RMJM’s Hillingdon Civic Centre.
Hugh Pearman looks at the architectural movements of the past four decades
The oil crisis of the early seventies dealt a blow to the modernist project and by mid decade we reached the low point of architecture in the second half of the 20th century. The typical offering was a low-rise building in brown or dark red brick. Typically with a large overhanging pitched roof in artificial slate or tile, with slightly jaunty bright red or lime green metal window frames, these were knee-jerk buildings — not truly “vernacular” but an attempt to revisit traditional forms in reaction against modernism’s perceived failure. This reached an extreme conclusion in RMJM’s Hillingdon Civic Centre (above), with its jumble of roofs, or even Sandy Wilson’s defiantly unmonumental British Library, designed in the late 1970s.
But change was in the air…
In the mid-seventies, two remarkable company HQs were built. Grabbing all the headlines was Foster’s Willis Faber building in Ipswich. Working with then partner Michael Hopkins, Foster reinvented the office building as a fluid all-glass envelope undulating round the site, enclosing a deep-plan building with central escalator atrium and a green roof. Today it is grade I listed. All this was a bit of a shame for BDP’s Halifax building society head office, an award-winning innovative HQ of the same year. This diamond-shaped glazed monolith perched high on fat columns above the Victorian terraces demonstrated a similar confidence in progressive modernism.
1976 saw the opening of Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Centre in Paris. With the younger practice of Farrell Grimshaw coming up fast with its clip-together factory and warehouse buildings, the architecture of advanced componentry seemed the way ahead.
How grim most of those Lawson-boom two-tone granite facades now look. In fact, they seemed pretty queasy at the time. In America, they had Michael Graves and Philip Johnson. In France and Spain, they had Ricardo Bofill. Over here, we had the likes of Piers Gough and Terry Farrell in his jukebox-architecture phase, as seen in his MI6 building and Charing Cross station development.
But we also had the reinvented Stirling Wilford, doing the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the Tate extension in London, and finally No 1 Poultry (below). Stirling had never accepted any label put on him, and had veered away from international-style modernism early in his career.
The garden-roofed Poultry building for developer Peter Palumbo – posthumously completed at a time when PoMo had fallen from fashion – is however maturing nicely and will eventually be recognised forits merits.
It never goes away, it has the longest pedigree of all the styles and it is now, in 2010, having another of its moments with the next generation of younger classicists exhibiting at the RIBA in May.
Inevitably the style got associated with the throwback pronouncements of Prince Charles in the mid to late 1980s. But neoclassicism wasn’t the arch-enemy of modernism – bad PoMo did far more damage, surely?
At the starchier end we had Quinlan Terry (his facadist Richmond Riverside engendered fierce debate) and at the more progressive end Robert Adam, sometimes experimenting with passive-solar techniques and non-traditional materials. These guys can draw, and provide a necessary alternative to mainstream-modern orthodoxy. Like their work or not (some’s good, some bad as with any style), we need the variety the traditionalists help to bring.
Over two decades this unbuildable-looking fragmentary style moved from theory to mainstream. We missed out on Zaha’s Cardiff Bay Opera House (below), but got Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Salford. Eisenman, Gehry and Koolhaas are also usually cited, but I think we should put in a word for Will Alsop, for what is Alsop & Lyall’s Hotel du Departement in Marseilles if not a building pulled apart like an exploded diagram?
Decon was a way for architects to reclaim more of the building for themselves, having become increasingly mere purveyors of nice cladding to standard frames.
New computer programmes allowed angularity to give way to curvaceousness — hence Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao, which really would have been unbuild-able in the 1980s.
Decon became mere funny-shapeism, the default style for icon buildings. But some great stuff was built along the way.
A warmer, more deferential kind of modernism became mainstream in the 1990s, but the hardliners stuck to their last through all the style shifts.
The likes of minimalist John Pawson, purist David Chipperfield, and more mainstream cool modernists from John McAslan to Stanton Williams were never swayed by PoMo or Decon, though Chipperfield leans towards a stripped version of neoclassical.
Today, younger modernists such as Sergison Bates and Nord offer a back-to-basics modernism that can be a bit dull — hence Caruso St John’s various experiments in adding bling, aka decoration, to the mix at London’s Museum of Childhood or the Nottingham Contemporary (below).
The tradition of modernism is now old enough to encompass all kinds of variations. The currently modish hair-shirt brigade are perhaps a necessary corrective to the decadence of the icon-building years. And if you need cheering up, there’s always the flamboyance of dRMM.
Hugh Pearman was BD’s news editor 1978-82 and is now editor of RIBA Journal and critic for Sunday Times.
24 April 2012