Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not a good enough Nowhere

Obviously the first reaction to the news that Prince Charles' neue Stadt is as jerry-built as the average Barratt bungalow should be one of derision and schadenfreude. Among architectural twitterers there were some who were simply amazed by the cheapness described: 'they didn't even use galvanised nails?' In the article residents describe damp, cracked walls, animal faeces, bored and aggressive youth, social atomisation...all the things which Charles Windsor, Alice Coleman and their ilk claimed were some sort of natural teleological consequence of modernist prefabrication, combined with a few wonderfully postmodernist problems like being drenched in water from a fake chimney. We have every right to be smugly unsurprised, but Poundbury is also in a sense a missed opportunity (almost) as much as it is a moronic folly, or at least it could have been an opportunity were those involved in it somehat less thick. Regardless of the sophistication or otherwise of the plan, the aesthetic of Poundbury is almost deliberately nondescript. The plan seems to be one of the culprits in the article above, but complaints about alleyways or it being 'too tight' are misunderstandings of what mad old Nazi apologist Leon Krier was actually up to here - this was not supposed to be suburbia, instead being an attempt at creating something akin to civic medieval planning, perhaps a medieval free city without all those unhappily proto-modernist skyscraping towers and belfries, Bruges rather than Barratt.

This conflicts sharply with the architecture that Charles and his builders have settled on, which is a deeply reticent neo-Georgian, or rather a form of Georgian that has had all the urbane sweep rusticated out of it. Imagine the entire scheme if its patrons were fearless Goths rather than tight-arsed, terrified Classicists, or if they were socialists rather than monarchists - if their derivation was from Ruskin and William Morris rather than christ knows whatever amalgam of Wimpey, John Nash and '80s Labour council vernacular they're taking inspiration from. For the medievalist socialists of the late 19th century, the problem with modern architecture, be it the redbrick terraces that we've since convinced ourselves are 'homely' or the prefabricated Crystal Palaces that are now re-imagined only as precursors to Norman Foster, was that the exploited labour used to produce them was so obvious in their form. This is why it's appropriate that Robert Tressel's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a tale of house-builders knocking up Edwardian houses on poor wages, was pivotal in (briefly) making socialists out of the English - because it revealed the misery behind the dream of the traditionalist home. The medieval city, its cathedrals and guildhalls, were the model for them not because of a liking for spikiness, but because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that this was the form that architecture took when it was a truly communal act, when masons were artists, and when there were no catalogues or architectural enforcers. 'Grecian is mathematic form, Gothic is living form'. This may have been a fantasy, but if so it's a seductive one.

The Bauhaus was initially based on this idea, of the communally built cathedral as the foundation of the socialist city - and this impulse carries on into non-International Style modernism, whether hand-prints in the concrete in Latin American Brutalism, the obsessive, freakish craftsmanship of the Amsterdam school, the irregular brickwork of Gillespie Kidd & Coia, the employment of highly skilled workers on the housing schemes of Red Vienna rather than a Taylorised 'work-force' clipping together prefabricated modules...in all of these cases, form follows the supposed pleasure of the worker. Now, the medievalists involved in Poundbury, divorced as they are from any real politics, can't conceive of such a thing. So the end result is joylessly applied drudgework, given a patina afterwards to make it look vaguely warm and lived-in. The only way I could ever imagine having anything other than contempt for this particular fantasy is if it were something truly worth fantasising about - if their medievalism was via Ruskin rather than Tolkien, if they employed skilled labourers and artists and waited to see what they came up with rather than getting Persimmons to churn out a preconceived olde-worlde. Except we don't seem to have craftsmen anymore. Which, when neither the builder nor the architect is allowed the luxury of independent thought, condemns the entire endeavour to tedium.


Anonymous Speermint said...

“Ron Rosbrooke, a retired civil engineer who lives in a handsome-looking mock Georgian house, tells how he recently pulled a fan cord in his bathroom and was drenched by water that had collected above in the fake chimney”

– perhaps he should have sent a mock-Georgian chimney sweep with a fake brush to clear it out for him.

2:52 am  
Blogger Carioca said...

Why is it that the newstalgic mob always seem to hit on an idealized 19th century model for this fakery? I live in Abingdon, which has plenty of medieval and Georgian buildings in the centre, but with the exception of Victorian gothic, nothing much from the 19th century. Well that is with the exception of all the UVPC Victorian stuff that has replaced anything that looks too 20th century for the local council – Visions of Britain still has a lot to answer for...

11:31 am  
Blogger Paul said...

I have never been there, but Poundbury strikes me as what might happen if you gave an architect a photograph of the high street of a country town and asked him to copy it. It looks Georgian but that is all. 18th Century buildings look as they do because they were built to principles (and often copied directly from published designs). Charles and his mob build houses that merely look Georgian, as if imitation were the same as interpretation.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Matthew said...

But that it were just tedious, Owen, and not actively dangerous. The entire enterprise sets a frighteningly low standard for spec estates to limber up to, one which they continually fail to meet.

I take your point about Morris and Ruskin as the preferred starting point for inspiration, but this really is a least-worse alternative. For my money, for instance, your misgivings about the Transition Towns are bang-on, and it's all a bit wind-pissing to wish that if Poundbury was a little more craft-y then it would become anything more than the self-congratulating schemata for the future that it already thinks it is. It would simply become more smug, is all.

No, no, there's no way of rationalising any of this as worthy of tweakage. It has to go, and come the revolution I'll be first in line with a thwacking great sledge hammer.

12:49 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

one thing worries me: if the glee with which constructional problems in 50/60'housing are pounced on is so irritating and pointless, then is the same tendency directed at Poundbury any better?

the hatred it inspires is pathological and out of any proportion to status or influence and makes me want to like it. Not just out of perversity either.

Also Carioca, nostalgists don't only copy Georgian architecture, they copy a lot of early modernism too. It's just that that's ok for some reason.

2:16 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I don't know Charles, I understand the contrarian impulse here, but sometimes people just hate stuff because it's hateful. And a monarchist planned town in the 21st century is always going to be in that category for me - although you won't find me defending today's Corbusier and Aalto copyists either, as you know. Also, the status/influence thing is upside down - what is interesting/symptomatic about Poundbury is partly that it's a supposedly high-spec version of the usual volume vernacular, and for me and I'm sure many others, implicit in any slagging of it is a slagging of that also.

The reference to their build quality being as shit as bad post-war estates is a bit of tit for tat for which I make no apology, given the imperious smuggery of their original arguments - but the interesting question is that both were reliant for the most part on cheap commercial builders. Wimpey or Taylor Woodrow knocking up Ronan Points for councils or knocking up existenzminimum cottages both represent a similar crapness. At least the planning in the first was sometimes interesting, and there was more space.

Matthew - of course you can count me in for the post-revolutionary demolition squad BUT the idea of a planned town which was based around the idea of labour determining the form does strike me as potentially quite interesting, and oddly untried too, even in the apparently historically acceptable examples - the reason why roughcast was used at Letchworth or Hampstead GS is because the quality of the brickwork was so poor. It wouldn't have to be artsy-craftsy at all, hence my refs to the Amsterdam school or GKC. It would still be a fiddling-while-Rome-burns fantasy, but an interesting one, which could potentially have consequences for how we might build in a less exploitative society. Possibly. The point is, I couldn't imagine Krier, John Simpson or Quinlan Terry ever doing something that interesting.

4:01 pm  
Anonymous never commented before said...

Charles: some people seem to play down the political factor in the whole Robin Hood Gardens demolition thing, reducing it to just "the Smithson's buildings were just a little weird to be honest". Which is true. Personally I'm all for modern architecture (because I think it trascends the 100% American construct of "modernism", and the hypocritical & French nationalist construct of "modernity") but I don't really think the Smithson's buildings were all that great. But I digress. Don't you think Pondbury is just a huge piece of shit? I think it's not particularly "modernist" to think so. I for one, think high-tech architecture is mostly crap. And, as a student, I have to endure loads of knee-jerk "functionalism" from my teachers, which I feel is bollocks (and which makes me realise - modernism has never existed, or at least the great modernist architects were not what we call modernist nowadays.) But Pondbury? Should be dismissing those who hate it just because it might be a "by default" reaction? As if semiology alone made projects more interesting... sure, it can affects space, form and the design ethos of the project... wait, here it doesn't. Utter failure.

5:16 pm  
Anonymous commented once said...

and let's not get started about "referencing pop culture magically makes things closer to people", which is the ultimately "if it's x then it's OK".

5:17 pm  
Anonymous twice said...

and please excuse the myriad typos, "ultimately", "can affects" and other effects of hasty copypasting and real-time rehashing

5:19 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Commented Once - eh? Twice and Never Before points, fine, but the relevance of the pop culture point is rather opaque.

8:46 pm  
Anonymous numbers bloke said...

I'm sorry about that. It was a not very well thought out jump from "semiology fails here" to a cheap and uncalled for half-attack on "collage postmodernism" (which has actually produced some interesting projects.) I really shouldn't have posted that.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous TurnipSurprise said...

Really they should have found some Clough Williams-Ellis type eccentric and let him get on with it.

Sadly, he only appears to have done the fire station: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/mar/31/prince-charles-fire-station-poundbury


11:31 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

I agree that if Poundbury were weirder, less po-faced and polite and nothing to do with Prince Charles then it would be a lot better and more excusable. But there is something about the mindless casting around for a convenient villain about the endless Poundbury bashing that irks. It's just so easy and uninteresting to hate it although I take the point that that is not exactly a reason to take the opposite view. But 90% of British architecture is hopeless pastiche, just of a more acceptable era and architectural taste. Witness the positive coverage of such retro work as Peter Barber's recent project in BD. As my colleague said somewhere recently, genuine nostalgia (ha!) is a lot more interesting than retro posturing.

But no, I don't think it's hopelessly shit. I suppose ultimately I have a more ambivalent and conflicted view on it than is allowed for in the hopelessly bi-partisan and hysterical way that architecture is discussed in the UK (see the Chelsea barracks for the same thing.) I don't want to raise it to the ground.

10:51 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...fair enough I suppose. I wasn't at all interested in defending Rogers' rubbish proposals for Chelsea and the BM (and I say that when Rogers is responsible for my favourite building in the world by anyone ever), but Poundbury - which up until now I've resisted the temptation to write about - is a subject where I'm afraid I do cleave to received (architectural, not national) opinion.

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Anonymous john bullock said...

I can see Poundbury from my bedroom wiondow - I couldn't see it five years ago, so should I fear for the future of my front garden? Only another a few more miles to go.
Picking up on Charles H's comment - no, I suppose if it was just another commercial developer, then Pondbury wouldn't get such a critical mauling - the reason it gets a mauling is because of the preposterous posturing of the guy who IS the commercial developer of the damnable thing.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poundbury looks English unlike a lot England built in the 20th century. British architecture has only itself to blame if we have to build towns like Poundbury in preference to the appalling German-inspired designs that have blighted the whole of this country over the last 90 years.

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