All style and no conscience

Many architects today design Modernist delights for the rich, forgetting that their predecessors cared more about the poor. Jonathan Glancey argues for the return of Britain's commitment to building palaces for the people
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Che Guevara lived (he was fighting General Barrientos in Bolivia); the Beatles were laying down Sergeant Pepper; Oz was laying out its "Special Tax Evasion" issue; Free London (a guide to how to beat the system and get everything you needed in the capital for nothing) was being stacked on the shelves of alternative bookshops; the ICA was preparing its (like, wow!) "Cybernetic Serendipity" show; "Merchant Navy" and "Battle of Britain" Pacifics still steamed west from Waterloo.

The spring of 1967 was a delightful season to be setting out on the road to freedom, music, art, revolution and O-levels: this tantalising new world in balance with the nursery certainties of steam expresses and their promise of crab sandwiches and Cornish beaches.

To any youngster who was beginning, that spring, to be fascinated by the possibilities of modern architecture and design, yet five years off discovering Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture (Towards a New Architecture), the event to look forward to was an exhibition of new furniture and "living environments" at Maples, the big furniture shop at the top of Tottenham Court Road in London. At the time, Maples was among the most fashionable shops . Its spring show, heralded by enticing adverts pasted throughout the London Underground network, ran for six glorious months and introduced Londoners and visitors to the capital to a kooky new world of "Trip Boxes", inflatable chairs, cardboard furniture and all sorts of mind-expanding, happening, trippy, zany "installations", "environments" and design.

Meanwhile, idealistic young architects sat at their drawing boards in local authority offices and made plans for public housing that had space for Maple dreams. To be a hip new Modern in 1967 meant thinking of how everyone could live in a trippy, liberating "environment". The new forms were not reserved for those hanging out in chic and Sloaney art galleries, but for those about to be settled in brave new megastructural housing estates from Telford to Thamesmead.

Peter Cook, Ron Heron and the spirited young architects who formed Archigram (the nearest the world of architecture has come to creating a pop group) dreamt of clip-on, plug-in, right-on cities of the future.

By 1967, Archigram had shaped, in a long-playing series of visionary drawings, cities that walked and Space Age homes that offered the wonders of the Modern and future world to everyone that wanted to take part. And, in 1967, the British came closer than perhaps at any time to expressing an interest in wanting this new world; 1967 was the year (look up back copies of Social Trends) when ordinary British people began to be able to buy fridges, rent their own private telephone lines and fill the front room with daring brown and orange three-piece suites paid for on the "never- never".

The dream of truly Modern living never became a reality (except for those with wealth or a fecund imagination). Yet, what mattered in 1967 and appears not to matter now as a new generation of architects aims, increasingly successfully, at creating truly modern buildings and interiors for millennium Britain, is the everyday experience of everyday people. Most of all, at a time when, almost without exception, the best young architects are working feverishly on the design of art gallery after art museum after art gallery, housing has become not just a side issue, but an irrelevance. Not only are today's best architects removed from designing homes for those with little money, but they appear to be little interested in doing so. Inevitably, architects' interests tend to be dictated by the nature of the commissions available to them. In 1967, while Che Guevara was taking on La Paz (and, thus, Washington) and Maples was wowing us with new ideas, architects were designing housing, from council estates to student halls of residence. They made mistakes, as we know to our cost; yet what mattered was that homes and housing mattered. This century, many of the finest new British buildings have been not country piles for the rich, but homes for those who have toiled and spun to create the capital that the rich are now using to build a new generation of museums and art galleries.

The work of young, turn-of-the-century London County Council architects, nurtured by the writings and lectures of John Ruskin and William Morris was (and remains) as elegant as it was when built. What these young Turks designed were (in the case of at least one estate in west London) palaces for the people. The Modern Movement, which arrived in Britain from Europe late, watered down and carrying a tiny stick, took several of its radical tenets from the idealism of those young LCC architects. Their work had been much admired on the continent, and in particular by those, like Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus, the engine-house of the early Modern Movement) for whom the new look was not reserved for a fashionable elite, but in the service of everyone. Some of the first and best buildings spawned by the Bauhaus were a celebration of beautiful white houses designed for Berlin workers.

As we in Britain approach the turn of the century, we see vast sums of lottery money being doled out to arts projects of every sort. While this is more or less a good thing, the whole question of housing and how we might live as a nation has been swept aside. Who cares for the homeless, the poor or those living in shabby housing in deregulated EuroBritain plc, a country where everything we hold in common (every building that matters, starting with the Royal Naval College, Greenwich) can be flogged off to help build up the pension funds of inept management.

Meanwhile, the British landscape is being smothered by tawdry middle- class housing, chosen from homebuilders' catalogues and plonked across the country in a miasma of cul-de-sacs, without so much as a glimpse of architectural intelligence.

What we could do for the millennium, and perhaps what we should do, is to build new homes that are beautiful, modern, sophisticated, intelligent and within reach of those whom we have consigned to the basement and sewers of our national culture. While bright young architects design yet another minimalist playpen for a divorced millionaire housewife or a severe, white gallery to house the fa-las of collectable young artists, they might think of how they might once again reconcile the excitement of what is bright and new (the spirit of Maples, 1967) with a reborn political conscience.

No one is asking New Modern architects to take physical risks (or any risk at all really), yet in adopting the forms of the early Modern Movement and applying them solely to a chic and glamorous world carried on the backs of those, increasingly disenfranchised British "customers" (citizens are a dying breed), who live in trashy housing, our best young architects are in danger of being merely decadent when we should want them to be concerned and creative.

Comments