The dead hand of totalitarian modernism should be prised from the shoulders of living architects: it was no more than a style among many others
After one coincidence, you can be sure the next isn’t far behind. I was reading What’s To Become of the Boy, Heinrich Böll’s memoir of his Cologne childhood under the Third Reich, in which he suggests that “perhaps it is not in school but on our way to school that we learn lessons for life”.
En route to one school I attended in Salisbury there was an elegant set of almshouses, a philanthropic gesture of the early 18th century in brick with stone quoins. The lesson I learned was that old people smelled so bad that I had to put my hand over my nose. (It wasn’t until long after I had left that school that I discovered that the sickly odour I ascribed to elderly folk was in fact that of the “mash” in the adjacent Gibbs Mew brewery. Preposterously, I cannot to this day inhale a brewery’s scent without being assailed by nagging images of senile decomposition.)
This may not be the sort of life lesson that Böll had in mind. It is more likely that he was alluding to the sort of extracurricular epiphany that the architect Andrew Rabeneck evoked at a recent dinner of the Architecture Club. He described how, while studying at the Regent Street Poly in the 1960s, he would pop round the corner to the Academy cinema on Oxford Street. There, the recent north Italian architecture in Antonioni’s films gave him a valuable tutorial, demonstrating that there was a way of doing things “other than the Smithsons’”. Forty years ago, such an opinion would have been regarded as heretical: the Modernist orthodoxy was quasi-totalitarian.
Rabeneck was questioning these most sacred of sacred cows: in their day, the Smithsons were surely the very personification of architects’ architects, comprehensible only to veterans of the Architectural Association or the Bartlett. And here’s the coincidence: only a few weeks previously, I had heard the Smithsons’ praises being lavishly sung by a non-architect. The writer Nick Fox enthused over dinner in Salisbury about the Smithsons’ own house from the late 1950s, near Fonthill Abbey on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset.
As I discovered the next day, Upper Lawn Pavilion is indeed a delight – not a word I ever expected to apply to their work. How I had missed this elegant caprice is a mystery, as I didn’t think there was a lane or road between Salisbury and Shaftesbury I had not cycled or driven along. Apart from its obvious merit, it is interesting as a rarity: south Wiltshire is architecturally conservative. With the exception of this small house and a demolished paraboloid roof extension to The Royal Carpet Factory at Wilton, there are no modern buildings of any merit. There is, however, plenty of modern dross, much of it inflicted on Salisbury Plain by the Ministry of Defence.
Pevsner, the great taxonomist, was also a zealous and predictable propagandist
The question we should ask ourselves about buildings is not whether they are cutting edge or hopelessly reactionary but whether they’re any good. Unhappily, it appears that we are still burdened with a Pevsnerian world view that declines to acknowledge merit in architecture that doesn’t conform to the tenets of old-fashioned Modernism.
Reporting on the prodigal refurbishment of the MoD’s Whitehall headquarters (9 July, page 16), Martin Spring quotes Pevsner’s opinion that it is a “monument of tiredness”. Pevsner also refers to it as “particularly distressing”. This is to be taken with a pinch of salt. The great taxonomist was also a zealous and predictable propagandist. The MoD is certainly, to use a favourite reproach of Pevsner’s, “retardataire”. But then it was designed almost four decades and two world wars before it was built. Half a century on, the fact that it was dated when it was new is an irrelevance. It belongs to an alternative strand of architectural invention, a strand that is as rich as it is unfashionable.
It is possible to devise a history of 20th-century painting that omits abstraction, and an architectural tradition that omits international modernism, but includes revivalism, expressionism, the Torinese baroque of the 1950s, the neo-Gaudí eccentricities of Pancho Guedes and so on. Italian “rationalist” Aldo Rossi, whose de Chirico-like classicism may – coincidentally – have found its way into Antonioni’s films, was famously fascinated by the MoD, and is said to have rather exasperated his English hosts by wishing to visit it rather than architecturally correct monuments to newness.