Peter York On Ads: Vinnie Jones is no longer welcome at this party
Sunday 06 August 2006
Does architecture shape behaviour? Would you be a better person if you lived in a lovely humanely Modernist place in, say, Stockholm? Not so English, not so lardy, altogether more rational. There's a whole subculture of architecture and planning that debates all this constantly.
Jane Jacobs's 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, gave everyone pause about the dangerous combination of Corbusier-ish Radiant City public housing and brutal private developments in inner cities. Jacobs said they had both lost the plot of relating buildings to people and their expectations with terrible effects.
A huge disorienting estate with no familiar features - the doors-and-windows "face"of traditional architecture - or a street lined by blank blocks with no overlooking windows, she argued, encouraged crime and social breakdown. And the people who'd been experimented on with all this planning change were the seriously poor - people with chaotic lives and no resources.
David Watkin's Architecture and Morality was a classic of 1980s militant neoconservatism. Crazed architectural ideologies - not frozen music but frozen manifestos - had made the world a worse place was the Watkins argument. It was focused more on the postwar horrors of socialist planning - or that was how it was read in Keith Joseph country, as another argument to keep the state out of planning and housing. Let Bovis and Lawrie Barratt deal with all that. (Mrs T's former house on Barratt's Dulwich estate - apparently she never actually spent a night there - is an architecturally-illiterate, meanly-rendered, lash-up of a gated compound. So what have the comfortable middle-class residents done to deserve it?
As you fly into Berlin, you go over miles of huge grey square blocks built round yards. They're not prisons or barracks: they're worker housing built to an essentially 19th-century plan by 20th-century Communists. If you had lived there you'd have wanted to drive your Trabi to the other side for ever in 1989.
But before anyone feels too triumphalist, go and look at the Tory alternative. Organise a day trip from London to "Chelsea Harbour" (if that's Chelsea, then I live in Dagenham), another gated compound, over-subscribed by the mature Tory New Rich (Michael Caine et al) and broadly patterned after a New Jersey estate for retired dentists. Then go and look at some of the Bongo Free Enterprise new apartment blocks on the riverside round there.
But is there a housing template that lifts the spirit and encourages cooperative civilisation, a sort of John Lewis Partnership of planning? Dr Muthesius, that thoughtful, 19th-century German, saw it in the English Suburban House tradition and encouraged a mass of high-minded middle-class Germans and Swiss to live in Arts and Craftsy Voysey-ish houses.
We never really returned the compliment. But what really makes Haussmann Paris and masses of wannabe 19th-century European cities (count in places like Buenos Aires and old New York too) are the bourgeois blocks of flats. Elegant, comfortable - they're the successful democratisation of urban luxury. (We tried it weedily in Britain with the Edwardian mansion blocks - Edgware Road and Albert Hall Mansions - but the idea didn't survive the First World War.)
Just such a gorgeous Euro block, somewhere in Latin Europe, is the star of the beautiful new Bacardi commercial. It celebrates Beauty, and The Elements. I don't imagine that's exactly how they pitched the idea to the client, but it's how it turned out.
A gang of mainly youngish, arty-ish Biennale-crowd types move higher and higher up a palace block, to drink to the ochre-red setting sun. They start as two on one delicious balcony, and they multiply as they troop through sun-dappled panelled rooms and on to the great stone stairs with their gloriously curly balustrades, up to the roof, where in the final frame what looks like one of a middle-aged Almodóvar gay couple ("Carlos and Antonio have been together since 1968") lifts up the other to catch the light.
Bacardi wasthe former advertising home of Vinnie Jones and Latin American dominatrices, parent of the Breezer (the beverage most sicked up by under-age girls on a night out in Nottingham city centre) and a brand once heading as precipitously down market as the Burberry check. So getting thoroughly nice young world citizens behaving well together in a beautiful building in prime Old Europe hasn't come a moment too soon.
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