Magazine article The Spectator

Moving On

Magazine article The Spectator

Moving On

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago, Britain was gripped by an architectural battle of styles. The Lloyd's building in the City opened, representing the hopes for a resurgence of modernism, while Quinlan Terry's classical Richmond Riverside was beginning to emerge from scaffolding like a vision by Canaletto. Since 1986, a great deal has happened, but readers of Roger Scruton's article in The Spectator of 8 April ('Hail Quinlan Terry: our greatest living architect') would know nothing of it. In a similar vein, articles by Thomas Sutcliffe in the Independent and Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, responding to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A, present a harsh opposition between two irreconcilable positions, both of them repeating the chain of derogatory associations that modern architecture still trails behind it.

This wave motion of ironclad prejudice breaks through a complacent assumption that 'modern', whatever it means, is an unmixed good, while another cycle of magazine pieces promotes the Modernism exhibition chiefly as a shopping opportunity. It is a horrifying but nonetheless fascinating spectacle, as each side thrives on misrepresenting the other.

Dr Scruton's polarisation, in which Lord Rogers plays the demon king to Mr Terry's archangel, will appeal to all who prefer simplicity to complexity, regardless of their position. Several aspects of this polarisation are simply false. In imagining the future of cities, Lord Rogers, and the rest of the 'modernist' establishment in this country, have long renounced the destructive aspects of comprehensive redevelopment of which they are accused. In the same way, no contemporary classicist would wish to implement the dreary classical wartime Royal Academy plan for London, with its boulevards slicing through the historic street plan. Everyone has changed their mind, and the 'cappuccino in the piazza' quality of Richmond Riverside is actually pure Rogers.

Classical detailing remains, as Dr Scruton rightly says, a matter of life and death dividing the two sides. A strange cause to die for, one might think, yet this one seems unbridgeable. Halfway positions exist but only tenuously. The architecture of the new Paternoster Square shows, like Italian fascist architecture, the rather frigid outcome when architects come to the edge from the modernist side without daring to jump. At least nobody automatically labels classicism as fascist any more, although it has found its home largely among conservatives. Post Modernism in the 1980s, conversely, showed what happens when you leap without looking, and only a handful of 20th-century architects, such as the Slovenian master Jose Plecnik, have shown how creative the middle ground could become.

Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who are still invoked as figures of hate on the part of architectural conservatives, both practised classical architecture before 1914, but many in their generation felt that the life had somehow gone out of it, and whatever was carried forward from it should be abstracted so that direct references were lost. More influential since 1986, however, has been the quizzical figure of Adolf Loos, a great advocate of 'English' restraint.

Even Lutyens, Britain's cleverest and most poetic exponent of modern classicism, did not disprove the difficulty of making classicism live, since the details are largely incidental to his purpose as a designer. …

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