Jonathan Meades’ defiant defence of Brutalism in his recent BBC4 series is a much needed change from televised architectural travelogues
The clue, of course, is in his curriculum vitae: ‘restaurant critic’. And why not? We do not require a box-ticked chart of technical and professional qualifications, possibly including Masters degrees, for people who want to be architecture critics, or even architectural historians, as maybe they do in Germany and Switzerland. The only criteria are whether you know what you are talking about, and whether you are any good. And Meades is bloody good. His writing, taken alone, can be dyspeptic. But with a context and with a cameraman, or filtered through the medium of an interviewer, or a film producer, he is first rate.
These two programmes are about how the former restaurant critic tastes his architecture. They don’t therefore have to have any particular logic about them: they are about taste, but also timidity.
The opening section of the first programme presents Brutalism as a stage in the progress of the sublime; if Palladians had Baroque ‘monstrosities’ to complain about, and the mid-century British had fleshy Victorian ‘monstrosities’ to demolish, the post-Prince Charles generation of newspaper writers have concrete ‘monstrosities’ in their sights. So down came, for example, Rodney Gordon’s Tricorn Centre and Trinity Square. You are not supposed to feel comfortable with, or even particularly like, a sublime landscape of mountains, rocks or flames, says Meades; so there is no reason why you should feel comfortable with a Brutalist building.
The best of them, he says, are in fact landscapes themselves: we are reminded of it continuously, from the craggy rooftops of Gottfried Böhm’s Neviges pilgrimage church, ever-recurring in this film, to the sublime strata of the Preston bus station from which Meades occasionally emerges.
There is no start or finish to Brutalism: it is the occasional expression of genius. Not all people who called themselves Brutalists were as good as Le Corbusier, or Lasdun, or Goldfinger. The Smithsons were frightful, says Meades. Reyner Banham was ‘credulous’, some kind of lackey of theirs, a modish poseur. I went into the RIBA Library the other day and made the astonishing discovery that everybody in there under the age of 30 was reading about the Smithsons. How did they do it?
The Meades assault on the Smithsons, and, equally but apparently conversely, on the architecture of gentility – Poundbury, and so on – has visual sense if not logic. It is the critique of defiance – that is, of the individual against the organised, and the visual against the literary. It has been a long time since architectural history has been presented in this way, and yet is deemed second nature for art history broadcasting. Simon Schama’s series The Power of Art presented paintings as a series of political, artistic shocks. Compare that with what goes on most of the time with buildings, or ‘builds’ as they are horrendously called on television.
I like property and refurbishment programmes as much as anyone else, but no one could call them ‘architecture’ exactly. No on can call a series on the history of English buildings presented by the amiable David Dimbleby ‘architecture’. It was a travelogue; there was no fight in it. Too many architecture critics are what Meades calls here ‘taxi drivers who write for newspapers’.
There are, of course, occasional one-off films that are very enjoyable. The BBC website is currently offering 26 of them: have a look. The recent programme on Ian Nairn, ‘the man who fought the planners’, is excellent, and very moving: defiant.
That’s the key, I think: defiance. Hence Meades’ sustained attack on the cult of sustainability towards the end of the programmes, for sustainability is nothing to do with architecture as an art: rather, it is too often the artless, bullying puritan’s idea of how a building should be arranged so as to defeat any sense of creativity, a ‘great lie’; it is like talking about the domestic architecture of the early 19th century as if the important bits were the low-key technological advances it incorporated or expressed. Hence too the last words accorded to Owen Luder, the only other voice heard in the course of two hours. And, for the few viewers who recognised him, the meaning of those last words was, of course, ‘sod you’.
Like Meades, we are all Watkinites nowadays – that is, like the author of Morality and Architecture, we don’t see any Hegelian processes going on any more: stuff just happens, sometimes painful emotional stuff.
The fact that Brutalism derived its most powerful forms from the Nazi architecture of Friedrich Tamms doesn’t make it worse. Or better. It is what it is: it does not carry moral undertones. It is a thing, not a determinist instrument. Meades has elsewhere criticised the polished work of British High-Tech architects as ‘art objects’. Yet, as he says here: ‘The form is the thing, the appearance. It always is.’