Lifting the human spirit, as well as the quality of life, should be the goal of those concerned with providing affordable housing for the globe’s billions. All of us truly owe it to the human race to leave this planet a better — and where possible a more beautiful -– place. The structures we inhabit must take pride of place in such an effort, but in particular this demands not only a different approach to financing but also the talents and creativity of the architects, planners, builders and craftspeople who are directly involved.
“Architecture Reimagined”, a new show at the Royal Academy in London, tests our response to more innovative and explorative architectural proposals. The Curator, Kate Goodwin, hopes it will “heighten our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture and thereby encourage the creation of a more rewarding built environment.”
Alas, there is a huge gap between the aspirations of architects and the structures that are ultimately built. For years the area around Cambridge’s railway had fallen into shabby decline and various proposals had been discussed and then rejected. Around 2004 one property group designed a master-plan aimed at offering a ‘European’ approach to create a development where people could work, live, shop and socialize — encouraging a sense of belonging and pride in their community. It took a few years for the plans to be approved and then the initiators went bankrupt and it was taken over by new investors.
Last week, wandering through the yet to be completed development, I was struck by the discrepancy between the reality and the bill boards shouting:
“See the Future. Be part of it!
See chic cafes, bars, lifestyle shops in the new city quarter”
The lack of imagination and innovation of the new six story structures said it all: Money had triumphed over what initially had been a rather idealistic venture. The spacious development has little hint of intimacy. Nothing appealing is to be seen on the exterior of the buildings. But that is not unusual as I have found degrees of bleakness in most of the housing developments currently being completed in the greater London area. Architecturally, the loss of individuality, of identity, would appear to have become contagious.
I suppose that what bothers me about the new housing and office developments in the UK is the desire of the large corporations to impress by building ever taller glass and steel office structures with competitive phallic compulsion, while the concrete housing developments are lacking not only in idealism but are also bereft of architectural ambition. It is entirely understandable that in a time of recession it is not possible in public housing to get funds allocated for anything but the essentials. However, is it too much to suggest that variety is also the spice of livable housing itself? Very few of these developments displayed a single sculpture. (Nor, for that matter, do the new industrial parks.)
“Garden Cities” — the forerunners of the “New Towns” in England — were initially conceived as a counterbalance to the over-crowded conditions prevailing in the industrial cities by the end of the 19th century. Among those most convinced of combining the benefits of town and country life was the planner, Ebenezer Howard. He put forward, in his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1888), detailed plans for complete new towns in which houses, schools, shops, factories and recreational facilities would be installed. His enlightened ideas were put into practice with the establishment of Letchworth, located some 35 miles north of London, and in 1920 with Welwyn Garden City. He had hoped that these two would be the role models for future cities throughout the United Kingdom, but no further “Garden Cities” were created. They were deemed as too ‘middle-class’ for the masses. However his comprehensive model was highly influential in the post-WWII era in the establishment of new planned cities such as Milton Keynes and Stevenage.1
The New Towns were adventures in physical as well as in social construction. As such, they were much maligned. An architectural critic has described them as “bubbles of optimism, steps towards a future we have long since abandoned,”2 The direction of the new architecture was already moving towards (1) the profitable, (2) the efficient, (3) clear and rectilinear blocks, (4) poured concrete, (5) schematic duplication and (6) the “empty in human content.” The aluminum framed glass boxes came later. Increasingly, the order embodied in mass production became the most profitable and thus the most desirable. This was “the bureaucratic personality, sterilized, regimented… ultimately hostile to every other form of life than its own: cut off from human resources and human roots.”3
Instead of “the repetitive inanity of the high-rise slab, the distinguished architectural critic Lewis Mumford called for an “organic order based on variety, complexity and balance” which “provides continuity through change, stability through adaptation, harmony though finding a place for conflict, change and limited disorder, in ever more complex transformation. This organic interdependence was recognized and expressed in every historic culture… and although these buildings have outlived their technologies they still speak to the human soul.” Lewis Mumford “The Highway and the City, 1953.
Although cities are holding an ever larger proportion of the world population, economic expediency in the developed nations drives most city planners. Whether it be housing estates or “Science Parks”, standardization of both design and construction prevails. “The construction of our habitat continues to be dominated by market forces and short-term financial imperatives. Not surprisingly, this has produced spectacularly chaotic results,” wrote the prominent architect Richard Rogers. He maintained that “The quality of urban environment defines the quality of life for citizen.” Today the rapidly built-up cities “reflect society’s commitment to the pursuit of personal wealth. Wealth has become an end in itself rather than a means of achieving broader social
Market-driven criteria of commercial developers produce disastrous results, claims the architect. Rogers contends that “Building is pursued almost exclusively for profit. New buildings are perceived as little more than financial commodities, entries in company balance-sheets. Any expenditure not directly related to the making of short-term profit exposes developers to longer-term capital outlay, which makes the company less competitive and hence more vulnerable to financial exposure and ultimately to take-over.”5
Technological advances are changing our lives much faster that the buildings that house us. As the relative cost of the packaged and standardized steel and concrete buildings keeps on falling, they are being reproduced at an ever faster rate, providing neither enhancement of our lives nor enrichment. Today you can walk into new developments in most countries without getting a clue as to where you might be: Singapore, Milan, Toronto or Brisbane. There is unlikely to be any genuine difference in the style of the rectilinear or square boxes of multiple stories.
Another noted architect, Norman Foster, argues forcefully that in our world “Freedom of public space must be defended just as fiercely as freedom of expression, and that “The encroachment of private control demands public accountability.”
As I observed the new Microsoft research headquarters in the Cambridge project rise incredibly swiftly, I marveled how mechanical form now follows mechanical function. The characterless glass and steel box has become the established mark of modern acceptability and to counterbalance this has been the creation of the sensational in such works as the London Shard which exhibit the audacity and daring of both the designer and the builders.
As we move ahead in the 21st century, we must start to build structures and developments that emancipate and civilize. Greater emphasis must be placed on the “character” of the new buildings. This should somehow incorporate the contours, colors, shapes and shades of the natural environment. It should also, where feasible, enhance the tastes and heritage of the prospective inhabitants.
1“The New Towns of Britain.” Central Office of Information, January 1969.
2John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, 2014.
3Lewis Mumford “The Highway and the City,” 1953.
4Richard Rogers, Cities for a small planet, 1997, p.17