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‘Does the nationality of the architect determine the nationality of the building?’


The wretched terminal Ingerlish coalition believes above all else in the dud fiction of Fortress Britannia

Pimms-swilling, striped-blazered, straw-hatted provincial bores; the proud vanguard of gullible chair-lobbing Ingerlandlandland fans with deep furrowed necks and bellies that are assault weapons; the obstinately know-nothing hags of the frumpocracy and their pariah pump preoccupations; assorted xenophobes and racists (‘it’s only bantah – where’s yer sense of humour’); easily led nostalgics (Thatcher, empire, 1945) … This is the wretched terminal Ingerlish coalition which believes above all else in the dud fiction of Fortress Britannia.

It will not, in its profound ignorance, have noted that the actual fortresses which once secured the island’s shores were seldom the work of Ingerlandlanders. The Romans, uninvited immigrants, built considerable defences along the coast from the Wash to Spithead. They pre-empted The Donald by putting a wall across northern England to keep out the notoriously wetback Scots who then as now were different. A fat lot of good it did. Maiden Castle was almost certainly constructed by Celts. Yes – more immigrants! Sly, dark, fleet, cunning. One of the finest views of it is marred by the trite pseudo-village of Poundbury. An infinitely lesser work – but again the ‘vision’ of an immigrant, this time a German on benefits. Is there no end to them?

On the other side of Dorchester lived Thomas Hardy. In 1915 he wrote of: ‘ancient word[s] of local lineage …“Thu bist”, “Er war”, “Ich woll”, “Er sholl”.’ He wrote too of: ‘kin folk kin tongued’. The Pity of It is a lament, controlled obloquy, rather than a call to pacifism. It recognises that nations’ inescapable impurity can no more be undone than virginity can be renewed save by surgeons whose craft is higher than that of accursed politicians, the self-interested authors of the crude artifices called nations and of the conflicts between them. Nationalism is a base concept founded in isolationist dogma rather than in the shared blood or tribal soil it pretends to. It is a chosen ideology, not an inevitability.

‘Internationalism comes and goes. This applies not merely to Britain but to the majority of developed Western countries’

It is difficult to reconcile oneself to over half the population of Britain and Northern Ireland electing, in an excess of nightmarish lemmingness, to opt for a quarantine ship moored in the German Ocean / la Manche / l’Atlantic. Quarantine here means perpetual. To claim that these people are seeking to relive the Dark Ages is a calumny on the Dark Ages: Molière got it wrong when he spoke of ‘an ignorant age of barbarism’. No ingress, no egress. No way in then for dodgy foreign architects with their hilarious side-splitting names: Lawrence Llewellyn-Moron once made great play of Corbusier’s given name being ‘Le’. How the overcoiffed poltroon chortled! Not that the greatest architect of his century ever got to work here. Though he did strenuously grope Betty Cadbury-Brown in The Bride of Denmark. ‘Prince Andrew hands’ are nothing if not internationalist, a manifest of goodwill across borders and generations. Even before the (formerly) UK succumbed to norovirus there were protracted periods when its architecture was specific to it, could not have existed elsewhere.

Internationalism comes and goes. This applies not merely to Britain but to the majority of developed Western countries. Now they are susceptible to foreign idioms and ideas, now they are resolutely impervious to them: the reasons for resistance might include neophobia, a style’s contamination by association, climatic inappropriateness, technical ineptitude, straightforward aesthetic disapproval. It may be more complicated. For instance: Arts and Crafts architecture was a regrettable glory of little England widely admired by visitors from mainland European countries which nonetheless signally failed to imitate or emulate it. One reason was that because Britain had industrialised early, the architectural reaction to that industrialisation was commensurately early, too early for the rest of the continent which was, besides, gripped by Art Nouveau, an ostentatious celebration of the machine’s capabilities rather than of the chisel’s and the adze’s limitations. A further reason is that while the fundamentalist-tendency late Arts and Crafts works of Blunden Shadbolt and Ernest Trobridge might be regarded with startled wonder, they were, like such inexplicable mysteries as mint sauce, overcooked meat, cricket and the Royal Family, best left to les perfides.

‘Arts and Crafts architecture was a regrettable glory of little England widely admired by visitors from mainland European countries’

Burgos is one of the great cities of Castile-León. It is said to be the most Spanish of Spanish cities (whatever that means). Within minutes of my arrival on my first visit when I was 20, it confirmed this notion of ur-Spanishness. We were lost in a suburb of grand 19th-century villas, cedars, albizias and high black-painted metal walls with chevaux de frise. A barely visible door in a metal wall opened screaming faintly. An ancient wizened crone stepped through it. All in black with a black walking stick. I could not believe it. It was straight out of Buñuel, the mise-en-scène, the decor, the fact that the door had no frame and was topped by chevaux de frise. This was a distillation of Spain, which refers to Europe beyond the Pyrenees as ‘the continent’, a politically isolated country that was then a fascist pariah – Franco still had eight years to live. Despite the mass tourism of the Mediterranean coast and the commercialisation of the road to Santiago de Compostela, here was confirmation of Spain’s otherness, its apartness. This illusion endured for all of 15 minutes.

Vignette 2 version 2

Vignette 2 version 2

That’s how long it was before I saw the cat. The unmissable cat. The Cine Avenida was opened in 1934. Its facade comprised Felix the Cat in red low-relief silhouette holding the strings of three ‘balloons’ which were porthole windows. It was a charming, funny, homely jest by the Basque separatist architect, Tomás Bilbao, whose work usually tended to the neo-vernacular. It might have been found just about anywhere in America. With the most specious will in the world it was impossible to persuade oneself that this visual pun (which actually worked) had anything to do with Spanishness, with a murderous regime’s black Catholicism. On to the medieval cathedral for that …

Hooded penitents, scourging, flagellation, sadism, death, darkness, tombs. Yum. Bring ’em on.

But the interior is not like that: it is light, for the walls are perforated. And before you discover it’s not like that you have to come to terms with the exterior being patently not Spanish. It might be French Gothic (Bordeaux), might be German Gothic (Cologne), it might be both (Strasbourg). The cathedral’s stylistic sources do not then apparently mitigate Burgos’s Spanishness. And its architects were, after all, Spanish. They acknowledged neither political borders nor, rather more fluid, cultural borders. Architecture, music and painting can do this because they are not determined by language (in the correct sense of that word, not Charles Jencks’). Chapels and warehouses, villas and garages are not texts which require translation. Does the nationality of the architect determine the nationality of the building? Or is that down to the building’s site? Is dual nationality admissible? Exile and displacement are norms of the past century. Take Ernö Goldfinger’s Daily Worker offices in Clerkenwell. The great architect decreed that it should be furnished with squat toilets, beneficial for the calf and thigh muscles, and more hygienic. After a few weeks in their new billet the comrades had had enough and demanded that they be replaced. Was, then, this building English or Hungarian or merely an expression of international boorishness?

‘Does the nationality of the architect determine the nationality of the building? Or is that down to the building’s site? Is dual nationality admissible? Exile and displacement are norms of the past century’

Lord Palmerston was, after all, perhaps not the most warmongering of prime ministers. Beside the abject Blair he was an absolute beginner. But he was paranoid. Despite, allegedly, coining the phrase l’entente cordiale, he convinced himself that because France had intervened in Italy on the side of Piedmont and Cavour against Austria (Solferino, Magenta), that it might then invade Blighty. This betrays a misunderstanding of Napoleon lll’s vanity, of his obsession with France’s image and of its place in the world, an obsession which preoccupies France’s rulers to this day. He had no intention of attacking the country where, though he evidently didn’t know it, he would eventually seek refuge and where he would die.

Palmerston went on a building spree like no other. The most justly ridiculed of his ‘follies’ are on Portsdown Hill above Portsmouth and just west of that benighted city on the Gosport Peninsula. He can have seen no irony in defending his country against the phantom aggressor France with unmitigatedly French means. The fortresses are unashamedly indebted to Vauban, the greatest of all martial architects, dead for a century and a half when Palmerston’s engineers started to imitate him. Had war not moved on? At the same time the high civilian fashion in Ingerlandland was for ‘Frenchy’ buildings: witness the environs of Victoria Station, the Langham, Brodrick in Scarborough, Waddesdon, Chateau Impney, Clapham Common North, the Bowes Museum, some of them by French architects who were French rather than Francophile – Tronquois, Destailleur.

The International Style of the 1920s and ’30s was pompously prefixed by its champions with the definite article. But it was no more or less international than, say, the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Neoclassical … Sure, these idioms did not achieve equal followings in every country but they are proofs of an unspoken internationalism and free exchange of ideas down the centuries. The International Modernism of, say, Czechoslovakia was not the internationalism of middle-class Ingerlandland. Compare Bata and Frinton, international and parochial, global and local. As Robert Venturi would have it: ‘both … and’.

All illustrations by Jonathan Farr