists have risen to the challenge of trying to humanise it, not by spraying on pediments and bits of marble, but by rethinking the mix. The first phases of Broadgate by Arup Associates did something in this direction, but the (now sadly abandoned) scheme by Richard MacCormac for Spitalfields had much more promise. He proposed putting the bulk of accommodation devoted to general transactions (speculative offices) above two floors devoted to local transactions (shops, restaurants and small businesses). A busy street -level scale which would have related to the old fabric of Spitalfields would have been created. It is to be hoped that MacCormac’s ideals will be realised elsewhere by more enlightened developers.
‘Sing with the choir and not against it’ says the Prince. ‘A straggling village street or a wide city avenue which may consist of buildings belonging to many different periods can look harmonious.’
It may seem rather aggressive to start a discussion of harmony and Modernism with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but the building is one of the most successful insertions of a huge contemporary use into a delicate traditional city quarter that has ever been achieved. Its height and scale are right for the area. It creates a splendid public open place before it by understanding the nature of the spatial order of the city and it has clearly brought abundant new life to the Marais. It is immensely popular.
Yet it makes few concessions of the conventional sort. It does not use the traditional materials of the area. Its relationship to the traditional rhythm is vestigial. Though the Prince has not, as far as I know, given his opinion on the building, it seems likely that he would disapprove because he is critical of today’s buildings which ‘are designed from abstract principles and are thrust, in the name of”new” architecture and “modern” functional requirements, into the carefully scaled and painstakingly adjusted cities of the past’.
But those modern functional requirements are a great part of the problem. Only a very few cities are so perfect that they should be kept intact at all costs- Siena, Bath and the Edinburgh New Town are examples rightly quoted by the Prince. Yet, if they are to be properly preserved, such places must pay the price of being fossilised, which can be enormously expensive. (Sadly Bath and Edinburgh have not been able to find the cash and many horrid intrusions and conversions have resulted.) If a city is to continue to live, it must accept new functions and hence new buildings which will necessarily often be of different scale and nature from the existing ones. It would have been impossible, for instance, to create a great popular flexible arts centre in the middle of Paris using the spans and materials of the surrounding Marais. It is the architect’s task to accept the new inputs, yet relate to the existing fabric.
Giancarlo De Carlo was one of the first of the post -war architects to accept the challenge in his work for the University of Urbino (AR April l979). The town is perhaps as precious as Siena but it had to incorporate a huge new function, and while De Carlo always respected and preserved the best of the old, he did not hesitate to let the new work be seen as new.
The housing built by the Internationale Bauausstellung in Berlin (ARs September 1984 and April l 987) has been an attempt to re-invent the feeling of the traditional city, while accepting Modernism, contemporary standards, materials and construction methods. Most new housing in Paris is similarly concerned to relate Modernism to the city of Haussmann.
In the suburbs of Houston, Piano’s de Menil museum is an outstanding example of how to make a large new mass have presence while relating to the existing pattern of small grey clap boarded houses. In equally low densities have been English experiments by architects like David Lea, Cullinan, MacCormac and others who have added to distinguished old buildings without compromising Modernism or resorting to pastiche.
As the Prince says, ‘One of the great pleasures of architecture is the feeling of well-designed enclosure’. It must be admitted that Modernism did not at first regard enclosure as one of the most important aspects of making buildings or cities. On the urban scale, in particular, it seemed to be extraordinarily difficult to create enclosure against increasing demands by road engineers for ever more sweeping curves and wider and wider sight-lines.
But, gradually, the tide has turned. As early as 1952, Aalto’s Siiyniitsalo showed how even a very small public building could be bent round to create a delightful public space. This was rapidly followed by a flow of other Modern buildings from Scandinavia, particularly Denmark, which celebrated the importance of private and semi-private enclosed space in building types like schools and housing.
Partly influenced by the Northern work, the Cambridge School of Architecture evolved the theory of perimeter planning in the ’70s. This showed mathematically that quite high densities, which had been thought previously to be attainable only by vertical building, could be attained by placing accommodation in a low-rise strip round the edge of the site- particularly if the strip was corrugated. So a central large enclosure could be created, off which smaller ones would open. The theory was particularly applicable to housing, and before the British public-housing programme collapsed in the early ’80s, several promising schemes were built, notably by the London Borough of Merton (AR April 1980) and by MacCormac & Jamieson near Newport (also AR April 1980).
During the ’80s, with the decline of Modernist planning, the power of the road engineer (p24) and the rise of civic consciousness in Modern architecture, enclosure has become a general preoccupation among Modern architects. Outstanding British designed spaces include James Stirling’s great rotunda in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie (AR December 1984) and, in a completely different vein, Herron Associates’ Store Street offices for Imagination (AR January 1990) .
The Prince’s book is concerned with the British environment, though he uses foreign examples when they suit the argument. Now ere is the book more specifically British than in its discussion of materials. The Prince says that, ‘Britain is one of the most geologically complicated countries in the world…Our villages and towns were built from whatever came closest to hand…Each…has a different hue, a different feel, and fosters a fierce loyalty in those who belong there’.
Of course, the Prince is right when he decries the way in which machine-made materials are often made to look like handmade ones to give a spurious sense of local authenticity. But local materials are now very expensive; they are expensive because of the amount of labour needed in their making. Hand-sawn local timber, local stone from quarries that are not big enough to be able to afford modern technology, bricks hand-thrown from local clay all need a great deal more human labour in their manufacture than their equivalents that are made with machines. To make them readily available for all buildings in a particular place is no longer economically possible unless they are used simply as tokens, or the cost of hand labour is very greatly reduced, either by reducing the earnings of the labourers (and surely the Prince cannot intend that), or by embracing the Morrisian revolution which lies concealed behind so many of his arguments.
Modern architects, of whatever political persuasion, can achieve neither economic end themselves. Since Pugin, they have accepted that they must use materials honestly. Hence, as always, they have had to use ones that are to hand and economically available. But that does not mean that their work, at its best, lacks poetry, or resonance with place.
So, rather than resorting to the cheap-jack paper-thin tricks of the PoMo school, they use traditional materials ·where they can be obtained (and when they can be afforded by the client) honestly, sparingly and to the point. Such materials often have to be mixed and contrasted with machine-made ones, or those that are supposed to be artificial, like concrete and the plastics.
Aalto and Carlo Scarpa were two of the first architects into this game, as is shown by so many of their details. Cullinan and his colleagues have demonstrated at Minster Lovell how to make a real contemporary Cotswold building out of stone, turf, and concrete (AR July 1 976).
It is not only membranes among modern materials that can make a real contribution to sense of place and the reassuring feeling of tectonic tactility (p27). Many other products of twentieth-century technology can do the same. Think of those lovely finger joints between laminated timber and metal that Piano made in his mobile pavilions for IBM (AR March 1987). They are as sensually satisfying as anything ever built. Or his mixture of ductile iron and ferro-concrete at the De Menil museum (p28).
Consider the properties for placemaking that Foster showed at the Willis Faber building in Ipswich where he used, for the first time, an apparently seamless curving wall of glass to reflect on a rather dim nineteenth-century street in a provincial town and make magic of the place.
Or think of the use of rusted steel by Arup Associates at the Wiggins Teape building to make a real place in, of all locations, the outskirts of Basingstoke, one of England’s most unlovely growth spots.
Think, even, of the Prince’s most hated material, concrete. Without twentieth-century use, we would lack the kindly, almost peasant directness of Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul, where it is used with the bricks, tiles and techniques available in the post-war period to make some of the most touchingly homelike spaces of the twentieth century. Or Corb’s Ronchamp chapel where a deep sense of the sacred has been made by using concrete in a way never possible before.
Of course, twentieth-century materials like concrete, new metals and large sheets of glass have been used to make many horrid and vulgar buildings. But we must not dismiss them just because they are new, but learn to use them with love and imagination, just as the old materials must always be used.
‘A bare outline won’t do; give us the details’, says the Prince, who decries ‘modern functional buildings [which] with no hint of decoration give neither pleasure nor delight’. He wants to see a renewal of ornament; Classical, Gothic or Arts and Crafts.
The early Modern Movement eschewed ornament because its practitioners believed that ornament should be meaningful, that it should say something to all mankind, and that after the often mindless eclectic exploitation of ornament in the nineteenth century, it would be better to do without ornament of any kind rather than covering buildings with rubbish. There was, in some circles, a hope that after a while a new form of ornament would appear, distilled from the nature of construction, as Classical and Gothic ornament was supposed to have emerged from an abstraction of primitive wooden construction realised in stone.
The austerity of the pioneers was claimed as sanction for the penny-pinching, impoverished bureaucratic Modernism of the ’60s. Yet proper architects always understood that the quality of details is vital to the life of a building . Hence the modern exaltation of the nature of materials and expression of construction. Even Mies, the most austere and gnomic of all the founding fathers of Modernism, was heard to say that ‘God is in the details’, and very many architects pursued the quality of refinement and abstraction in metal and glass that he attained. Others, following Wright, Le Corbusier (in some moods) and Aalto, celebrated traditional materials: the texture of brickwork, the smoothness of marble and plaster, the roughness of board marked concrete, the figure of the grain in wood.
These hard-won lessons must never be forgotten again. But, now, architects are beginning to feel a little more free to create at least pattern with properly used materials. There may be no widely accepted human meaning in the patterns, but they do serve to break up and give scale to the otherwise overwhelming areas of material that are demanded by the sheer size of contemporary buildings. I do not mean by this that we should praise the muddling of veneers that characterises PoMo, but we should celebrate the honest use of patterning in tiles that cover some of the pyramidal roofs of Hampshire schools (AR November 1990), or, at a much grander scale, the incised characters of all the world’s scripts in the great battered concrete wall of Snjiihetta’s winning design for the Alexandria library (AR June 1990).
And, perhaps in some ways, the dreams of those Modernists who thought that new forms of ornament could appear from abstraction of function are at last coming true. Rogers’ celebration of services in the Lloyd’s building (p27) is far more than just functional -it suggests a new order devoted to the viscera rather than the skeleton.
And Jean N ouvel’s great iris diaphragm wall of the Institut du Monde Arabe (AR October 1987) in Paris inventively conflates apposite high technology and a reverence for Arabic tradition.
We need the imagination of people like Rogers and Nouvel to make brave architectures for the plural, technologically aware societies of today, rather than the cultural cowardice of the N eo-Classicists, who can offer nothing more than a pretend return to a ridiculously idealised unified past. Nowhere is the distinction between the two camps more clearly seen than in details.
‘Why’ asks the Prince, ‘is it that contemporary artists play such a small part in the creation of our surroundings?’ The answer lies to a great extent in the nature of twentieth-century art. During the twentieth century, arts like sculpture and painting have tended, like literature, to become intensely personal and subjective. All buildings, even the least decorated ones, tell stories, but they must, by the nature of their generation, be much more objective. Paintings and sculptures do not have to obtain planning permission, pass building regulations, or even have to be paid for at the time of creation by a patron with very deep pockets.
So, notwithstanding the efforts of the Bauhaus, which attempted to bring together artists of all kinds, creative combinations between architecture and the other visual arts rarely evolved afterthe First World War. In such attempts as were made in the ’30s, like the London Transport building by Holden, the great mass of the building is scarcely enlivened by the sculptures and reliefs of Epstein and Gill, which seem simply to be irrelevances stuck on to the outside. One notable exception is in the work of the hated Le Corbusier who was architect, painter and sculptor. In buildings like the Marseilles Unite, he combined all his arts in an authentic Gesamtkunst:werk
As the Prince says ‘Architects and artists should be betrothed at an early stage in any major public project. It is no use just standing a sculpture on a plinth outside a new building, almost as a guilty afterthought’. Yet there is no virtue in combining second-rate Classical architecture with second-rate pictorial art.
Now, we have a number of successful instances of artists prepared to work with architects and vice versa . What often seems to be needed is a readiness on the part of the artist to allow his work to become part of a building, and to forego an element of the personal individuality which he has been brought up to believe is his birthright. And, of course, it requires the architect to have the vision to see that someone from another discipline can contribute to his building, readiness to incorporate the work, and the ability to persuade his client to pay for it.
One recent example of this kind of collaboration is the round steel street door of Richard Burton’s own house (cover- September AR) where the architect and the artist, Stuart Hill, worked together with such closeness that Burton cannot remember exactly how the form was conceived.
Hill, incidentally, likes to describe himself as a blacksmith (perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek). But the appellation is interesting because it does perhaps show one way of successfully incorporating art into buildings. The artist has become in a sense a creative craftsman in much the way that Morris and his successors in the Arts and Crafts movement were prepared to subject their work to an overall plan.
This does not mean that the artist loses integrity: rather that his imagination is used to intensify the quality and feeling of particular parts of buildings. Other work of this kind can be found for instance in Centenary Square, Birmingham, by Tess Jaray (p66) or by Guttorm Guttormsgaard and John SS1lraune in the floors and blinds at the Kreditkassen, Oslo, by 0stbye, Kleven, Almaas & Wike working with Lund & Slaatto (AR January 1990).
All this does not mean that the individual work of art has no place at all in modern architecture. Paintings and sculptures can hav other homes than galleries as, for example, the art in hospitals movement has shown. The most recent instance is St Mary’s Hospita1 on the Isle of Wight by Richard Burton where he has worked with others to commission numerous painters and sculptors to produce individual pieces for specific parts of the building. The work in place so far indicates that the building will be greatly enlivned by the contribution of the artists.
Signs and Lights
‘Too many of the marks of twentieth-century progress take the form of ugly advertising and inappropriate street lighting…The car and commerce are both vital to the well-being of the country, but it is the junk they trail with them that we have to tackle.’
The Prince is partly right. Of course there is something demoralising about ‘great companies making so little effort to respect the places where…their customers live’ with aggressive and insensitive corporate logo rubbish. But the Prince is quite wrong to illustrate his argument with a contrast between high level sodium lighting for a motorway and the pretty Victorian globes of 4 the Thames Embankment. We drive along motorways at great speed, and except when traffic has jammed, are never in a state to take in utilitarian ordinariness of the scene as shown in a single photograph; indeed particularly at night, there is often something magical about the way in which the lights of a motorway go snaking across the country like a great thin orange dragon. The Embankment is a public promenade, and has lamps appropriate to its purpose, of which there are many Modern versions.
Twentieth-century lighting techniques have often added great richness to our cities, for instance by floodlighting, and in the drama offered by the retail districts of places like Hong Kong or Tokyo. We would be really mean-minded to throw such exciting possibilities away. Below, Alastair Best discusses some of the contemporary problems of signage:
Shortly after it opened, a handwritten sign ‘ENTREE’ was taped ignominiously to the entrance of the Pompidou Centre. Few people, least of all architectural critics, saw the irony in the fact that a building designed expressly to communicate its structure and function had failed so dismally in the simple task of steering the visitor towards the front door. Inside, admittedly things were a little better: there was a sign system based on an elegant alphabet by Adrian Frutiger, but as all the messages were vertically arranged, the visitor was forced to move through the building with his head permanently tilted to one side, like a man trying to peer round a door. It was instructive to note that the signs which really mattered, like the fire exits, were printed horizontally. Some things are clearly too important to be left to graphic designers.
Do buildings need signs at all? If the architect is doing his job properly the sequence of spaces should be clear, logical and explicit. The sign should merely reinforce the messages the building is already communicating, rather than being the cement that binds the whole lot together. Heathrow airport, and to some extent also Gatwick, are both examples of groups of buildings which would be quite unintelligible without their signs. The system developed for Heathrow by Jock Kinneir is not perhaps the most delicate exercise in visual communications one could wish to see, but then it has to, as it were, make its voice heard above the competing claims of the airlines and the ever-encroaching retailers. Norman Foster’s attempt at Stansted to ‘return to basics’ in air terminal design is surely a direct criticism of the distorted nature of the typical route which passengers have to navigate from airside to landside.
There are some cases where graphic assistance in a building is deliberately reduced to a minimum: I remember the chairman ofHarrods once admitting to me that the reason why the sign system there was so sketchy was that the visitor was more likely to lose his way and thus penetrate parts of the store which he would not normally reach. The same might be said of those cultural department stores, the museums. It could be argued that most people visit them to browse rather than to see something specific and so long as they can find their way to the postcard shop, the restaurant and the exit, they are perfectly happy to follow a whimsical route which might (in the case of the V&A) take in Bernini, Mary Quant, rare harpsichords and Victorian stained glass. So Alan Fletcher’s elegant banners are as much a piece of embellishment, a message to the sceptical visitor that the museum is doing something, as a functional aid to getting around.
When lost in a museum, as when lost in the street, don’t trust the signs. Find a man in uniform, and ask the way.
‘The right sort of surroundings can create a good community spirit. Too many areas of our towns and cities have suffered from the mentality of planners who zoned everything, keeping work and home miles apart and encouraging commuting.’
How true, but planners, however ill directed by perverse theory (p23), cannot be held totally responsible for the physical dislocation of modern life. During the last century, cities all over the world, planned and unplanned, have exploded as their populations have sought improved dwelling places that they could afford. Cities, and life, fall apart.
In the last couple of decades, some of the best architects have been in the forefront of the struggle to try to reknit cities and societies. The work of unpretentious community architects in ameliorating conditions and improving the quality of life in inner cities is well known to the Prince. Most of this work is concerned with adapting existing buildings and environments, but there have been a number of very important experiments by architects working in consultation with the occupants to generate new buildings.
Most renowned is Erskine’s work at Byker, where he set up an office on the site in which he and his team could discuss and adapt the emerging scheme with the people who were going to live in the flats (p26). Even more radical was Kroll’s Medical Faculty at the University of Louvain (p26) where the architect got teams of medical students actually to design parts of the building they were to occupy; the parts were then collaged together to create one of the most extraordinary buildings of its decade. That is has not proved entirely successful is due to the fact that a process that should have worked extremely well for a housing development was undertaken with students, who by their nature are in a transitory condition; a building that was specifically very specially tailored for one generation of students has not proved entirely loved by its successors. But the idealism was inspiring, and has since been adapted by Kroll and other architects (see, for instance, AR October, p44).
At another level, Modern architects have had radical influence for the good on the organisation of work when they have had well-intentioned clients. Herman Hertzberger’s insurance headquarters, Centraal Beheer at Apeldoorn, showed how a large bureaucracy could be broken down into small groups who could create their own socie.ties and their own immediate environments to suit themselves. When it first opened, it was a magical place which resounded with the noise of singing birds (the pets of the workers), and was flowery with plants. It has been excessively done up by the management since then, but Hertzberger’s ideals have been developed by him and by others, most recently by Niels Torp in the SAS building in Stockholm (AR March 1989). Here, down an internal street, small groups have their home bases to which individuals can retire, or join in the public life of the streets below .
But there is a worry about these buildings and some of their equally imaginative contemporaries like the Becton Dickinson headquarters in New Jersey by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood (AR August 1988) or the Schlumberger research headquarters near Austin in Texas by Robert Jackson Architects (AR September 1989). They areall completein themselves. The American ones are in the suburbs or the countryside, the European ones are almost all closed off from the cities that contain them, almost by defensive walls.
The generous, humane thinking, which recognises the importance of the individual within the group and the group within the whole is surely capable of being used on a larger scale than being employed solely for a particular corporation. Niels Torp gives a notion of this in his Akerbrygge development in Oslo (AR August 1990) where, with a developer who was, to say the least, well intentioned, he has created an inner-city complex that combines leisure, housing, working places and many other aspects of the real, interwoven European city to make a series of places in a hierarchy that ranges from individual private open space to the public forum . But Torp’s weird assembly of contemporary styles which are almost mechanically changed to provide variety does nothing to make the complex seem part of Oslo .
In this respect MacCormac’s proposals for Spitalfields (p27) seem to be more sensitive, in that they try to strike a balance between the needs of a humane, complex, multifarious modern society and the nature of the existing context without resorting to pastiche or to aggressive statements about how different the present is from the past.
Clearly, Modern architects have much to contribute to creating new ideas about community. As the schemes shown here demonstrate, the possibilities that such architects offer are only just beginning to emerge, but they promise infinitely greater possibilities of human interaction than the external wallpapering solutions of the proponents of PoMo or the Neo-Classicists.
So if Modernism can provide all the things that the Prince wants, what is the point of trying to achieve them with pastiche?
Modernism came about for many reasons -but the overriding one was to invent architecture that could respond to twentieth-century conditions. For instance, the perception that, in a civilised society, everyone should have a decent dwelling and workplace. And the universal desire for greater mobility and faster communication. To achieve such ends, the whole range of modern technology has to be available for use when appropriate. This has given enormous possibilities for both good and bad.
The Prince has often chosen to stress the things that went wrong with Modernism, and no one can possibly defend the excesses of bureaucratic Modernism at its worst: the awful planning, the poor construction, the placelessness, the misuse of crude sociology.
But Modernism also has very much to offerparticularly now. Architects like Hertzberger and Torp have changed management perception about how to humanise large corporations. People like Erskine and Kroll have suggested how housing that responds to the needs of individuals can be created, even on a large scale. MacCormac and Rogers are exploring ways of re-making a rich urban mix. Cullinan, Foster, Hopkins and many others are finding the potential of contemporary technology for making real places that the vast majority of people like. Burton and a host of younger architects are exploring the importance of ecological concerns and inventing new approaches to architecture to accommodate them.
All these are Modernists, concerned to face the problems and challenges of the contemporary world without fudging. The variety of their production shows that Modernism is not a style; talk of a Neo-Modern or new Modern style is twaddle. Modernism is an approach which believes in integrity and honesty, but in applying imagination to make the world a better place for all of us to live in.