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.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Empty Rhetoric or Without Rhetoric: you decide

What does a man do these days if he sympathises with the aspirations of Prince Charles and his Foundation, but also thinks that so-called Brutalism was not entirely without its merits? Venetia Thompson, in her piece in The Spectator last week, doesn’t leave a lot of options. She has decided that the best way to praise the prince is to damn the alternatives. And the result (not to mention the lamentable introductory paragraph, riffing on Robin Hood, which also manages to suggest – wrongly – that Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons has a tower block) is unconvincing.

Which is not to say that a better journalist could not have raised some unsettling questions about architectural visions as against built realities. Ms. Thompson is, of course, the “23-year-old ex-public schoolgirl … apparently known as Posh Bird and Airbags - ‘on account of my breasts’”, who wrote herself out of a job in the City earlier this year. Her previous life as a junior broker may give some weight to her statements about the added value inherent in traditionally-designed houses at the prince’s Poundbury (and other places inspired by Poundbury), but her take on the “style wars” (to revive a nasty phrase from the ‘80s, where much of Ms. Thompson’s article belongs) are almost entirely without merit.

The Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation, an American urbanist called Hank Dittmar, makes an interesting point at one juncture: which is that, if confined to mere words, he (representing Prince Charles) and an architect like Richard Rogers (to whom the prince has been a longstanding bĂȘte noir) might argue for exactly the same things; it is only when pen is put to paper that the deep differences become apparent – “it is not”, he says, “until something is actually drawn that you can see people’s intentions”.

If we review Robin Hood Gardens in light of this – a building that Lord Rogers has recently come to the defence of – we have to face an important fact: it has failed (if indeed it has failed) despite its architects having the highest ethical ambitions of any architects of the last half-century. It is simply sloppy and unthinking journalism to conflate Robin Hood Gardens with the rash of shoddy tower blocks that were rolled out during the 1950s and ‘60s. Alison and Peter Smithson sought, and largely achieved, in Poplar an architecture “without rhetoric”, a Bath Royal Crescent for a less strident age. And they honed their sensibilities on the teeming streets of Bethnal Green; this was no pre-formed vision dropped on to the site from space.

And yet, ironically, the residents do report that it has become a social nightmare. Under these circumstances I think that the only thing a man can do who sympathises with the aspirations of Prince Charles and his Foundation, but also thinks that so-called Brutalism was not entirely without its merits, is to lament the extreme positions often taken on issues like this – aided and abetted by ill-informed wordsmiths such as Venetia Thompson.

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