We Need to Be Braver

By Farrell, Terry | New Statesman (1996), July 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

We Need to Be Braver


Farrell, Terry, New Statesman (1996)


The brilliant legacy of Soane and Wren has rarely found its match in the contemporary projects of the capital.

Just as Britain has no constitution, its capital city has no plan. And just as a nation's glorious past makes the present seem pedestrian by contrast, London's brilliant architectural legacy makes contemporary constructions look positively boring. Unlike Rome, Berlin, Vienna and, in particular, Paris, the public realm hardly exists in our capital, other than in a maze of streets, spaces and parks that speaks of a great world metropolis that has grown from its small-town origins to its present size without passing through the intervening stage of being a city.

The great architecture of London is ad hoc and dispersed: you need an eye for unexpected clues and inside information to find the best of the city. This is gloriously epitomised by Sir John Soane's early 19th-century house in Lincoln's Inn. Here lived one of Britain's greatest and most original architects, whose work has largely disappeared. In this house, however, you can still find the complex universe he created -- one of the most intriguing and visually stimulating domestic interiors in the world. Nicholas Hawksmoor, Soane's only possible rival, for originality and brilliance, in British architectural history, left a London legacy that consists in no single great monument of state, but in a series of linked commissions for early 18th-century churches in London's poor East End, such as St George-in-the-East, christ church, Spitalfields, and St Anne's, Limehouse. These are architectural masterpieces to rival even the large cathedrals of other great cities.

Christopher Wren's largest work, St Paul's cathedral, does not compare with Rome's St Peter's or Paris's Les Invalides, but its idiosyncratic English mix of a classical building encasing a gothic construction does provide one of London's most entertaining architectural visits. To go up into the dome and experience the cavernous spaces between the internal and external domes, to emerge over the rooftops, is a wonderful journey.

It was the Victorians who made the biggest impact on London. The Houses of Parliament are an eclectic tourde force and the reverse of St Paul's -- August Pugin's gothic shell erected over the plans and form of the classicist Sir charles Barry. Other masterpieces by Barry include the Treasury building on Whitehall and, up north, Wakefield Town Hall. In the late Victorian period, various northern architects came down to London and built fine buildings -- for example, Alfred Waterhouse's huge Natural History Museum, with its frontage of coloured stone and brick.

In the first half of the 20th century, the very best of London architecture defiantly countered the modernist revolutions of Germany and France. Giles Gilbert Scott's great power stations at Bankside and Battersea (and his ubiquitous red telephone boxes) are powerful works of late deco-classicism -- though the masterclassicist ofthis age was Sir Edwin Lutyens, whoseMidland Bank (now HSBC) in the city and St Jude's Free church at the centre of Hampstead Garden Suburb are, in my view, masterpieces. But in the past 50 years, there has been a failure of nerve. The largest cultural centre in Europe, the South Bank centre, is dire. Large housing schemes were, on average, grim. The postwar exceptions are the celebrated Roehampton Estate and the huge churchill Gardens, the latter by Powell and Moya. Their competition-winning scheme, built in the 1950s, is still fresh and elegant today.

Much of modem British architecture in London in the final years of the 20th century is timidly studious and in exceedingly good taste -- but refined to the point of being boring. There are some rare exceptions: exuberant buildings such as Future Systems's Media centre at Lord's cricket Ground, and Ian Ritchie's crystal Palace bandstand. The hi-tech architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers dominate London's contemporary architecture scene; Rogers's expressionistic Lloyd's building in the city and Foster's essay in cool power at Stansted are probably their best works in the London area to date. …

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