Monday, August 18, 2008

Buildings for Blairism

2. Home Office, Marsham St, London, Sir Terry Farrell and Partners 2005

The Home Office Building, which I've written about briefly before, is perhaps London's finest example of what deserves to be called Pseudomodernist architecture, perhaps the predominant idiom of the New Labour years. The architect, Terry Farrell, has always been a perfect barometer of the political aesthetics of British architecture. First he worked for the GLC/LCC (those weird, Corbusian vents at either end of the Blackwall tunnel were his), then became a 'high-tech' functionalist working in partnership with Nicholas Grimshaw; then Britain's most prominent postmodernist after Jim Stirling, designing icons of jollity like the TVAM building in Camden. Farrells' late 80s and 90s work takes pomo and makes it downright domineering. A specialty was the utilisation of 'air rights': thanks to Farrell, Charing Cross station and London Wall have massive multicoloured Gotham creatures squatting atop them. This reached a peak/nadir with the wildly expensive Mi6 headquarters in Vauxhall, which suggested Lev Rudnev and Raymond Hood collaborating with Timmy Mallett.

Meanwhile, the space itself. Marsham Street's government offices originally consisted of three colossal towers built on the site of a gasworks and susequently WW2 and Cold War bunkers. 'The very image of a faceless bureaucracy', 'a ruthlessly utilitarian statement' are some of the things Pevsner &c have to say about it. Of course, we don't do faceless bureaucracy anymore. Today, we do the secret state with a smile, and relational aesthetics accompanies detention without trial. The ostentatious architecture of corporatist Modernism and Thatcherite pomo just won't wash. This was a flagship PFI project, with a French contractor handling the entire job, but unlike so many other PFI schemes this was not allowed to fail. Impressively, the entire space of the three 19 storey towers is stretched across 6 and 7 storey blocks. The approach to the Home Office is through the intricate class and period palimpsest of Westminster, much of which still has a certain intrigue to it, despite Shirley Porter's (rather prophetic) attempt to cleanse it of its working class population.

As architecture this is straightforward stripped down, derivative Modernism. There are Mendelsohn curves and a Gropius-like severity to the entrance, although the opaque glass provides a sinister undertone. What makes this a pseudomodernist building, other than its funding method, is that all the 'art' of the building is on the facade, provided by Liam Gillick. The blacked-out windows are trimmed and decorated with a pattern of computer graphics. Most obviously, the entrance is immediately bright and welcoming, belying the one-way windows. Gillick provides a multicoloured screen hanging over the roof, so that passers by are illuminated in friendly, bright hues, and a neo-De Stijl pattern signals the entrance. This is a Modernism that is devoted to facades, to hiding rather than making plain the function and activity that it serves - what Martin Pawley would have described as a 'stealth building', reducing the apparatus of state bureaucracy to the alleged 'residential scale' of Westminster. Basil Spence and Charles Holden, with their bureaucratic buildings nearby, were not so timid. By contrast, the new Home Office suggests a friendly approach to the business of suspending habeas corpus and launching pre-emptive invasions.

On visiting the Home Office, me and my partner on this excursion tried to get as much of a look at the atrium as we could while the security explained that we'd need a staff member to give us a reference before we could come in. Two pieces of art - one, by a painter who specialises in precise images of post-war Modernist buildings, seemed to depict Lubetkin and Tecton's Lenin/Bevin Court council flats. On the other side, a mural declares 'SECURING OUR BORDERS'.

(next in the series will be some Britart branded luxury flats in Pimlico, then Novecento kitsch in Paternoster Square...)


Blogger Murphy said...

'Becks Futures' winner, Toby Paterson:

9:14 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

and the full list of exhibits:

9:15 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Cheers, I'm impressed they have a whole page on their art collection...of course, atria in the 60s had to have the odd sub-Naum Gabo construction sitting around looking stern, but this seems a rather different phenomenon...

1:48 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

art created by convicted prisoners and young offenders and selected for display by artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane

1:49 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

The Toby Paterson murals are "New Townscape 1":

and "New Townscape 2":

There is no room on my coffee table not covered by piles of books, but I do deeply covet his "Bevin Court" sculpture:

10:13 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...but why would the Home Office want to look at images of the social housing that the government they represent won't build anymore? It's all very peculiar.

11:31 pm  
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11:29 pm  

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