The new spirit of Modernism

Architecture in the Eighties was showy, ironic, in love with the past, but six bold commissions herald a brilliant future, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
Modern architecture is dead; long live Modern architecture. It would take a researcher more than an academic year to list the number of books, articles, speeches, squibs and sallies that have appeared over the past 20 years nailing Modern architecture into its coffin. News of the death of the new form of white, functional, purist architecture that emerged from Germany, France and the United States at the end of the First World War has, however, long tended to be premature.

As the 20th century draws to a close, it looks as though Modern architecture has not only survived, but thrived against the odds. In 1995, more high- quality Modern architectural projects were commissioned in Britain than ever before.

The list is as impressive and glamorous as it is extensive. It includes the new grandstand at Lord's cricket ground (Nicholas Grimshaw); the Walsall Art Gallery (Caruso St John); the English National Opera's temporary home on the south bank of the Thames (Ian Ritchie); the Tate Gallery of Modern Art (Herzog and de Meuron); and the Earth Centre exhibition hall near Doncaster (Future Systems).

Charles Jencks, the American cultural commentator and grand panjandrum of Post-Modernism, claimed Modern architecture popped its pilotis as long ago as 1971, when a vast block of hideous, prefabricated Bauhaus-inspired apartments (Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago) were dynamited. Thus, enthused Jencks in his epoch-making book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), the old crisp, white, right-angled certainties of the Bauhaus were exhausted. And anathema. Post-Modernism was the new creed. There was no longer any need for architects to believe that architecture should develop along a progressive track. Post-Modernist thinking proposed that the architecture of today should be free-ranging, complex and even contradictory. We were now living in a world where anything went, and the design of buildings was supposed to reflect our cultural confusion and diversity. The new architecture was going to be funky, witty, iconic and, above all, ironic, a cut-and-paste game of historic styles.

It was also an architecture that found its spiritual home in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. New buildings emerging from the offices of American architects such as Michael Graves, Charles More and Thomas Beeby in the Eighties were lurid confections of overblown and brightly coloured, clip- on stylistic details. Outstanding British examples of this essentially American genre include the TV-am building in Camden Town, London (Terry Farrell), Farrell's Alban Gate office block straddling London Wall, John Outram's polychrome pumping station in London's Docklands and the muscle- bound office development known as Canary Wharf.

Developers lapped up the style during the Thatcher-Lawson boom (which went bang, and then phut in 1989). You need only glance at buildings such as 1 America Square in the City of London to capture the spirit of this gung-ho Po-Mo style. The skin-thin, jokey Post-Modern cladding and decoration of such swaggering towers was an ideal match for the ambitions of the Thatcher era. It owed much to Art Deco, the style of corporate America leading up to the Wall Street Crash; a case, clearly, of architectural and economic history repeating itself.

It was all meant to be popular and hugely witty. For the most part, and certainly in the hands of lesser talents, Po-Mo architecture was a monumental bore. Before the end of the Eighties, the jokes had worn as thin as repeats of On the Buses.

The most prestigious commissions of the age went to big boys from across the pond. Fashionable fa-las such as the National Gallery extension in Trafalgar Square and symbols of the new cult of Mammon Unbound such as Canary Wharf were shaped in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The National Gallery extension was named after a superstore chain (very Eighties, very Thatcher) and designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown from Philadelphia. Venturi's influential book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, first published in 1966, had been had been the first shot in the war against Modernism.

The Venturi-Jencks-Thatcher axis was reinforced in Britain by an unlikely ally at the end of the Eighties - the Prince of Wales, who had joined ranks with assorted conservationists, idealists, fogeys, courtiers and opportunists to crucify British Modernism and raise a limp flag in support of a return to traditional (ie, Georgian) architecture. Post-Modernists saw history as a playbox of glittering ornaments and baubles. Prince Charles and the fogeys viewed it as the stuff of eternal aesthetic laws and sacred commandments. Together they manipulated history in an attempt to establish their own world view. Here was the prince canoodling with the showgirl.

The Prince made a television programme, Visions of Britain, at the back end of 1988, in which he told us how appalling Modern architecture was while sat in a boat with cowed and bewildered courtiers who hung on every regal apercu. The Prince knew how to influence his public: his camera pointed only at the worst excesses of home-spun Modernism.

At first the Prince (who did much to encourage architectural debate in the British media) was half-persuaded by the Venturi effect and dallied with Post-Modern classicists. He lent his weight to such monstrous carbuncles as the scheme to overshadow St Paul's cathedral with porky office blocks dressed in comic-book Yankee costumes. This, the Paternoster Square scheme, was put on ice during the recession. It has re-emerged, but the City of London is known to be unhappy with its insensitive design.

The Prince set up an institute for the study of traditional architecture and launched a magazine, Perspectives, aimed at encouraging the public's interest in the same issues. Despite two inspiring editors Perspectives, with a circulation of less than 8,000, has failed to capture the public imagination (perhaps it is too earnest). Meanwhile, the Institute of Architecture has floundered as directors have come and gone at Charles's whim.

But alongside the decline of Post-Modernism as an architectural style and the lacklustre revival of traditional architecture has been the steady rise of the talents of architects, the young and the established, who have continued to believe in the notion of progress. Even Perspectives treats these with respect. These commissions stem to a large degree from the change in the British economy that has pushed investment away from office blocks and towards cultural institutions. Those who commission art galleries tend to be fans of the new, while those who commission corporate buildings tend to look back over their shoulders or across the Atlantic.

The architectural horoscope for 1996 promises great opportunities for these late-flowering Moderns, providing they keep their nerve. Many have, rising to the pinnacle of their profession. Sir Norman Foster (b 1937) and Sir Richard Rogers (b 1935) lead the knightpack of star British Moderns. Their work owes little or nothing to the bland junk that was built in the name of Modern architecture between the Fifties and Eighties. Instead, they have soared into the international stratosphere, their approach to design matching Britain's much admired hi-tech engineering in the field of aerospace, motor-racing, and computer and materials technology. Much of their work during theEighties was abroad, notably in France, Germany and Japan, where the best contemporary architecture is encouraged and where there is no split between those who love history and those who look optimistically ahead.

Big-league Modernists have had their share of failures, but what shines through is their refusal to give in to the ironic reference or the gratuitous nod to history. Instead, they have made use of history in new ways. Rogers' Lloyd's Building (1979-86) owes as much to Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851) as it does to Eighties technology. The celebrated new Waterloo International Terminal by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners harks back to the great curved Victorian train shed at York; yet it is also a brilliant frame for the 300km/h Eurostar trains that unfurl from beneath its sensual roof.

In the wake of these architects a new breed of British and Moderns and European Moderns working in Britain is emerging. Not only are sophisticated clients coming out of the buoyant cultural sector of the economy, but a much wider public than ever before has not just come to terms with good modern architecture, but has learnt to like it. Many more people have travelled abroad and witnessed the explosion of brave new architecture in cities such as Paris, Nimes, Barcelona, Seville, Berlin and Antwerp. They have seen that Modern architecture at its best is far removed from the concrete and steel junk imposed on British towns and cities in the Fifties and Sixties.

This year, for example, has seen Zaha Hadid confirmed as architect of the Cardiff Bay Opera House. It has witnessed the Swiss Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron triumph at the Tate with their plans to transform Bankside Power Station on the Thames opposite St Paul's into a powerhouse of modern art. Perhaps even more important, it is the year that Adam Caruso and Peter St John won the competition to design the new Walsall art gallery.

Caruso St John design beautiful, yet austere buildings; concerned with the fundamentals of architecture rather than in applied decoration and gratuitous dips into the Pandora's box of history. The fact that such a refined, youthful and robust Modern building should emerge in the physical heart of England is symbolic of the turn of the architectural tide, away from whimsy and towards essential beauty.

Zaha Hadid's challenging design for the Cardiff Bay Opera house was very nearly spiked by a mean-minded conspiracy of local businessmen and volatile politicians. They have failed, and what will prove to be one of the most dramatic and operatic new British buildings is due to rise by the turn of the century; a building that has its own special and stirring aesthetic.

At the same time, pounds 50m of lottery money is being pumped into the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside. Although the giant gallery is to an extent a glorious compromise (the shell of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's heroic temple of power survives, much of it untouched), the interior will be a refined and uplifting example of new Modernism at its undiluted best.

Other, more established, architects such as Ian Ritchie, Rick Mather, Alsop & Stormer and Future Systems (Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levette) are winning significant commissions, too. Ritchie has designed an intriguing temporary opera house for the south bank of the Thames, near Tower Bridge; Mather is hard at work on a cornucopia of cultural commissions, including remodelling the National Maritime Museum, the Wallace Collection and the Dulwich Picture Gallery; Future Systems is busy designing, of all things, a new "media centre" for Lord's cricket ground (the buffish MCC is perhaps the most surprising of the new patrons of Modern architecture) as well as the main exhibition hall for the Earth Centre, an ecological showcase funded through the Millennium Commission outside Doncaster. Alsop & Stormer, architects of "le Grand Bleu" (the show-stealing new local government headquarters in Marseilles) have proposed moving the Institute of Contemporary Arts from its Regency home in The Mall to a dramatic bridge across the Thames.

Now that the last of the architects capable of building honourably in traditional styles are all dead (Francis Johnson, the Yorkshire classicist, was the last - he died this year), we need this new breed of Moderns to nurture an approach to architecture that mirrors the best in British design. Where architects such as Francis Johnson gave us true 18th-century construction, style and values and as late as the 1990s (in a number of beautifully refined and restrained country houses in the north of England) so Foster, Rogers and Grimshaw at one end of the spectrum, Ritchie, Mather and Alsop in the middle and Zaha Hadid, Caruso St John, Herzog and de Meuron at the other, represent the best of contemporary British design and engineering in architectural guise.

Where Post-Modernism was a roundabout leading nowhere and the latest Classical revival has been a cultural dead end, new forms of radically energised Modernism offer the glimmer of a likeable, workable and, above all, glamorous architecture for the next century.