Diary

Nicholas Penny

Last year I travelled frequently on the early-morning coach from London to Oxford which passes Sir Edwin Cooper’s pair of Classical municipal buildings in Marylebone. The first of these is the Town Hall of 1914: proudly alert like the lions which guard its portal; perhaps ostentatious like the swollen waistcoats paraded by its original occupants; ‘massive and effusive,’ Pevsner puts it. I couldn’t decide how much to like it. But the library beside it is a different matter. Its elevations are tighter, its detail sharper and less showy. I began to look forward to its disciplined and exalted harmonies as keenly as I did to the great Classical architecture awaiting me in Oxford. It was built in 1939.

I recovered some years ago from the prejudice that architects should not have been in love with columns and cornices at so recent a date and my appetite for stone architecture which is sculptural – that is, with mouldings, with chiselled relief – has increased as the unhappy offspring of the lean and transparent triumphs of modern architecture proliferate. Buildings now don’t look modelled or cut into shape: the wall is merely wrapping. Beautiful stones are cut out of mountains, sliced, polished and stuck onto the walls of banks, hotel foyers, the front of every Macdonald’s, in such a manner that they are indistinguishable from the lino on the floor and the plastic on the counters. Worse still are the sheets of shining granite set flush with the dark reflecting windows of towering new office blocks. Granite, that impregnable rock employed by the Victorians for sea walls, for cobbles, for curbstones, for the massive boulder-like rustication of basements and, above all, for polished column shafts, is transmuted by the exterior decorators into a substance which looks as light and thin as glass. This certainly made me yearn for Sir Edwin Cooper. It also made me wonder about Quinlan Terry. After all, his elevations are articulated by columns and pilasters and chamfered ashlar of Portland stone.

Terry professes to believe that the Classical Orders were ordained by God. Great architecture has, however, often been associated with stupid ideas. His first champions were right-wing dons in stiff collars who studiously ignored female undergraduates, and he has now been adopted by the superrich among the close friends of the Prime Minister who have tired of their big brash abstract paintings and high-tec toys. Great architecture has, however, often been promoted by dreadful people. So I went to see Terry’s Howard Building at Downing College, Cambridge, which is supposed to be a short poem in pure Latin which the vulgar who come to mock it leave in pious silence.

It is difficult to work out whether its stiffness derives more from pedantry or from primness. The discontinuities between the elevations are painful rather than witty; the finials and curly broken pediments are coy flourishes; the balusters above the Doric colonnade are inept in spacing and proportions, comically resembling a tight line of schoolgirls poised by the pool side. Terry isn’t always so bad. In his work at Richmond, and most recently Regent’s Park, he has achieved some pleasing sobriety and even solidity, but no grandeur or elegance; and at Richmond there is much tiresome mimicry of the picturesque felicities of a Georgian market-town with its medley of materials and style – here a change of brick, there a piece of timidly interpolated Italian Baroque.

It is their gauche, cut-out and stuck-on look which gives Terry’s buildings their popularity. It makes Classicism seem quaint, homely, British and amateur. His style is now spreading everywhere. Wine bars have Corinthian columns. An airport cafeteria at Heath-row has marbled obelisks and a mural of a cute tempietto amid topiary. A screen of Venetian windows divides it from the vast disorientating grey grid. Terry pretends to be engaged in a strenuous search for enduring principles in the work of great architects which can be adapted to modern purposes, but he is really evoking olde, heritage, Quality Street Britain.

I don’t think this is a charge that could be levelled against the architects who earlier in the century ensured that dentils crown our post-boxes and gave an 18th-century pattern to the glazing bars of the phone box. (The Classical then was associated with those public services over the degradation of which Terry’s patrons have presided.) For Terry, the language of Classical architecture is not a living one any more than it is for the other modern architects who play with pediments and pillars and misquote bits and pieces from their serious neighbours in what they imagine to be a popular and jokey, or an academic and witty, way. Not that it is only Classical architecture which is receiving such attention.

The centre of Oxford was being transformed at the very point where I arrived: the coach station is part of the Gloucester Green development by Kendrick Associates which is now complete. It consists of a market square surrounded by flats and shops and cafés connecting with the coach station square, which is surrounded with offices. The polychrome brickwork in stripes and diapers with contrasting stone, like some of the picturesque effects in the elevations, has been suggested by Late Victorian architecture. There is genuine originality here – notably in the buoyant way the balconies swell out and the walls curl up in the market square. There is also a real understanding of the dynamic plasticity which British architecture was capable of a hundred years ago – in, for example, the three octagonal towers, each with a cupola, which arrest the attention of the pedestrian in Hythe Bridge Street and retain it with the complex rhythm of the fenestration, the play of horizontal pattern against vertical form, the stone bands locked into the exuberant brick and glass. And yet something is very wrong.

One can forgive the tedious repetitions of the Worcester Street elevations, the hopeless composition which addresses Walton Street, more easily than the ubiquitous clumsy blocky stone coping, corbels and sills, the glazing bars which look no more substantial than sellotape, the flat cut-out metal ornament in whimsical patterns. Clearly fine mouldings and ornament could not be afforded, but the clumsiness is defiant, part of a clowning which is perhaps intended to gain popular appeal, and makes this architecture, no less than Terry’s genteel Toytown, an extension of television culture. And yet it is genuinely convivial. And so, too, is Terry’s Richmond Riverside.

We should not forget that, if developed a decade or so ago, this part of Oxford would have been turned into a bleak tower of black glass, with a multi-storey carpark in soiled concrete beside it, somewhere in which would be a covered mall of shining tiles (with piped music, a chlorine-scented fountain and security guards), and below, a stinking dungeon with flickering strip-lighting for coach passengers.

Architects, striving to recover from the contempt in which their profession has been held because of its complicity in ‘developments’ of this type, now not only welcome users and visitors but put them on stage. It is good to see grand entrances, screens of columns, soaring towers, long vistas and sweeping wings again. But do the sets have to be pastiches? Even those which involve durable traditional materials and sculptural relief look cheap and superficial, or at best like expensive wrapping. Architecture, one of the nobler forms of public service, which once consulted the past to secure the approbation of posterity, looks more and more like a branch of public relations, plundering old buildings for a new look or market image which will captivate the fogey with nostalgia dressed up as irony and the spiv with illiteracy, parading as parody.

I think again of Sir Edwin Cooper’s library, now just over half a century old, built for a public – today’s public as well as his own – which he respected too much to provide with anything other than high and serious art.