Who critiques the critics? Well, Jack Hughes has a try. He's interested in the pack mentality that raises some architects to prominence, and dashes others to pieces. Or worse ... that ignores vaste swathes of what gets built.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Who to trust on housing

Jonathan Glancey is the Grand Old Man of UK architectural journalism: he must have been writing for The Guardian for 20 years at least. To last that long in such a business, you need to have something of the Vicar of Bray about you. So what is Glancey braying about now?

He is exercised – as are many UK journalists at present – by the question of how 3 million new homes get built without them becoming dully formulaic. On the surface of things Glancey seems to be pointing us to traditional sources of inspiration. In a piece on 17th July he praised dMFK’s houses-for-rent at Manchester’s New Islington (a neighbourhood masterplanned by Will Alsop) for being “foursquare”, built of “local bricks”, and standing on “a proper street”. What’s more, the architects had “listened carefully to the future residents”.

A week later – after the alarming flooding of large parts of the west north and Midlands of England – Glancey used his blog to return to this theme. He singled out the ancient town of Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, for retaining some integrity after its inundation by the Rivers Severn and Avon: commenting on its “dense weave”, its “proper streets and squares” etc. He regards the town as an object lesson to those responsible for planning and building for the future: suggesting we need "more towns like Tewkesbury" -- dense and compact “new towns” of a traditional type.

Why do I call this “braying”? Because if you turn to the same author’s compact book on C20th architecture from 1998, you discover a rabid attack on Prince Charles’s model town at Poundbury in Dorset: a project that spearheaded the adoption in the UK of precisely the urban values Glancey now wants to be seen championing. In prose dripping with contempt he wrote there of a town that was “intended to be the forerunner of an entirely new way of living, a kind of idyllic “urbs-in-rure” in which houses and shops newly built to look old-fashioned would doff their cornices to renaissance style piazzas” etc. etc.

Now that the utter good sense of the Poundbury approach (of high density, streets and squares, local materials, and community participation) is widely accepted, Glancey has to walk a fine line: love the urbanism, hate the buildings (and hate those, like Prince Charles, who had the temerity to challenge architectural received wisdom). For all his praise of Tewkesbury, when he visited the medieval market town of Ledbury in Herefordshire (in a piece on July 2nd) it was to praise the “architectural daring” of an “armadillo-like” new design showroom, which had succeeded in breaking the historic mould. But then critics love this kind of stuff, on the whole: Eric Parry’s new museum scheme for the city of Bath may have “the denizens of Bath in a lather”, as Ellis Goodman informed us in The Daily Telegraph, but the critic concluded that “on this site if nowhere else … the normal rules should be suspended”.

Glancey’s instincts as a critic are generally good, but to stay where he is for the last two decades he has had to satisfy both influential members of the profession, and his own peers: and it is this, more than anything, that occasionally leads him into his intolerable prejudices and contradictions.

Less constrained by such pressures (his much-noted and timely departure from the sinking ship that was the Millennium Dome in Greenwich having given him celebrity above other critics, as well as a reputation for good sense) is Stephen Bayley, who is maturing brilliantly as a critic. He wrote on July 15th, also in The Guardian, about the looming 3 million new homes. “Why are we so very bad”, he asks, “at making good, ordinary houses?” But he takes some heart from clues as to what the next generation of architects might achieve (and, of course, like a lot of critics Bayley believes that if architects were responsible for more than the 25% of new housing they currently get involved with, then the world would be a better place). And his selection of the best of the new is commendably wide: from Richard Rogers’ eco-houses in Oxley Woods to Clague Architects’ version of the Kent vernacular at Whitstable. These architects know that “the housing question is not about luxury or austerity, traditional or modern, but about good or bad”, and they “design without prejudice”.

To return to the critics: I’m sure the Glanceys of this world would argue that all they are trying to do is separate the good from the bad. It’s just unfortunate about the prejudice that so often accompanies it; and that means we can’t always trust their judgment.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Prophets Without Honour?

The new Director of the Design Museum in London, Deyan Sudjic, is intensely media-savvy. This explains why Britain has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by articles on, and TV coverage of, the subject of his first exhibition as Director – Iranian-born, naturalised-British, architect Zaha Hadid. The exhibition comes just a year after a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York City.

Hadid fits the stereotype of the Prophet Without Honour in her own (adoptive) country. The UK (Wales, actually) treated her shabbily over her (twice) competition-winning Cardiff Opera House design, so she has been forced to look for work (and recognition) elsewhere. She is not the first British international name to seek thus to instil guilt in her compatriots for not giving her a job: it’s been tried in the past by James Stirling, and also by Lords Rogers and Foster, who now seem to be selected to build everything.

Hadid brings out the worst in some critics. The “reactionaries had better brace themselves”, warns Richard Morrison in The (London) Times – desperate to keep the “style wars” alive – for the arrival of her summer pavilion in Hyde Park, and another five London buildings which will follow. Hers is, he concludes, “nothing if not a brazen vision of the future”.

The vacuous Dominic Bradbury in The Daily Telegraph celebrates the fact that "Britain is at last recognising Zaha Hadid", but also hankers after a more innocent age, when the critic could see things hidden from the general public. His article opens with a manifesto-like flourish, characteristic of this critic: “There is an international revolution underway in architecture. We are in an era of liberation,” etc. etc. And – a hoary trope this – should we bristle at the “innovation and ambition” of a Hadid, and worry at the excessive costs of building her visions, then let’s remember Christopher Wren came in for the same criticisms in his day.

The South Bank Show on ITV, hosted by Melvyn, Lord Bragg (and sponsored by UBS, great promoters of modernism in the arts – Laura Cummin recently had a provocative piece on the bank’s suspiciously-close relationship with the Serota tendency) was full of luscious, often CG, images, but with no critical “bottom” to it. So one turns with relief to the redoubtable Stephen Bayley (late of the Design Museum himself) in The Guardian. When Bayley calls Hadid, post-Cardiff, “a rejected heroine, a champion of the future”, you can’t miss the irony in his words. And then, unexpectedly, he quotes with approval the words of one Robert Adam (a contemporary classical architect) describing Hadid’s and her fellows’ output as mere “global status products”; unwilling to consider Adam, as most of his fellow critics would, a risible anachronism in today’s thrusting world.

But what is most laudable about Bayley’s piece is that he stands up to the hype that surrounds the Great Lady. Where The South Bank Show merely fawned over her prototype automobile. Bayley – who knows a thing or two about cars – argues that “shape-making is no longer a driving force in the automobile industry. The big interest there is in fuel-cell power systems, not techno-organic blobbismo. Any student can do that. But it will be much photographed, which is the point”.

But even with the best of critics – which, in the UK means Bayley, Pearman, Moore … occasionally Dyckhoff – there seems an absence of real judgment, real criticism on architectural grounds. They would probably argue that the public doesn’t need it, and is content to have architecture put in context as a cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is precisely this approach that has allowed the cult of celebrity to form around the “starchitects” – Hadid included. Hugh Pearman of The Sunday Times is great company in print. “I love her”, he wrote recently of Zaha, “Her buildings deal in pure, unsettling beauty”. But when a “Tate Mod PR person” points her out to him at the launch of that museum’s new Global Cities exhibition, he demurs: “Look, she’s great, but I really must dash. There are days when I just don’t much fancy the big business of world architecture”. But Hugh ..! Come on! It’s oxymoronic phrases like yours – “pure, unsettling beauty” – that uphold that “big business”, and I really think you should have to pay the price once in a while, by at least crossing the room to engage in some small talk with your Frankenstein monsters.