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An outsider’s outsider

Jonathan Glancey devours a deliciously acute collection of essays, articles, and TV scripts by Jonathan Meades

Here’s a literary eyecatcher: a brick of a book composed of 54 articles, essays, lectures and ‘squibs’ published in newspapers and magazines, together with six TV scripts dating from 1993 and paid for by a list of 482 subscribers. Why would so many people be willing to spend up-front on a book they haven’t read, except perhaps in snatches over the years? What is Museum Without Walls about?

According to the author, the subjects here are ‘the cross-party tradition of governmental submission to the construction industry; architectural epiphanies − Marsh Court, Arc-et-Senans, l’Unité d’Habitation’s roof; what to do with Anglican churches; Hadid and Legorreta; the folly of pedestrianisation; the hierarchy of building types; Birmingham’s beauty; Bremen and the Hanseatic League; the futile vanity of “landmark” buildings; why buildings are better unfinished; the congruence of the 1860s and 1960s; Letchworth’s dreary legacy; the chasm between Hitler’s architecture and Stalin’s; the regeneration gravy train; the picturesque as an English disease; shopping malls; the Isle of Sheppey; the Isle of Rust; the Dome and domes; post-war churches; Pevsner and Nairn.’

More succinctly, this Pandora’s box of a book is about place. Jonathan Meades is a lively, inventive and pugnacious writer who follows in an English literary tradition that, sweeping up Ian Nairn, John Betjeman and Charles Dickens along the way, takes us back to William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, an excoriating description of a newly industrialised England published in 1830 when it was commonplace for books to be paid for by subscription. ‘All Middlesex is ugly’, thundered Cobbett as he rode by the latest architect-designed Neo-Classical villas built for the newly rich on the fringes of London.

Meades reminds me more than a little of Cobbett. A distinctively dressed gentleman pugilist, a prodigious source of strident −if well informed − opinions, a memorable turn of phrase, a certain fearlessness and a public persona, seen to diverting advantage in his crafted television documentaries, best described as ‘posh bovver’. These particular words are from a review of Meades’ book of horribly compelling short stories, Filthy English, published in 1993.

Now, a word of caution. While Meades is a gifted writer on place − ‘the roof of l’Unité [d’habitation, where the writer lives] is a transcendent work: it is as though Odysseus is beside you. In a few gestures it summons the entirety of the Mediterranean’s mythic history’ − he has never sought to curry favour with, much less woo, living architects. In fact, he holds the architectural profession in scorn. This is partly because, as an outsider’s outsider himself, Meades believes the best architects have always been artists, writers, playwrights, soldiers, set designers and watch engravers, before they turned to concrete and stone (he revels in the work of Michelangelo, Inigo Jones, Vanbrugh, Lutyens and Le Corbusier), but especially because, in his opinion − based on extensive travels in Britain and abroad − the majority of architects born of Modernism have no intrinsic understanding of place, and, as demonstrated by some 90 per cent of modern buildings, care little for it.

‘Appointing architects to conceive places rather than just sticking to buildings’, writes Meades, ‘is like appointing foxes to advise on chicken security, like getting Hamas to babysit a kibbutz.’ Modern architects dream up utopias and design individual buildings in splendid isolation, each a masterpiece in their creator’s mind, yet without the slightest nod to the notion of place. Meades quotes Harry Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959), the English architect, writer and musician who did so much to encourage an intelligent engagement with High, or ‘ugly’, Victorian architecture when this was generally despised by iconoclastic young Moderns.

‘The modern architectural drawing is interesting, the photograph is magnificent; the building is an unfortunate but necessary stage between the two.’ To makes matters worse for those who prize a sense of place above a clutter of disconnected ‘masterpieces’, today’s ‘dismal’ profession is supported slavishly by the architectural press which, in Meades’ belief, is ‘little more than a deferential PR machine operated by sycophants whose tongue can injure duodenums’. He is, perhaps surprisingly, soft on Zaha Hadid; he sees her, I think, as one of the company of brilliant outsiders he so admires, architects who have changed the way we see and experience buildings.

When the noise and fury abate, the author is a sensitive writer and especially on the very towns and places he feels have been overlooked by modern development and so in danger of being ‘regenerated’ by cohorts of professional architects in search of commissions and media coverage. ‘The only town in the Cotswolds that attracts me’, he writes, ‘is Stroud where the tyranny of oolitic limestone is ruptured by brick and slate.’

It is easy to see why Clive James, the lucid Australian critic and broadcaster, has labelled Meades ‘an educated upstart who not only doesn’t know his place, but knows far more than his allotted share about all the other places’. Even then, and although his preference is for lively and even ugly buildings over professional genteelism − better Vanbrugh, Butterfield or the Brutalists than neo-modernism or even Christopher Wren (‘Classicism is always with us. Like the poor? No, although poverty of the imagination is frequently its paramount characteristic’) − Meades’ eye roves licentiously over buildings and places he loves and loathes. ‘Everything is interesting.

There is no such thing as a boring place’, he proclaims, echoing the sentiments of John Betjeman, a one-time Assistant Editor of the AR and, decades later, Poet Laureate, who was often judged ‘superficial’ by professional architects; and yet Betjeman remains one of the most illuminating and haunting writers on place: ‘Nowhere in England is dull’, he wrote, ‘not even on a wet day.’No page in Museum without Walls is dull, none damp or soggy, even if many architects will feel their blood pressure rising should they choose to open these pages, these highly-charged rants underpinned by a dazzling display of wordplay that, however expressed, are ultimately concerned with an abiding sensibilifor easily ruptured places.

Museum Without Walls

Author: Jonathan Meades

Publisher: Unbound

Price: £18.99


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