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Review: Brits who Built the Modern World

‘Five are Together Again:’ The BBC identified Michael Hopkins, Nicholas Grimshaw, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Terry Farrell as the ‘big five’ of British architecture, while Patty Hopkins was photoshopped out of a photograph shown on the programme

In 1977 the rarely mentioned Salute to British Genius exhibition, staged in Battersea Park, celebrated a history of national inventiveness. It was my Festival of Britain, and focused more on the scientific side of things − the engineering of Brunel and Paxton − than on the arts, but banged a militaristic drum for what the country had given the world through an Empire on which the sun might only set 20 years later with the ‘handover’ (aka ‘return’) of Hong Kong. This exhibition was no tonic to the nation; if anything, it bemoaned the parlous state in which the country found itself. At around the same time, British architects with the same spirit of invention had to look abroad for places and clients that would embrace their way of thinking.

Alongside Battersea Park, and further up the river in Hammersmith, the respective HQs of Lords Foster and Rogers have since continued a Great British tradition of cultural colonialism − or so the recent BBC4 three-part series and current RIBA exhibition might lead one to believe but with insufficient reference to this crucial and earlier part of the history of their practices. The BBC skirts around the seminal RA exhibition on Foster, Rogers and Stirling, where the RIBA, to its credit, elects to include the 1986 BBC clip in which neither Rogers nor Foster, men of (different) passion, manages to disguise his frustration at being the subject of an exhibition at the heart of a country that appears not to be supporting his vision.

Crystal Palace

“If the Crystal Palace had survived it might have become a national icon, much as the Eiffel Tower did in France.”Delamotte’s Crystal Palace , 2005, p.12

Yet where the TV series uses its medium to be as much about the personalities as the products of their vision, ambition and talent, the RIBA exhibition is a much less passionate affair. The latter is dense, unfolding what feels like a book on every available surface, to produce what the curator Mike Althorpe refers to as ‘legible walls’. At its heart is the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank model, but you may find as I did that the real jewel in the crown is the much smaller competition model for the Pompidou Centre.

One wonders, had Stirling survived to this day, whether this series and exhibition would not have chosen to revisit those three men. As the BBC rightly identifies, where in other professions such a survey could be expected to investigate the legacy of (near and) octogenarian men, architecture and the energy of the people themselves have ensured that this is as much about what they continue to achieve in building the future today, as it is about the past. And they are men; an early attempt by the BBC at highlighting the importance of Patty Hopkins fails to be developed convincingly, and is not helped by what feels like a predictable focus on how she was the most attractive female student at the AA (certainly to Michael − yet there’s nothing here about the undeniable charisma, charm or presence of people like Rogers and Foster).

The BBC goes further by keeping her very much at home − even if that home is utterly unconventional, and arguably one of the finest and most exquisite buildings to appear in this series. The RIBA, despite awarding husband and wife the Gold Medal jointly, leaves her at home too, while its ‘Global Views’ are contributed by five men.

Equally, however, when asked at the recent RIBA/Radio 3 discussion what moving to London at the start of the Swinging Sixties meant to her, Patty spoke of her shift (the dress, not the change of approach). We are all the product of our times, and this is something that the TV series touches upon by presenting us with a glimpse of each boys’ own Second World War and postwar childhood (Meccano, Dan Dare and the Eagle comics, and the impact of austerity on one’s way of thinking about the ‘stuff’ of life), but fails to acknowledge the significance of National Service − in particular of Norman Foster’s time in the RAF Engineersʼ Corps.

Such omissions may be understandable, but are not excusable, especially when the series opens with Foster’s Spaceport looking for all the world like a part of the New Mexico desert about to take off, clips of Norman as pilot, and when the BBC itself was responsible for the excellent Building Sights series almost 20 years ago, that not only showed Zaha gliding up the steps of the Willis building, but Foster choosing a jumbo jet as his favourite ‘building’.

Dan Dare

The generation of Brits whose work featured in the show was forged in the era of white heat, Dan Dare and the Post Office Tower

Engineering and engineers have always been fundamental to the architecture of Foster, Rogers, Hopkins and Grimshaw, and the series gives no shortage of airtime to engineers (predominantly Arup, identified as the go-to engineers for these ‘High Techies’, although other engineers are available − sadly, Tony Hunt only gets a brief look in) in confirming the seamlessness of the best collaborations. This is Foster’s term for what has ironically often resulted in open if beautiful welds on so many of the buildings featured; where the BBC fails to be godlike is in some of the detail − identifying Roger Ridsdill Smith only as a former Arup employee, when he is now a Senior Partner of Foster, a fact that is surely the most powerful symbol of how these architects work. Julia Barfield is not identified as a former employee of both Rogers and Foster, although she gets to make this critical point herself.

The series and the exhibition focus on Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, Grimshaw − and Farrell. Where, you might ask, is Terry in all this (although I’m not talking about Quinlan, who rightly appears in the RIBA show)? One understands Farrell’s significance in terms of the early association with the mischievous Grimshaw, the only one of this Famous Five not to wear his personality on his feet at the RIBA discussion (grey rather than coloured socks − I’m not going to be so predictable as to talk about what Patti wore) who emerges as the most likeable of the lot.

We learn of how Farrell too, for different reasons, was left out in the cold and had to look abroad for work, but one doesn’t feel the slightest sympathy for his apostasy − embracing Postmodernism over High-Tech, terms that seem only to be of import to him, and to the ubiquitous Charles Jencks − and, one presumes, to the other Charles. The Rudeness of Prince Charles and his talk of ‘monstrous carbuncles’ (the BBC wrongly associate this with Rogers, who does well to right their wrong) is well excavated, but more to remind us of who clearly won that debate (‘The Prince does not debate’ quoth the Palace).

This series and exhibition cannot escape such labels or brands, and try too hard to suggest and at their most feeble rely on ‘The Big Five’ which, to my mind, only conjures up dangerous game on a continent that doesn’t appear in the TV series. At the start of the RIBA exhibition, Africa does get a look in, but its sun apparently sets in the 1950s. And so, on visiting and revisiting the exhibition (because it’s worth it), we realise how what we have been watching or viewing is only a small part of a much bigger, more global, story.

Look at what China is doing in Africa, and how in some ways, seamless collaboration or otherwise, the way that these Fabulous Four (Farrell comes across as the joker of the pack, where the others are super-heroes) are working, is also a product of their time. There are ‘other ways of doing architecture’, as Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till will tell you, and maybe that work in the here and now is a glimpse into a more sustainable future than the vision of the future that these architects at their best ever managed to build.

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