When Coventry City Council applied to be the UK City of Culture 2021, and won, what on earth were they planning to do with the city centre? As Owen Hatherley has written, ‘of all of the great reconstruction projects of the first decade after 1945, there’s only one city that never seems to take possession of and pride in what it did: Coventry.’
Victorian industrialists had a particular approach to advertising and branding, with money no object. Where feasible, the factory or mill itself was designed to promote the product. Rather like stained glass windows in medieval churches, easily instructive for the illiterate, the buildings were set free to tell the story. The façade of John Marshall’s linen mill at Holbeck in Leeds, built in the late 1830s, was a magnificent copy of the great temple at Edfu: flax had been cultivated in Egypt, and linen woven from it, since ancient times.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s platitudes offer no solution to the UK’s housing crisis. What does it mean to ‘ask for beauty’? The report says that ‘schemes should be turned down for being too ugly.’ But who will be the judge of that? Any volume housebuilder’s sales office will tell you that the house people want to buy is like the one they just saw, ideally the one with the best view and the one they can afford. The market favours the traditional: pitched roof over flat roof, sash window over wrap-round glazing, a tiny porch instead of a doorstep, even – if the budget allows – a chimney in which to lodge a flue pipe. Above all, keep one house away from the next, even if the gap is little wider than an Amazon parcel.
I can’t explain why, in the face of all the seductive images and lyrical descriptions of the new Tintagel footbridge, I’ve become fixated on a small incision slashed through the surface of the walkway in the middle of the bridge. I know it’s technically the meeting point between the two cantilevered segments, a 40 mm expansion joint in an impeccably engineered structure. But it struck me forcibly that the seemingly reassuring surface connecting clifftop to clifftop, strung in tension over the dizzying void below, had been cut. It gave me a nervous charge. Was this an actual moment of the sublime?
The Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842, was compiled by Dickens’s friend Richard Henry Horne. The result of a three-year investigation, it was unprecedented, not merely for the level of shocking detail and first-hand evidence, but because it was illustrated. And most of the 26 images were by Gillies.
You could look very hard in Purleigh and not find any physical evidence of the Tolstoyan anarchist community that was founded there in 1897. The experiment, near Maldon, Essex, was short-lived, and the core settlers soon moved west, to Whiteway Colony on a (then) bleak Cotswolds plateau. It is there still, now comfortably huddled and well treed, its continued existence due in part to a decision by the founding colonists to destroy their title deeds, leaving the settlement to be held perpetually in common.
Cricket breaks out all over at this time of year. Bell Common, a generous village green set against a backcloth of ancient trees in their dark summer foliage, dotted with men in whites, is as bucolic a scene as you’ll find anywhere in England. The grass, turning a little pale after a long stretch of hot sunny days, is a shade greener on the woodland edge. Sometimes it can be boggy over there, a reminder of natural conditions, as Peter Day, the groundsman and a former captain, told me on Saturday. One of his sons was playing, the third generation of the family with links to the club. His father was a founding member of Epping Foresters when they set up in 1947, mostly ex-servicemen who began as a wandering team. Two years later they were granted a licence by the Conservators of Epping Forest to use Mill Plain, off Bell Common, as their ground.
The Festival of Britain showed postwar Britain what it might yet be. The crowds flocked to London to see the Skylon and visit the Dome of Discovery. Peter Laszlo Peri’s concrete Sunbathers writhed on a wall at Waterloo Station (recently found lying in a hotel garden in Blackheath, they are being restored after a crowdfunding campaign and will soon return to the South Bank) as the visitors came off the trains in their thousands. Rowland Emmett’s toy railway was the main attraction at Battersea Pleasure Gardens. More seriously, the Living Architecture exhibition in Poplar, the Lansbury, though still largely under construction, offered a prototype for modern New Town living. The estate caught the local imagination, showing how enlightened planning, social policy and architecture could be harnessed.
In the words of Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, the fate of World Heritage Sites – from the bridge at Mostar to the temples of Palmyra – ‘is not about just bricks and stones’ but ‘the way we see human civilisation developing’. Tim Slade’s new documentary film The Destruction of Memory, based on Robert Bevan’s book of the same name, is a measured indictment of the failure of international bodies to find the words for the crime of cultural vandalism, and so offer legal protection to important buildings in war zones.
Artists’ impressions of yet-to-be-made architectural designs show impossibly pristine buildings, their materials innocent of wear and tear, the images (let alone the weather and the light) adjusted, enhanced and cropped into submission. In this honeymoon period, no one questions performance, or durability, or if the architecture will necessarily deliver the desired outcome. (In the early years of her career, as she shifted from constructivist imagery to international practice, nobody nudged the apparent limits of the possible more consistently than Zaha Hadid, who has been awarded the 2016 RIBA Gold Medal.)