The New Materialists ; Norman Foster and Richard Rogers Have Dominated British Architecture for More Than 20 Years, but Now the Backlash Has Begun. So Soaring Towers of Steel and Glass Are out, Argues Jay Merrick, and Wood and Brick Are Back. and Three Young Practices Are Leading the Way
Merrick, Jay, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The north Norfolk horizon is often an ambiguous hazing of sky, sea and land into moist obscurity. On the northern edge of Burham Market, a trendy little town whose centre is periodically glazed with run-off from the water meadows, is an extraordinary outbreak of architecture called Marsh View. Not far from a ancient burial tumulus and the remains of a Carmelite friary, the small building's black shoulder looms up in a starkly brilliant abstraction of form that is simultaneously ruinous, poetic and hugely vital.
Marsh View carries the marks of a subtle and specifically British kind of architectural energy akin to the "difficult" modernism of artists such as Ben Nicholson. The house also recalls the exquisite earthiness of Basil Bunting's poem, "At Briggflatts Meetinghouse": "Stones indeed sift to sand, oak/blends with saint's bones./Yet for a little longer here/stone and oak shelter/silence while we ask nothing/but silence. Look how clouds dance/under the wind's wing, and leaves/delight in transience."
But Marsh View, completed only two years ago, and clearly a significant example of post-millennial domestic architecture, is already haunted by the prospect of invisibility in a culture where architectural stature is largely based on reality television formats, star-turns and stage managed ignorance.
Marsh View's designer, the 36-year-old Patrick Lynch, has just won Building Design magazine's prestigious Young Architect of the Year award. His practice, Lynch Architects, belongs to a small coterie of acutely talented British designers who can be thought of as the New Materialists.
And they come equipped with a built-in irony: their assiduous, if not obsessive, pursuit of the connections between cultural history and modernist architecture has forced them into a largely sub cultural position. It's as if their kind of architectural reality is a little too brusque for comfort' not amusing enough, too intellectually loaded in a time riven with hollow laughter and glorified memory-failure.
Caruso St John, Sergison Bates, O'Donnell and Tuomey, Tony Fretton, Lynch, and a handful of others. Who are these New Materialists? They certainly don't hob-nob with Lords Foster and Rogers, or with Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop, or with the latest media magnetic Gatsby of the scene, David Adjaye.
Who remembers that Caruso St John's compellingly composed Walsall New Art Gallery came within one jury-room argument of winning the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize in 2000' or that Sergison Bates are quietly lionised in Europe' or that O'Donnell and Tuomey's ravishing tower of power, the Glucksman Gallery in Cork, went critically supernova last year? "That lot?" murmured a well-known development consultant during a big bash thrown last month by the architect and urban master planner, Sir Terry Farrell. "They're clever, yes. And they may be great architects. But the thing I can't stand is their piousness."
The remark reflects an uneasiness about the almost Jesuitical rigour of the New Materialists. They produce an architecture of historic inflection, local reference, carefully cadenced modern abstraction and an often brilliant, tough-tender use of materials. They abhor architectural grandstanding, dismiss high tech functionalism as bereft and - though typically immersed in the arts, personally - deplore buildings that pose as artworks.
New Materialist architecture is spiritually connected to the polemical Brutalist architecture of the Sixties and Seventies - think Coventry Cathedral or the South Bank complex - whose forms tended to feature rough-cast concrete and abrupt articulations. The brut beton bovver boys - Basil Spence, Denys Lasdun, Erno Goldfinger et al - caught the headlines because their buildings were perceived as both arsey and wilfully ugly. The New Materialists are far subtler - but too subtle, too awkward, too peculiarly British to make the news. …