Where are architects supposed to live? If certain loud voices in British public life and the media had their way, many would be facing a rather frugal exile. At worst it might be a communal existence in neglected, spalling public housing built several decades ago. It certainly seems that those daring to defend twentieth century concrete, or anything overtly adventurous and unpretty, had better not choose a more traditional home as their own.
More crudely put, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, the objection runs: if you like this ‘modern’ stuff so much, why not go and live in it yourself? On that occasion Simon Jenkins was rehearsing this line of attack in The Guardian, while blessing the likely demolition of East London’s Robin Hood Gardens. If today’s sympathetic architects valued the 1960s housing estate so much, he insisted, they should get together and buy the place themselves: “Let money follow where mouths so
But this is just one case of routine British horror at much post-1950 architecture. The emotion is understandable when focused on malfunctioning public housing – even if the failure owes more to decades of inattention than to architectural design. But the antipathy runs deeper, and is more fickle, than that.
Despite nurturing the concept of the ‘starchitect’, and advancing the architect-designed home as the natural choice of those with enough money, sense and style, today’s mainstream press cannot resist poking disapproving fun.
We all know now, for example, that Lord Foster has recently bought himself an eighteenth century castle in Switzerland to call home. When The Times reported this in April, it began by reeling off recent highlights of Foster’s glass and steel work for international clients, and finished by stressing the rather obvious fact that his latest palatial home “stands in sharp contrast to such modernist edifices”. It has also been widely reported that Lord Rogers’s Chelsea home comprises two classic early Victorian terraced houses.
So what? Where exactly is the hypocrisy in living somewhere old while designing something new? It is never properly explained. Perhaps the accusation arises from an ingrained national suspicion of personal success, combined with the reality that those ubiquitous starchitects, seemingly dictating the backdrop of our daily environment, inevitably become high-profile examples of prosperity. The notion of an influential figure relaxing in a covetable historic home - after a hard day of designing defiant, modern buildings - is an irresistibly soft target.
In fact, most bold or
avant-garde architectural figures do make themselves suitably adventurous homes when time and budget permit. Some years before they started on Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons built their Solar Pavilion (1962), an austere, mildly brutalist family retreat in Wiltshire. And so on, from Luis Barragan (1947) to the Eameses (1949) to Alvar Aalto (1952) to Josep Sert (1969) to Frank Gehry’s bungalow in Santa Monica (1978). Le Corbusier spent his 1950s summers in a fabulously Spartan sixteen-metre-square fishing hut of his own design. Back in England, Peter Aldington’s discreet, contemporary development of three houses and garden space (1967) in a Buckinghamshire village is still his home.
So, given that architects are clearly willing to live what they preach, what’s at the heart of this grumbling about modern styles, materials and practitioners? When the target is a doomed 1960s housing estate, the pundits’ nebulous complaints initially appear rather noble and public-spirited. Keep reading, and they reveal themselves as a reflexive giveaway of over-conservative taste, struggling to embrace the early twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.
Editorial , London
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