Fit for a prince or just creepy?

Britain - From a Cause to a Style

August 3, 2007

These two books could hardly be more different. One, by its title, is a history, didactic and positive; the other is a political statement, rhetorical and prejudiced in equal measure.

Although Alan Powers works in a school of architecture, he is not - as his father was, and significantly so - an architect. And he remains, throughout his text, unaligned, presenting his empirical data as a historian and critic with an objectivity and detachment that is admirable. Nathan Glazer, on the other hand, as an urban sociologist and a one-time Trotskyist and member of the New York Intellectuals, now believes that Modernism has forgotten its social roots, and he consequently takes a neoconservative position wholly aligned with Modernism's detractors characterised here, in the very first sentence, by the Prince of Wales.

Powers's discussion of the Prince's contribution provides a more balanced view, highlighting the Community Architecture movement as a (probably) satisfactory outcome and one that generated, as he quotes the community planner Nick Wates as saying, "a change of attitude away from the elitist vision of the architect as team leader to that of mediator and active participant in a team".

The village of Poundbury, designed by Leon Krier and built from 1993 on Duchy of Cornwall land in Dorset, is the Prince's greatest contribution to architecture. Its success, Powers explains, was not in the use of historic regional styles, which drew the inevitable criticisms from the architectural profession, but in the mixed-use zoning of the planning concept that achieved higher densities and, in promoting the pedestrian above the automobile, more quality public space than the planning authorities usually allowed. Krier was also a consultant for Seaside, Florida, a neo-traditional development conceived in 1981 by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany and representative of what became known as the New Urbanism.

Professional planners, Glazer contends, have played no great role in launching this movement or the community architecture, preservation or environmentalism movements that have so affected the design of the American city (and the British city for that matter) in the past 30 years. These, he says, have been democratic responses to the perceived authority of the professions. Yet Poundbury, as Powers points out, was not democratic at all, since the Duchy of Cornwall imposed its aesthetic preferences on the developers working there. Whether one likes it or not is possibly just a matter of taste. Powers's summary could as well be applied to Seaside: "If Poundbury gives you the creeps, you are probably a Modernist."

One theme to which Glazer frequently returns is that people simply do not like living in new, architect-designed dwellings but rather would choose commercial builders' mass-produced products. Here, quoting from Norman Dennis's People and Planning: The Sociology of Housing in Sunderland (1970), he tells how the sophisticated architect-designer (or was it the planning officer?) would have the displaced slum residents living in seven 16-storey blocks because, as they said, "high-rise blocks are essential to the skyline of the town". Powers does not mention the case of Sunderland, but one suspects that there is a little more to the situation than Glazer allows. In describing the postwar housing initiatives of the London County Council, Powers notes that, in the housing division, there was disagreement between those who favoured the gentle, picturesque approach of what was derisively called "People's Detailing" and others who were linked to New Brutalism. Paradoxically, the architectural conservatives were politically left-wing, many being supporters or even members of the Communist Party and their lineage being that of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. How that would sit with Glazer's current neoconservative position I cannot say, but it does rather reflect his origins.

The Modernists' architectural determinism characterised by the high-rise blocks of the public housing projects in American cities was criticised, Glazer says, in two forms - soft and hard. The soft criticism was that Modernism did nothing to deal with the social problems it set out to correct, and the hard criticism said that it actually made them worse.

Glazer, however, concedes that high-rise blocks were often sought after by upper-class residents and, as he says, "even lower-middle-class people without access to summer homes in the country for release". Here he cites Co-op City in the Northern Bronx, which, he says, "may look like New York City public housing, but... had few of its social problems".

My AIA Guide to New York City (1988) - written, admittedly, by two architects, Elliot Willensky and Norval White - describes Co-op City's 35 high-rise blocks, each of 35 storeys, and its 236 two-family houses as a "total non environment, largely designed by bureaucrats with not a scintilla of wit, (in which) live some 55,000 souls". So I wonder if Co-op City's social success was because architects were not involved, which is unlikely, or because, as Glazer suggests, they had been absolved, through financial, political and administrative factors, of their responsibilities.

Powers accepts that Modernist housing in Britain, as a social cause, similarly failed but asserts that the blame for this, whether among designers (hubris), contractors (profit), politicians (votes) or housing managers (poor maintenance), was difficult to apportion. Yet for every failed housing scheme whose demolition was widely publicised - such as Newham Borough Council's Ronan Point in London, which famously collapsed in 1968, or Basil Spence's Hutchesontown C, known in Glasgow as the "Queenies", which tragically killed one local resident when it was dynamited in 1993 - there are many overlooked successes. Darbourne and Darke's Lillington Gardens housing in Pimlico (1961 72), which Powers cites for its medium-rise, high-density virtues, was designed long before Ronan Point when, as he says, "system builders and local authority planners" took away the architect's autonomy.

Lillington Gardens, however, owes its debt to Le Corbusier, but not he of the high-rise block. Similarly, it was Scandinavian Modernism - one thinks of Alvar Aalto - that lay behind Ralph Erskine's Byker Wall in Newcastle upon Tyne (1973-80), commissioned, in preference to high-rise blocks, by a Conservative council in 1969.

It is easy, as Glazer does, to ride the popularist bandwagon and ridicule all Modernist interventions, whether they be Richard Serra's sculptural plates of rusting Cor-Ten steel, currently on show until September 10 in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or Maya Lin Ying's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.

In the last case, it would seem that he much prefers the meaningfulness of the Frederick Hart's representational Three Servicemen Statue to the muteness of Ying's dark wall containing more than 58,000 names. Yet if one turns to Sir Edwin Lutyen's Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, it is the muteness of the 72,000 names of the missing, rather than the Classical genesis of the monument, that really hits home.

The rehabilitation of Lutyens, Powers reminds us, became a symbolic campaign for anti-Modernists and the 1981 exhibition of his work, held at the Hayward Gallery, proved to be enormously successful. Through the soft accessibility of Lutyen's architecture, Glazer's and the Prince's point might be seen to be proven. But Lutyens's architecture is, in fact, very complex, as the Thiepval Memorial, unveiled by an earlier Prince of Wales in 1932, demonstrates. One wonders what that Prince thought of it, or if he understood it at all.

Britain: Modern Architectures in History

Author - Alan Powers
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 2
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 9781861892812

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