Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Independent England: English Architecture for England

I'm not a fan of progressive, modernist architecture. It's not that I think it's all ugly and has no place at all - some of it (not nearly enough) is quite decent; even attractive in a brutal way. They have their place and their place is in the New World cities of America and Australia. One place this style of architecture should never be seen is, however, in England.

Whether it's the depressing "modernist" architecture of Le Corbusier (which dated faster than platform shoes) or the more recent avant garde work of Richard Rogers, it always looks utterly incongruous when inserted into the English landscape. You can also be certain that - after a relatively short time - they will look tired, dated and depressing.

English architecture was the product of centuries of evolution. It blended classical styles with English pragmatism to produce a style of architecture unique to the nation of England. With our empire we replicated this architecture all around the world in places as unlike England as it was possible to be, but wherever it was used it made a statement - this is English.

In the home country - from the grandest country houses to the humblest Victorian terraces, from the majestic public buildings that graced our city centres to the Edwardian semis in the suburbs - it was a style of architecture that proclaimed English values - solidity, permanence and a reserved elegance.

How ironic that this style of architecture which stamped it's mark so definitively wherever it was used was to become so loathed by modernist architects who wouldn't know a style if it slapped them across the face. Which is what most of their work does. Modern architecture rarely "blends" with the surroundings - because that is not the point. They are not designed to fit in to the landscape - be it rural or urban. The main point of modernist architecture is to be deliberately incongruous and obtrusive. Architects are no longer content to produce great buildings, they have to be lauded for their originality, for their daring - for being avant garde. In other words, they are famed for what they are - not what they produce. Something that has become common in the art world.

And yet, despite all their attempts to define a new style of architecture unique to the current era, to produce obtrusive and incongruous buildings, all they have managed to achieve is to be utterly nondescript - because the other point of modern architecture is to be non-specific. Instead of making the statement "this is England" it is designed to say "this could be

A good example of this would be the old and new Wembley stadiums. I'm sure the new stadium - when it is finally finished - will be a great stadium, but you could take that design and stick it in any city in any part of the world and it would have no more identity with that city, that country, that people. It is a design that could be anything anywhere. It has no identity. That was never true of the old Wembley stadium. It was a design that revelled in being English. The same design in New York or New Delhi would always have shouted out - this is English!

My vision of England would see a return to English architecture for English cities, towns and villages. No more brutish tower blocks. No more concrete and glass megaliths (except in designated city areas) and no more "quirky" designs made to look like a fish or a space ship (the kind of infantile architecture which most of us left behind with our plasticine when we were 5).

Recognising that the way our towns, villages and cities look is as much a part of our cultural identity as the things we eat or the words we speak ought to be central to a nation confident of it's own heritage.

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