Friday 29 Jul 2011

From Internationalism back to St Pancras Hotel: Relating aesthetically to buildings

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. In this final instalment of his seven-part series for WAN, Stephen delves into the politics of architectural design...

The Second World War confirmed the ascendancy of the International Style - a result of the Corporate State that had itself replaced the Establishment. Symptoms of this new regime were Brutalism and a rejection of historicism expressed as architectural detailing as is evident at the Lincoln Center, New York and Barbican and the South Bank Centre both in London. Irrespective of perceived design standards they all represent a political process based on a brave new world of egalitarianism. Laudable but inherently defective as Le Corbusier previously found when designing his nightmare vision of a high-rise ‘Contemporary City’.

Humanity in general is organic preferring chaos and innovation not a series of measured items or units to be subjugated into a single whole. Often the idea of a building not conforming to a particular movement or style is less important than the building reflecting a perception of realism and function. It is easier to relate more readily to Art Deco, Classical, Gothic or even Modern designs not only because they can be imposing and powerful but also due to their innate ability to address human scale. The concern here is not in terms of design or ability to improve or augment the environment, but rather the perceived failure of politically motivated schemes due to popular reaction to them. Five buildings in London put this idea into sharp focus.

The St Pancras Hotel, despite its fairy origins and Romantic history, failed as an operating hotel in 1935, but now after seventy years’ of dormant Titanic existence is brought back to life to great public acclaim. This rejuvenation based certainly in part on the building’s integral steel cage frame that facilitated re-engineering into a successful refurbished building. The other is its romantic Neo-Gothic appeal. Next door to the Hotel is the new British Library, a blank red brick building that has often been mistaken for an out of town super store which is in keeping with the fact it was subjected to a remorseless political process. Similarly the same political dogma created the bleak Euston Station nearby having first demolished the ornate Classically inspired Great Hall at the original station. Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf in London were both constructed during the 1980s.

Both are American influenced private schemes and reflect the opulence and confidence of the Beuax-Arts and Art Deco periods with marble, bronze and stone ornamental finishes and are a public success. Even though during the time of their construction there was conservatism-fuelled concerted hostility in the construction press to their being built or method of innovative construction. Typically, the only then skyscraper in London rising through 50 storeys is Canary Wharf completed in 1987. By comparison the tallest building in New York, the Empire State Building twice as high rising through 102 storeys was completed in 1932, fifty-five years earlier!

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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