In his first column for Building, critic Jonathan Meades says 1990s buildings are no match for the vigour of the 1960s – or the 1860s.
In his darkest novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), Charles Dickens refers disparagingly to “the national dread of colour”. A couple of years earlier, GE Street, the gothicist whose largest if not greatest work is the Law Courts in the Strand, made the same complaint.

Unlike the novelist, Street was in a position to do something about it and, with a handful of kindred architects, he sought to introduce colour to English buildings. For a few years, “structural polychromy” (more structural than polychromatic) was all the rage, along with a gamut of genuinely structural devices notable for their counter-intuitive perversity, a desire for originality at all costs, a distaste for harmonious “beauty” and an enthusiastic espousal of sinewy vigour. After about the mid-1870s, however, the fashion for unaccommodating, audaciously assertive architecture waned. In-yer-face buildings were right off the menu. Politeness reigned.

It wasn’t until the ‘60s came around the next time that the quality the Victorians had called “go!” was glimpsed again. Go! means dash, daring; it implies strength and lack of compromise. Owen Luder’s epithet “sod you” is an adequate late 20th-century synonym. We all know what Luder meant by it.

Now, go! is not to be equated with colour. Colour was just one element of go! Brutalism, the 1960s expression of go!, was not so named because it was brutal but because it employed béton brut, raw concrete. But with a name like that … And evidently, in certain incarnations, it was brutal. Luder‘s own work, especially that at Catford and Portsmouth positively sweats go!, but it is monochrome, relentlessly so, as though colour were frivolous.

Conversely, the chromatic variety on the facade of Halsey Ricardo’s Debenham House in Holland Park, perpetually cited as the prime example of colour in English architecture, serves only to emphasise that it is structurally stodgy – an alderman dressed as a hippy.

Accept then that the 1960s were a re-run of the 1860s. It’s easy enough – the same experimentation, the same sexual licence, the same exasperation with “tradition”, the same quick end. And, especially, the same subsequent denigration: High Victorian monstrosities; 1960s monstrosities. Me, I love monstrosities. Tectonic monstrosities are proof of the human spirit’s enduring bolshiness. The difference between the 1860s and the 1960s is that the 1860s were a cul-de-sac. The monstrosities of the 1860s had little effect on the architecture of, say, 1895-1905. They led nowhere. The reaction to them was unequivocal; the judgement of them unforgiving. They were dismissed as aberrant. They didn’t fit with the mood of prim propriety and imperial hauteur that afflicted late-Victorian England.

The synthetic modernism of the 1990s is polite, untroubling, ingratiating, anxious to please

Nineteen-sixties monstrosities, on the other hand, have suffered a kinder fate. They are routinely rubbished by the Prince of Wales, but, for all that, the architectural spirit and sensibility – if not the actual forms – of the 1960s have been stealthily revived over the past 10 or so years. Far from postmodernism being dead, it has simply entered a protracted phase where instead of imitating and amending art deco or borax or arterial road vernacular, it has turned its attention to high modernism.

The paramount architectural tendency of the 1990s was thus revivalist. Modernism is a period style like any other and is as susceptible as any other to being pulled out of the dressing-up box, dusted down and sent out to play. Philip Johnson read the future wrong when he called Norman Foster “the last modern architect”.

In fact, Foster, with his still breathtaking Ipswich insurance building, was the first modern revivalist. It is in the nature of architecture that subsequent revivalists should copy earlier revivalists. They ape the forgery rather than the original. The result of this process is a sort of homogeneity, a tendency to blandness: just look at the sheer acreage of pale turquoise glass and steel in London. The neo-modernism or synthetic modernism of the 1990s (and of this new decade) is polite, untroubling, ingratiating, anxious to please all of the people all of the time. Which is not to say that it is unappealing. But it is safety first. There is no spark of excitement. It lacks the go! that informs the work it derives from, and it confirms that Dickens’ observation about colour still holds good 135 years after he made it.

Still, while there’s a Will Alsop there’s a hope, and if you’re American, you very likely pronounce Piers Gough as Piers Go! But these two mavericks apart, where is the vigour? Who has the nerve to say “sod you” and who is willing to take a punt against the cultural consensus?