Iconicon: A Journey around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain 
by John Grindrod.
Faber, 478 pp., £10.99, March, 978 0 571 34814 5
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Castlefield with Beetham Tower, Manchester.

‘Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.’ The London that Muriel Spark describes in The Girls of Slender Means – ‘buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity’ – was still in existence when the novel was published in 1963. Ruth Glass’s coinage was contemporary: ‘gentrification’ described a peripheral phenomenon that was, at that time, far from a demographic shift. It was a fashion in its infancy, so diffuse and various that it had failed to register with less eagle-eyed sociologists, less prescient amblers. It was noticed, if at all, by nosey parkers on the lookout for pink doors among the buddleia and blackened brick of Maida Hill and Notting Dale, who sloped about the Hanging Gardens of Northern Kensington. Glass persisted and although she had little evidence, she guessed well and predicted the consequences: ‘Once this process starts in a district it goes on until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.’ The change, she implies, is not desirable. The very people who lament the loss of ‘authenticity’, come on maudlin about ‘real people’ and censure gentrification are, it goes without saying, those who effect it. And there is nothing more ‘real’ about a manual worker than there is about a copywriter: it’s the wrong adjective. Glass was mistaken, however, about the speed and smoothness with which the transformation would be wrought. It was jerky and haphazard. A ‘pioneering’ house might presage the colonisation of a grubby mews by chukka boots and geometric hairdos, Campari and perilous conversation pits; equally, it might not. In one street, multiple bell pushes and their attendant wires are replaced by a single intercom. Wooden blinds have arrived. But the neighbouring streets still provide the decor of deprivation for photographers such as Roger Mayne: scorched curtains, three-legged prams, free-range, snot-rich urchins and, as the architect Peter Barber recalled with nostalgie de la boue, ‘an elderly woman who used to stand at her gate all day long and everybody knew what was going on on the street because she was a kind of conduit’.

It isn’t surprising that it took time to catch on. It was, after all, reversing a trend that had endured for centuries: the centrifugal pull of extra muros towards a chlorophyll-enriched life, an escape, a reaction to the grime and pollution of the cities. ‘If the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud … and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town’ (Dombey and Son, 1848). Soon those particles would be so visible, so septum-grating that the occupants of the high-bourgeois palaces of Tyburnia and of the Ladbroke, Grosvenor and Cadogan estates would leave for more distant suburbs, abandoning their demesnes to dereliction, piggeries and potteries, slum landlords, multiple occupancy, the higher delinquency, drugs and proxenetism – ‘vice and fever propagate together’. The migration was, then, also morally propelled. It was piously Luddite in such smock-garbed places as Haslemere and Ditchling where bread was folkwoven and there was a loom by every hearth. A dilute version of this Elysium would become the unquestioned cynosure of those with the means for generation on generation until after the Second World War, when Glass happened on her lab specimens – who did have the means.

Prospecting a hundred years, H.G. Wells wrote: ‘The London citizen of the year 2000 AD may have a choice of nearly all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as his suburb.’ He was right – but only partly right, there are no absolutes here. What he and William Morris, George Gissing, Ebenezer Howard and a sprawl of anti-urbanists didn’t foresee was a time when that choice would, inconceivably, be in favour of the centripetal. Of course, in a faute de mieux-ish way, the city was always an unwanted lure, a resented necessity for the inhabitants of, say, Letchworth, devised by Howard as autonomous but soon dependent for jobs on its proximity to London. The First Garden City, Shaw’s ‘Heaven near Hitchin’, was qualified. ‘Heaven: Evenings and Weekends Only’ was closer to the truth. The major employer, the Spirella corset factory, could provide work for only a fraction of the intrepid experimentalists of the new life. A total rupture was a chimera. Places are fluid and ambiguous. They keep on changing. They are forced into fresh roles. Their boundaries shift. New sorts of equivocal place come into existence by chance. Long overlooked parcels of land are identified as having potential.

Every place has an existence even if it doesn’t accord with toponymy’s limited classifications. Town, dirt track, hollow way, hamlet, traffic median, motorway, military road, destitution road, close, allotment, ginnel, suburb which isn’t suburb because it is unattached to any urb and grows like a parasite that has achieved independence of its host. These are all descriptions, but inadequate, imprecise descriptions. Names are required for bits in between, for terrains created by unprecedented activities which obliterate what came before and will in turn themselves be obliterated. Those names are the verbal collateral of human invention. Old handles fall into desuetude along with whatever it was that they denoted. The lexicon of canals has disappeared; roving bridges are no more. The trade of drowner evaporated when floated meadows were no longer maintained; when horses were succeeded by steam and internal combustion, farriers retrained. The nuances defined by the now obsolescent nomenclatural multitude were often created by local usages (ridge and furrow are often indistinguishable from run rig), by agri-architectural disparities and a posteriori terminology whose likely fate is to be challenged by even more a posteriori archaeologists. There were once dozens of words for the dozens of sorts of carved terrace or turfed stairs that are now grouped together as strip lynchet and are dubiously coterminous with ‘Celtic fields’ (invented between the wars by O.G.S. Crawford).

A dozen or so years ago I wrote an article contemplating the ubiquity of the word ‘icon’, its indiscriminate use, its near meaningless imprecision, its promiscuous repetition, its torpid versatility. One size fits all. I gave around two hundred examples, all found, none of them my invention: iconic albino, iconic assassin, iconic baby lotion and so on and on – iconic terrorist, iconic toaster, iconic Toby jug … They anticipate John Grindrod’s Weltanschauung. There is very little he sees that can’t have ‘iconic’ attached to it. As he wanders through the places created in the nearly five decades since Thatcher decreed the right to buy he finds the iconic everywhere. He sees it when no one else can. Or the iconic finds him. It is probably in the berth markings in car parks, piles of road sand, ancient oaks, in anything touched by Fosterogerstirlingrimshaw, in plans for rebuilding Manchester after the IRA had bombed it. It is definitely in that city’s Beetham Tower which he describes – derisively, I think – as ‘a bloke of a building … cantilevered pot belly poking out over tight trousers’. Its architect, Ian Simpson, has a magnificent and probably iconic light entertainer’s bouffant. His work, too, is on an epic orchestral scale: fittingly brash and boorish, now thrilling, now corny. Like the late Ricardo Bofill he suggests that singular talent and gleeful megalomania are mutually dependent. His vast apartment, at the very top of the wind-bruised, screeching tower, includes an olive grove 160 metres above ground. The Royal Geographical Society’s PR boasts that ‘on clear days it’s visible from ten counties, while apartments inside offer views over the Pennines, Peak District and Snowdonia.’ They also offer views of miles of industrial, rather than post-industrial, satellites, which do not accord with the RGS’s ‘Discovering Britain’, an embarrassing programme of ‘Marmite landscapes’ and ‘tiny treasure hunts’. There are yet further views, equally outside the RGS version of Britain. Beyond the railways, canals, megasheds, pylons, power stations and distant docks lies the Footballer Belt, a five-SUV garage kind of domain where the poor drive Teslas and the openings of aesthetic laser enhancement hubs are lavishly celebrated in Cheshire Life. Alderley Edge is the centre of the world. Simpson, wittingly or not (I suspect the former), has been out to change that.

Architects’ dialect comprises delusional boasts that cast them as philosophers and their trade as at best a social service, at worst a particularly dodgy branch of alternative medicine or new age bunk: sustainabulous, green, responsible, liminal, wellness, community, performative, holistic, participatory, community (again). Mind mange? Ghosts in the infrastructure? Boney’s or Bogey’s or the Bears’ advance through the gaps between the paving stones? Architecture will get it sorted. As Reinier de Graaf noted of a speech by Richard Rogers: ‘With each new sentence a new location, topic or domain is added to the theoretical competence of architecture.’

Denise Scott Brown, overlooked co-author of the ham-fisted National Gallery extension (with her much praised husband, Robert Venturi), wrote that ‘architects lost their social concern: the architect as macho evolutionary was succeeded as the architect as dernier cri of the artworld.’ Simpson doesn’t conform to any of these templates. He is an apostate to all current architectural doxa. His work has no theoretical foundation. An appetite for outrage is evident. There is no accompanying text. It lacks exegesis: in contrast Scott Brown and Venturi were virtuosi of wearisome prolixity. Architects should remain mute.

There​ is nothing in Simpson’s mentation of the statist noblesse oblige that informed the postwar rebuilding of Britain and drew on the talents of two generations of architects, leftish or leftish of convenience, because it was in the public domain that work was available and reputations were made. Simpson was, Grindrod writes,

at pains to explain that the sort of inner-city high-rise he’d designed was a world away from the council towers of the 1960s … ‘the people who live in these buildings are there by choice … those who lived in the 1960s tower blocks were decanted against their will because of an idealised view of city living.’

This suggestion of coercion crudely misrepresents the ‘cross party consensus’ that was based in pragmatism rather than angelism: there is nothing ideological about the provision of shelter, heating, indoor toilets etc, even if Neave Brown would claim, retrospectively, that his public housing was a weapon against barriers to equality. A weapon that eventually proved to be powerless against the ideological refusal to build such housing because politicians such as Cameron and Osborne feared that it created Labour voters.

Simpson’s is, of course, another, and contrary, ‘idealised view of city living’. He may devise what Grindrod – unsurprisingly opposed to ‘gated communities’ – calls ‘antisocial housing’, but much of his best work (so far) is located in innermost Manchester, which was until recently a site of genuinely antisocial housing, antisocial lack of maintenance, antisocial inhabitants. (The only place in Britain where I’ve been threatened with a shooter is Hulme.) Simpson’s is an example that is being stutteringly followed in a city with a fragmented incoherent core. As it was a century ago it is once again a case of the domestic leading the way, here leading the way in the opposite direction, and leading it belatedly – the race to overcrowd the centre is elsewhere already run. Manchester is not ahead of the game. ‘What Manchester thinks today …’ is, today, an inapposite slogan from the century before last. Its demographic shifts and socio-architectural fashions are far behind Liverpool and Hamburg, Glasgow and London’s Docklands. Its long-gestating essays in Cultural Regeneration are loud, vapid and massively over budget – the usual fate of this kind of drip-down healing whose only beneficiaries are the pockets of the construction industry, the amour propre of burghers, the pride of the curatocracy.

First come the ‘creatives’, a meaninglessly egalitarian handle like ‘iconic’: just about everyone is a ‘creative’. Jack Hale, founder and co-editor of the Modernist (formerly the Manchester Modernist), employs an antique formulation: ‘the black polo-necks smoking Gauloises’ (if only). They are goats, soon to be scapegoats, whose immutable role is to alert Knight Frank’s velvet collars and the coyote-ripped jeans of new wave developers to rich pickings and glorious opportunities in this toxic wharf here or that asbestos-truffled factory there. Just as tourists wear down the stones they have come to see, so do the black polo-necks find themselves unable to afford an affordable apartment in the warehouse they once ‘discovered’ and squatted; its apartments having been bought to launder. Nonetheless, the primacy of domestic building as a marker and a lamp post to attract lesser dogs is once again emphasised by, for instance, the town that has grown up around the earliest new-builds on Salford Quays, a development which includes what Grindrod calls neo-workhouses, two museums and a number of studios comprising a ‘media village’ apparently conceived by the media village idiot, a stylistic catastrophe that begs for a planner and environmental dirigisme. Too late: aesthetic control is oldest hat, it has for decades been inimical to the god of the market.

Many of the creations of yesterday’s yesterdays that Grindrod gamely investigates suffer from neighbourly hostility. Collisions of eras, uses and styles can have felicitous accretive consequences: the suburbs of Brussels; Aachen cathedral; Albi cathedral; Our Lady of Bruges; the Fahle Building in Tallinn. These are exceptions to the rule of the Olympic Park pile-up, which is what happens when an environmental liability such as le gougnafier (Macron’s nickname for the Prime Shit Emeritus) seeks its precious ‘legacy’ by encouraging jerry builders, hack architects and prosaic sculptors to ‘express’ themselves.

Or not. Not express themselves: Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey, Berkeley, the billionaire volume builders practise ‘land banking’, hoarding potential sites in the sure expectation of getting planning permission for lifestyle-immersive-dreamtime future slums when the market is propitious – maybe tomorrow, maybe a decade on. So long as these aesthetic vandals fund the Tory Party, this dog in the mangerish scam will persist. Land use in Britain is determined by one quid pro quo after another. It’s considerate builders who call the shots. Governments chip in with repeated acts of negligence. After the fire at Grenfell Tower, Theresa May’s administration attempted to exculpate itself (and avoid compensatory payment) by claiming that the flammable cladding was of a prohibited type. Steve Reed, investigating kindred cladding on Citiscape, a block built by Barratt in his Croydon constituency, discovered that far from being prohibited it was authorised by the government’s chief adviser on fire safety. The government was mendacious. The owner of the block was the family trust of Vincent Tchenguiz, a world class philanthropist and friend of the Serious Fraud Office, Cambridge Analytica and the Tory Party. Tchenguiz refused to undertake the replacement of this cladding until each of the apartments in the block paid him £31,300, an aggregate of almost £3,000,000, spare change for a world-class philanthropist, a fortune for the low waged. Eventually Barratt – pushed, persuaded, shamed or, most likely, fearful of a class action suit – stepped in and paid. An exception to the rule of build, then disclaim all responsibility. There remain forty thousand people living in potential fire hazards: this is the government’s estimate, so add another nought.

Grindrod grew up in Croydon. It is a frequent point of reference, a more useful one than the pop songs he alludes to, mostly meaningless to anyone whose adolescence did not coincide with their moment of lustre. But it has its limits as a marker. It owns an ambiguity that is shared by few other quasi-satellites. It clings to the capital and extends it in a way that, say, Watford and Romford do not. For all their proximity to London they feel detached, independent. Croydon possesses one of London’s more abject properties: its centre is a near permanent building site. Building is a glutton for energy. The proposition that there is an option not to build is as incomprehensible to the Croydon mind as it is hostile to the developer mind. Doing nothing smacks of negligence, idleness and an absence of the showy dynamism de rigueur in a place so hip and apparently ‘edgy’ that the National Trust has, late in the day, organised tours called Edge City: bring your own knives. Its appeal is part of the recurrent cycle of the centripetal giving way to the lure of the burbs. Save that, in this instance, it’s not the lure that accounts for an invasion of beards and craft beer but the unaffordability of housing in East London. Let’s go to Croydon! For want of anywhere else. This is by no means the first wave of migration to cause Croydon to be treated as a laboratory. The splendid Will Alsop was, according to Grindrod, ‘the king of back-of-an-envelope architecture’, which is wrongheaded. Prone to exaggeration, Alsop called Croydon ‘the English version of Manhattan’. His brief in the 1990s was to turn it into a city to match Westminster and the Square Mile. For the council’s executive director that naturally meant cranes. It did not, apparently, matter what was built so long as the skyline was crosshatched with cranes – just like the cities that Alsop sought to emulate. A subsequent ‘placemaking team’ attempted the same. It was bound to fail given that such teams are committees composed of blinkered members of ‘the community’. They are not the way to devise successors to Bournville and Bata. There was also the problem of the snobbery excited by Croydon. Its own councillors despise it, welcome the likelihood of its demolition because the next version is sure to be better: Croydon is a ‘brand’ forever susceptible to rebrands and rebrands. It is perfectible until it is decided that it is not. Developers are happy to dismiss it: ‘We don’t use our best teams for Croydon … you get our C team or D team.’ That, from on high, is another authentic, unashamed voice of the market. A shrug that confirms the worthlessness of the little people who get what they deserve, if they’re lucky. The message of the buildings is simple: this is your cage – now know your place.

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