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Outrage: ‘Brexit signals a regression to an insular mentality that limits British culture’

Cook, peter ra  hidden citycrop

If the ’60s was a casting off of middle-English shackles, the EU referendum threatens to force them back on

My friends and I continue to exchange the obvious ‘street’ terms for describing the Brexit disaster. I won’t spell them out but let’s just say most  of them run along the lines of ‘*!$#-up’. What a stupid, bewildering situation  it is, especially for one who can easily be targeted as ‘living in the London bubble’ – which had become a wonderful, frothing, shimmering, volatile, energising phenomenon that encourages people to seek out other bubbly locations around the world where ideas are appreciated, conversation is unpredictable, connections are complex, and where there is certainly a buzz.

Such a description will undoubtedly irritate some fine people who instinctively don’t want to be buffeted by froth, dazzled by shimmer, unnerved by volatility or disturbed by energy. They will scowl at the thought of ‘ideas’ rather than what they think they know, will prefer conversation that follows comfortable, predictable lines and connections that have been well and reliably established. The very thought of a ‘buzz’ will send them muttering  into a corner.

Having thrown their toys out of the pram, they may now be rubbing their hands with delight in the act of bursting the bubble: ‘now back to real values’,  I hear them say. ‘Back to a proud Britain untainted by the Continent.’ But as  a (technically) old guy,  I can only too clearly remember those creepy, grey, bigoted, untainted years. One’s little world of the provincial art college  was a first, necessary bubble: where the rest of the town glared at us and occasionally hissed at the girls wearing coloured stockings. One could read about exotic things in magazines but never met anybody remotely connected with them. 

‘“Back to a proud Britain untainted by the Continent.”, I hear them say. But as a (technically) old guy, I can only too clearly remember those creepy, grey, bigoted, untainted years’

Then to the Architectural Association, seemingly a better bubble but which – if we are honest – was, in the 1950s, dominated by very English public-school types (some of them, of course, conscience Marxists) plus a sliver of tough, provocative girls who had to be such in order to survive. It was still very British, with the exotic foreigners appearing on platform but treated too obviously as exotica. In fact, it was only with Archigram – also a British product, of course – that one became aware of the power and excitement of ideas and procedures that came out of a new kind of culture stemming from many places at once, carried forward by the ’60s phenomenon that was altogether full of verve and the casting off of middle-English shackles. 

For us, our conversations and references were a mixture of Japanese/Austrian/West Coast/post-war/Situationist/Metabolist/or ‘found under the mattress’ inspirations – carried along on a spirit of inventive enthusiasm. Some bloke – a Hungarian-Israeli-Parisian (Yona Friedman) became a mate, some other picky and brilliant Viennese guy (Hans Hollein) became a mate. Another, Arata Isozaki from Tokyo, could identify Pink Floyd from (at that time) their only 45rpm record. These were our extended ‘family’. 

So, over the years, our world has become totally, relaxedly international. Example: for years and years there seemed to be only one restaurant in the whole of London (it was in Charlotte Street) that had outside tables. People would come back from (smaller and cooler) Oslo, with all its outside eating and drinking, wondering – why? But then during the 1980s and ’90s this weird reticence melted away and we can now enjoy a Costa coffee at almost every stinking traffic intersection. Which is sort of great, actually.



Peter Cook, 1970. Photograph by Kathy de Witt. Courtesy of RIBA Collections

So our small studio has flourished on the back of those wonderful Technical University of Madrid graduates who know about neat details, but can also discuss theatre and landscape and psychology and gossip. Or those brooding toughies from the East – be it Dresden, Bucharest or Lviv – who have a wonderful way of making you feel that you’re an intellectual lightweight if you can’t explain why. Or those cute, work-ethic Chinese who pick up on the quirky aspects  of London faster than a bewildered sixth-former from West Bromwich.

The great Bloomsbury axis of the Bartlett and the AA has become the product of accumulated visions, paranoias, myths and the creative sideways argument that has come from their Greek, Spanish, Russian, German or Chinese students – and the rest. Imagine either of these institutions if they became (as they once were) almost entirely British. Shudder. No, all paths do not lead to Ruskin.

‘Intellectual range, method, discussion and creative manner have been vastly extended, ventilated and refreshed by the presence and embedding of the non-Brits’

So if I venture beyond these personal territories I can surmise that in the worlds of music, theatre, graphics, science, publishing, economics (add some more) there are direct parallels. Intellectual range, method, discussion and creative manner have been vastly extended, ventilated and refreshed by the presence and embedding of the non-Brits. 

If the two identifiable constituencies of Brexit supporters are the Forgotten and the Blimps, are we to blame? Admittedly, venturing outside the Bubble is sometimes uncomfortable, with a disturbing lack of respect for the many who keep the bubbles shiny. How do you explain to an underpaid caretaker in Bradford that the ultimate result of his raised fist and ‘screw them’ tantrum on 23 June may well be that his employer will go bust? With even more difficulty do we face the Blimps with proof that the forgotten world of Great Britain they crave is not only structurally impossible but was actually pretty tedious in reality. I am statistically a Blimp myself – but, funnily enough, I have no illusions about the greyness and narrowness of the years when Britain had four or more battleships but no one eating out in the sunshine.

Architecture is a particularly sensitive reflection of all these things – singing when the world around it sings, dropping when it droops – and so to air my own hobby horse: the self-effacing beige architecture that is the current British mannerism must surely be a premonition of a shy, withdrawn, self-effacing (did I say forgotten?) localism. Assuming there will even be much action left for architects – the signals are already disconcerting as office after office draws back with Brexit-generated nervousness.

Fifty-two per cent of the referendum voters deliberately – even rhetorically – ignored the ‘experts’, yet as we architects grumble at regulations we know deep down that decent buildings rely on myriad experts and accumulated expertise to function. And they can still look and feel good. Even as a non-purist, fiscal adolescent one could foretell the sheer mess and muddle, and that the unravelling involved in the trading, business or ‘activity’ world would be screwed by Brexit. 

For an avowed optimist it is a kick in the stomach as we go back to the lace curtains  and bewildered, polite architecture. Back to the ’50s guys – let’s hope there is another ’60s around the corner.

Lead Image: Hidden City, 2013. Drawing by Peter Cook