The wearer as much as the frock

Peter Campbell

  • Building Capitalism by Linda Clarke
    Routledge, 316 pp, £65.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 415 01552 9
  • The City Shaped by Spiro Kostof
    Thames and Hudson, 352 pp, £24.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 500 34118 4
  • A New London by Richard Rogers and Mark Fisher
    Penguin, 255 pp, £8.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 015794 8

Time can play dirty tricks on architects when launch-time promises are recalled to mock crumbling fabric. The progenitors of much post-war public housing suffered in this way. Time finds out bad bets; entrepreneurs are bankrupted financially, planners intellectually. But it has always been like that. Linda Clarke’s Building Capitalism illustrates its argument with a study of Somers Town, where a late 18th-century planner’s promise – to develop an estate of middle-class houses north of the Euston Road – went just as badly wrong as any Sixties development. General Booth himself (the Salvation Army now occupy buildings only a few hundred yards from where Somers Town stood) reckoned it a centre of frightful moral and physical contagion.

Time leaves other marks. Streaks of conceptual rust show in the gaps between what a structure symbolises and what it contains. The Lloyd’s building was commissioned to be modern, forward-looking, technically advanced – to represent all that was best in modern underwriting. Now it appears with ironic effect on television business programmes, behind Names who want out. The success of the design as architecture makes matters worse. In a smart new suit you look more of a wally when you take a pratfall.

Time takes revenge on slow workers. New buildings to old designs look dowdy at best. This has happened to the new British Library, which belongs stylistically to the Sixties and may not be fully functioning even in the mid-Nineties. Such effects, common to all arts, are emphasised in architecture. Buildings are unavoidably present; a book can go to the stacks for a generation but the ups and downs of a building’s reputation are suffered in public.

Stylists fight back. When society seems to be changing too fast architecture styled for permanence becomes fashionable. In the Eighties High Tech, which suggests the industrial and therefore replaceable, became a reserved style, like Gothic in the 19th century, restricted to jobs where its resonance was appropriate. Function (Stansted Airport) or the need for exceptional lightness and openness (the new stand at Lord’s cricket ground) or the nature of the business (the ITN building) have all been reasons to turn to it. Styles which advertised probity with bronze and granite were becoming popular when, with a great piece of salesmanship, Richard Rogers persuaded Lloyd’s to accept a brilliant, unclubbable cousin of the Pompidou Centre for their headquarters.

The sense of the passing of architectural time is particularly strong in London now. The Eighties boom found a city of stucco, brick, Portland stone, weathered concrete, glass and anodised aluminium, and left it with substantial additions in steel, granite and mirror glass. The tallest office building in Europe rose at Canary Wharf, a huge new complex of offices at Broadgate. Everywhere, London prepared itself for a prosperity which never came. The results have left citizens bemused. We believe London belongs to us – you do not have to own the real estate to feel you own the landscape. The changes which enriched developers, inflated the portfolios of pension-fund managers, and put the architectural profession through a bout of staffing bulimia, irritated citizens. It was as though a decorator had crept unasked into one’s house and gone to work modernising the kitchen and changing the drapes. This was not, like the housing schemes of the Sixties, something which, whether you liked them or not, related to needs which were easy to understand. That it now turns out London has one office building in five waiting to be filled confirms the feeling that these buildings are, for all their exceptional solidity, the landscape of a dream. The results of 19th-century boom years – Tuscan banks, Gothic railway stations – were fancy dress for bodies which, however clothed, had distinct identities. Much of the new building has been speculative; it is waiting on the rack, ready-to-wear.

The Docklands and Broadgate developments seem too large for the needs of Britain’s manufacturing economy. Of course they are: they were constructed in the hope that an increasing part of the world’s financial affairs would be shunted through London exchanges. To own a share in one of the global financial capitals which new ways of exchanging commercial information would make rich and powerful would be a great prize. City institutions and developers gambled on winning it, but found themselves shedding jobs just as the space an increase in activity would have demanded became available.

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