Monday, 10 February 2014

Still waiting for the modern world

Saturday's Guardian profile of EH boss Simon 'It's absolute nonsense to say that I'm a fogey!' Thurley notes that his new book The Building of England has been criticised for ending at 1940, and cites The Times's Richard Morrison's claim that 'he stops his survey after 1930...but most of us live and work in an England built since then.'

Which made me wonder whether (depending on who the 'us' in 'most of us' might be) the latter claim is in fact true.

There must be a date such that half the buildings in the country were built before that year, and half after.  What is that date?  Quite a lot was built during the 1930s - for example major suburban extensions to many towns and cities - and my guess is that the answer lies around 1930-1940 - certainly a significant amount of the country's building stock is from the interwar period.

But there are many places where you see very few buildings built since the Second World War; and many small towns and villages where little has been built since the nineteenth century.  You can travel for many miles through much of England and see nothing built in your lifetime.  In such places, anything new comes as a surprise.

A 1930s building such as Peter Jones in Sloane Square (pictured above) might, according to my estimate, sit in around the fiftieth percentile of buildings by age.  But it still looks strikingly 'modern', and would be described as such by many (and might still struggle to find favour with Kensington and Chelsea's planning committee if put forward as a new project today - too big, out of character with its heritage setting, untested young architect, monotonous curtain walling, surely Chelsea deserves better than this drone drone etc etc).

The proportion of buildings in most parts of the metropolis, let alone elsewhere, that look 'modern', is still very small.   To architects, designing a 'modern' building is to conform to a model that has existed for about a hundred years or so; but to civilians, such buildings are still not seen as the norm, because the pace of change is so slow; and 'modernism' is still seen by many as a foreign import, as it has been ever since it appeared.  Classicism was a foreign import too, but like the Normans and then the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, it has been around long enough to have been accepted. Modernist projects today can find themselves subject to the xenophobic, or worse, 'you're not from round these parts, are you?' strain of thinking that can still be found all over England (admirers of John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) will recall the scene set in the Slaughtered Lamb).

But the pace of change in the world of 'heritage protection' has been quite different.  While the idea of listing postwar buildings was seen as pretty controversial only two or three decades ago, now almost anything built more than thirty years ago must be fretted over as a potential 'heritage asset' (neither word in this ghastly but cunning term was used in relation to old buildings a few decades ago - they were just old buildings, the best of which were listed).

There is very little evidence of popular interest in preserving postwar buildings - the attendees at an average Twentieth Century Society meeting are a bit, well, specialist - but then Georgian and Victorian architecture needing saving by zealots when it was under threat a few decades ago, and we can thank them that we still have St Pancras.  The problem is in keeping focussed on the good stuff, rather than objecting to the demolition of almost anything.  Conservation areas and listed buildings are meant - by law - to be 'special' .  If more than half of the country's building stock is, or is part of, a 'heritage asset', we are in danger of devaluing the whole thing (as paragraph 127 of the National Planning Policy Framework, for example, warns local authorities to avoid).  If it's 'modern' it might indeed be heritage; the corollary, in danger of being overlooked, is that if it's a bit old, it nevertheless might not be heritage.

The Guardian article considers these tensions between the old and new in 'heritage', and observes that Thurley, the 'ostensible English brutalism's greatest champion'.

In this country, planning judgments about design and heritage are made in theory on the basis of policies and guidance that their promulgators like to claim are rigorous and objective, but in practice are made up on the hoof and on the basis of whimsy, and not a great deal of knowledge or sound judgement.

It is in the area of 'coming to terms with the modern' - with which the English have been struggling for about 100 years - that this is most apparent of all.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Blank looks at Debenhams in Oxford Street

A current makeover of Debenhams department store in Oxford Street involves overcladding the very dull 1960s elevations of a building described in the Pevsner guide as 'big and dispiriting' with a 'kinetic facade' of suspended aluminium panels, which are intended to ripple in the breeze.

When I walked past, there was drizzle but no breeze, and not much rippling going on - the effect was plain and static, rather than lively as indicated in the publicity - no doubt it will be better on a day that is both sunny and windy.

When a dull building that one has walked past many times has gone, it's hard to remember what it was like. The wonders of Street View (which the idle who use it for virtual site visits should always remember illustrates the recent past, not the present) show the old elevations of windows in vertical strips, alternating with strips of concrete cladding - pretty dispiriting even to a concrete enthusiast, and clearly a candidate for a makeover.

But while this project has given Debenhams a bit of bling, it's taken away the windows.  Was that such a good idea?  Many 1960s department stores that are even more dreary than the old-look Debenhams were built without windows altogether, but all of London's best stores, whether trad or modern - Harrods, Selfridges, Peter Jones - have elevations that are fully fenestrated.  Of course not much use is made of the windows, but that's not really the point - they are there just to give the illusion of the possibility of views in or out. From the outside it is generally not possible to tell whether they are used as 'real' windows or not, and I think that where you can see in through one or two windows, you are fooled into thinking you can see in through the rest. In fact, of course, windows don't generally afford much of a view into houses, flats or offices.

Windows at the upper levels make department stores into civilised, neighbourly city buildings.  You don't get sham windows on a retail park.

A city can take the odd store without windows - Birmingham's Selfridges is the highlight of an otherwise bland collection of retail buildings.  But Oxford Street has many big stores - what if they all followed suit? We know by now that form following function is not such a great precept.