Magazine article The Spectator

Concrete and Carbuncles

Magazine article The Spectator

Concrete and Carbuncles

Article excerpt

'London smells Tory, ' announced Ian Martin, the Beachcomber of architectural journalism post-Boris in his weekly column in the Architects' Journal. Heritage wars have broken out over the future of a concrete housing scheme, Robin Hood Gardens in East London by Alison and Peter Smithson, that is beloved of architects, but not, it seems, of many others. The Guardian devoted a page to complaints from classical architects that they were excluded en bloc from the Riba awards that lead to the Stirling Prize, and The Spectator is shortly to conduct a debate on whether Prince Charles's opinion, delivered nearly 25 years ago, concerning glass stumps and monstrous carbuncles, remains as valid today.

Does architectural style have a simple relationship to political position? The early years of New Labour, when Richard Rogers was in the ascendant, may have given the impression that people would be made to like what they were told was good for them. In the Götterdämmerung of Gordon Brown, the architecture minister, Margaret Hodge, has made her name by opposition to the claims of modern buildings to be considered as heritage. Lady Thatcher once bought a neo-Georgian house in Dulwich, and was ridiculed by the architectural establishment for it. Michael Heseltine commissioned neoclassical outbuildings by Quinlan Terry, and, to some extent, both were behaving true to type. Indifference and ignorance are more typical of politicians' understanding of architecture, however, than informed choice. Ken Livingstone supported high buildings in London, and it was as natural as Tweedledum and Tweedledee that Boris Johnson should oppose them.

If we could discover what a majority of people thought about architecture, would a party be willing to adopt it to win votes?

The Cameronian emphasis on quality of life, which includes the condition of cities and countryside rather than the facemasks of individual buildings, comes closer to issues capable of stirring an electorate.

This brings us back to the Prince of Wales.

In his famous 1984 speech at the Riba's Gold medal award ceremony at Hampton Court, he made the remarks that are quoted in The Spectator's debate motion, but he said a lot more besides. Looking back, one can see that a large section of the architectural establishment had been in revolt against its own record in the 1960s for at least ten years by that time. While the 'glass stump' of Mies van der Rohe's proposed tower at No.1 Poultry gained backing from many establishment figures, it was already a museum piece, its architect 15 years dead. The original 'carbuncle', the National Gallery extension designed by Ahrends Burton and Koralek, was, it seems, singled out for opposition more on account of its superfluous tower than anything else, although the tower was, ironically, part of an attempt to match the spire of St Martin in the Fields and to fit in. …

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