Wednesday, December 03, 2008

They don't make 'em like they used to

I'm pleased to see someone speaking out against the modern architecture that is defiling Britain today.

Andres Duany, who helped to create Poundbury, the Prince's village in Dorset, accused the country's architects of being "infantile" and produced a 64-point catalogue of errors they had made in designing modern Britain.

Too right! I've always felt that those modern buildings would be fine in certain cities - Montreal or Melbourne, maybe - but they always strike me as completely out of place in British towns or cities. Architecture is more than just the simple design of buildings - it is part of our cultural heritage. It punctuates and accents our landscape in a way that says "this is Britain and this is British".

Take a look at the parliament buildings of London and Edinburgh for example.

Westminster is a timeless design which, just by looking at it you can tell is a place that is both historic and where history is made. It leaves all those who see it for the first time impressed and awestruck by its imposing facade and interior grandeur. Above all, it leaves you feeling that this could not be anywhere other than Britain.

Now look at Edinburgh's parliament building. It looks like an hotel in one of the more vulgar resorts on the Costa Brava.

Architecture is important as a way of asserting culture too. This is why we built things all over the empire that were identifiably British. It wasn't just to make Brits abroad feel at home, it was to assert British cultural values in a positive way.

Most importantly of all, architecture develops as part of a national landscape. It may use influences from all over the world - Gothic arches, Ionic columns, Islamic domes and minarets - but it does it in a peculiarly national way. St Pauls Cathedral is a perfect example of this combining all three of the above in a building that still remains archetypal British. The new City Hall in London, on the other hand, looks like it could have come from anywhere and be anywhere.

There is much talk about how we need so many new homes (we don't - there are a million empty ones in Britain) and proposals for new "eco-towns" - whatever they are! Many people worry about these developments, rightly fearing that they will desecrate huge swathes of the British countryside.

And yet no one ever considers the archetypal English village as a desecration of the landscape. Far from it - the sight of an English church spire rising majestically above the trees with a collection of cottages arranged around windy streets is one of the most revered sights in Britain. It fits in with the landscape - more than that, it adds to the landscape!

If we do need new homes then why not build new typically English villages rather than ugly sprawling alien eco-towns? Of course, it would have to be done in the right way and I have no confidence in our government - local or national - that it would be, but if it could be then wouldn't that be a better solution to our housing "crisis" than just concreting over large areas of the south east?

None of these modern building will last either. London City Hall won't be there in 100 years time, the Gherkin will have been recycled and the Scottish Parliament won't be meeting in the Hotel Playa del Sol anymore, but Westminster Palace will still be there, Manchester City Hall will still be going strong and Edinburgh Castle will still be as imposing and impressive as it is today.

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