It is unlikely Britain’s entry will alter an exchange of ideas – but it is bound to have its effect in the practical sphere of performance
Originally published in AR January 1973, as the preface to the Preview ’73 issue, this piece was republished online in June 2016, shortly after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union
With one or two notable exceptions, England’s contribution to European civilisation has been literary rather than visual. Her poetry, drama and fiction is, arguably, the richest in the world and it is no exaggeration to say that British social and political theory has profoundly influenced the course of European history. In visual matters the reverse has generally been true, even if the British have always made the imported style peculiarly their own. It is only in the last 100 years that a significant cross-fertilisation has taken place, first with the British lead in the breakaway from 19th-century eclecticism and later with the influence of the European modernists, themselves a product of that breakaway, on British architecture in the ‘30s. The process has continued since the war with the export to Europe of British town-planning theory, school construction programmes and, more recently, ideas in the field of conservation and ecology. In the realm of formal ideas the New Brutalism was probably the only post-war European movement of more than national significance. In return Britain has learnt much from continental practice which has often been ahead in its application of planning theory.
So far we have used the term ’Europe’ in its widest sense. The fact that this issue of the AR commemorates Britain’s entry into the Common Market and that it is restricted, as the title clearly states, to Britain and the Six (omitting Denmark and Eire who are also joining the Community) should in no way invalidate this wider meaning. It is in any case unlikely that Britain’s entry will make the slightest difference to an exchange of ideas which has no need of economic or political treaties to flourish. But entry is bound to have its effect in the practical sphere of performance. Since 1970, when one-quarter of all overseas commissions went to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, the British share of European work has risen steadily. The 1972 RIBA census of architectural practices, showing a significant swing away from Commonwealth to European countries, confirms this trend.
In recent years British architectural expertise has won several international competitions and this has certainly stimulated European interest in British architecture. But the real reasons for British success so far lie mainly in three directions. First, there are the special skills which this country can offer and which are lacking in various degrees throughout Europe. The ones that come most readily to mind are town planning, school and hospital design, and landscape architecture. Second, there is the nature of the service offered by the more efficient British firms which comprises full working details and takes complete charge of the work; and third, there is the fact that British firms benefit from the high professional standards demanded by the RIBA, whose reputation stands high abroad. In his article on the status and professional organisation of architects, Arthur Lindsay provides some interesting comparisons between Britain and the Six.
Yet when we turn from performance and material success to the quality of the environment as a whole, it is no disparagement of the buildings illustrated in this issue to admit that Architecture - using deliberately the big A - is not in a flourishing condition. The principles of the Modern Movement may have become generally accepted, but, as realised, they have not brought that humanisation of the environment which was their most attractive promise. There are two main reasons for this. First, there is the question of building size and, still more, of project size. Vast buildings and vast projects, whether housing estates, hospitals, industrial plants or schools are characteristic of the present. They take a long time to build causing great weariness among their designers; they tend to convert the whole project into an exercise of management rather than of design; and they produce an environment which is overpowering and monotonous. The people who are going to occupy them have little if any say in their design. Is their size either necessary or desirable?
Second, there is the question of technology. One of the prime reasons for the dilution of architectural intentions is the fact that the architect of this generation has had to carry a tremendous load of technical and scientific data. Whether he has attemped to discharge these new responsibilities himself, or whether he has had recourse to the growing army of people who specialise in these fields, the result has been that the great human issues affecting the use of buildings have been overshadowed by the technical issues. Are architects using the industrial tool in a way which is consistent with the objective of creating a unique and memorable setting? Would they do better to make more use of a sophisticated handpowered craftsmanship and less use of mass production for the parts of buildings which are seen? Granted that the growth in the technical content of building is closely related to our reckless use of natural resources, is there not a strong prima facie case for reducing this load and for making buildings technically more simple?
These we believe are the questions which need to be answered if we are to see the re-humanisation of architecture in our time. The enlarged European Community will give its architects greater opportunities of joining together to examine the forces-formal, technical, economic and social-which bear on architects everywhere and which are exerting such an unfavourable effect on design and practice. The AR welcomes Britain’s de jure entry into Europe, if not with fanfares, at least with a genuine enthusiasm without which, in Emerson’s words, ‘nothing great was ever achieved’.