Architecture: Which building should you hate most?

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What makes a good building? Can there really be rules by which we can tell a good building from a bad one? Why do architectural experts pour scorn on the popular Marco Polo building in Battersea while paying lip service to the austere Economist buildings in St James's? Sherban Cantacuzino, outgoing secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC), has stuck his head above the pediment to tell us why.

What Makes a Good Building? is a booklet commissioned from the RFAC by Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, a refined and scholarly attempt to lay down fundamental guidelines by which we can judge the quality of new buildings.

Without Cantacuzino's help, most people can recognise a good building, as long as it was built before the First World War. But blind or indifferent to the architecture of our own times - good and bad - the British appear happy to watch as their country is submerged in a tide of tacky superstores, executive homes, motorway architecture and fast-buck office blocks, while complaining when new buildings of real quality are proposed.

Over the past decade, however, British architects have been designing well; worldwide, their reputation is among the highest. Yet they are still under attack. Developers can get away with superstores while intelligent architects are beaten down for suggesting the tiniest modern house extension.

What we need now, perhaps more than ever, are easy-to-recognise and easy-to-follow guidelines on what makes a good building. Cantacuzino's primer identifies good and bad by making a number of comparisons between modern buildings.

This is the technique that the influential Victorian architect Augustus Northmore Welby Pugin (1812- 52) used to attack the Neo-Classical architecture of his day, which he so hated. Pugin's Contrasts, however, was a pugilistic tome, bristling with invective and barbed with wit. Inevitably, he made enemies; but he did make architects and the public think. Gothic became the rage as Neo-Classicism faded out.

Compared with Pugin, Cantacuzino is cool and measured, his prose courtly. He teaches rather than preaches. If he fails to win over a popular audience this will be because, for the most part, he directs our eyes at rarefied buildings in precious settings that mean little to most people.

He asks us, for example, to enter the portals of Downing College, Cambridge. Here he takes Quinlan Terry, the pop Classicist, to task for his historically incorrect Howard Building because it denies the spirit of William Wilkins' Neo-Classical college buildings of the 1820s. And here he praises the Senior Combination Room and Hall designed in the Sixties by Bill Howell (of Howell Killick Partridge & Amis), a structurally explicit reworking of Wilkins' Neo-Classicism.

Cantacuzino seems unable to leave Cambridge alone; other buildings discussed include examples at Trinity, Clare and Emmanuel colleges (Lord St John of Fawsley, Master of Emmanuel College, is chairman of the RFAC). The worst building he illustrates, and the only truly horrid building in the book, is the Holiday Inn in . . . Cambridge.

The problem here is that few members of the British public will be concerned with the plight of the poor darlings of Downing College having to cope with the proportional peccadilloes of Terry's pretty, chocolate-box building. It is, after all, unlike the local superstore, beautifully built in Ketton stone. Better Terry than Tesco.

Even if he has chosen remote targets, Cantacuzino's argument is instructive. 'An informed eye,' he says, 'knows which is a good building. By an informed eye is meant an eye which can 'read' the plan and section of a building and which, in looking at a completed building, can understand its organisation, function and construction.

'A building is a totality', says Cantacuzino. 'It is much more than its external look. Its facade must not only address the street or square in front of it, but also bear some relation to the plan and section which lie behind it.' It must also be appropriate to its function in every way.

Palladio churches - San Giorgio Maggiore or Il Redentore in Venice, for example - are cited as perfect marriages of plan, form, function, structure, setting and symbolism. The Marco Polo building is bad not least because, according to Cantacuzino, it monumentalises 'the mundane activity of office work'.

One knows from the tone of this chaste book that the author despises the licorice allsort architecture that, despite the increasing number of good buildings designed in Britain over the past decade, characterises our age. Cantacuzino sides unashamedly with Igor Stravinsky (in turn paraphrasing Leonardo): 'The more art is limited, worked over, the more it is free . . . strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom . . . far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it down to one's descendants.' Where, at Downing College, Terry repeats history, Howell has transformed an heirloom and made it bear fruit.

Yet Cantacuzino does not mean to encourage order at the expense of variety or, as he puts it, 'contrast, dissonance and even counterpoint'. To argue for these, he says, is not a recipe for mish-mash vernacular styles, the Marco Polo building or Quinlan Terry. We have only to stop off at Lavenham (on our way from London to Cambridge?) to see how intelligent architectural contrasts can work: 'The Market Square at Lavenham has every architectural style, material and method of construction and is marvellous because it was built by people who had good judgement and confidence in it.'

The RFAC's booklet should be acquired by planning departments, aspiring architects and those who want to think about buildings more astutely than we are encouraged to do in the country of rampant suburban architecture. There is still a need for a more populist book on the same lines. But if you must have a quick answer to the question 'What makes a good building?' then simply remember the oldest and wisest advice on the subject. To Vitruvius, the influential Roman architect, a good building possessed three essential qualities; these he summed up as utilitas, firmitas, venustas. Or, if you do not have the Latin, commodity, firmness and delight.

'What makes a good building?' is published by the Royal Fine Art Commission at pounds 9.95.

(Photograph omitted)