In bad times architecture rethinks

From Empire State to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: how recessions produce fine architecture.

There’s nothing like a recession for bringing architecture back to its senses. With less being built, there’s time to think. Overblown stylings are out the window. New Puritanism stalks the streets. By and large, this is a good thing. For instance, the last recession brought down the curtain on the unlamented ticky-tacky decadence of the post-modern, Lawson-boom era. A new generation of cool modernists was born. But what does this one herald?

Less is definitely more when it comes to dumb shopping malls, nondescript speculative office blocks, sprawling edge-of-town housing estates, indoor ski slopes, mass-market tourist developments and just about anything in Dubai, a wholly invented place that future historians and archaeologists will have a lot of trouble explaining. But don’t run away with the idea that, suddenly, nobody is building anything anymore. They are. In the Great Depression of early 1930s America, the incredibly ambitious building of Manhattan’s three great skyscrapers demonstrated a dogged confidence in the future that turned out to be fully justified. Thus we have the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and the Rockefeller Centre, always my favourite because it expands into a complete city district at its base. Given this precedent, I’m not remotely surprised to find that, though some plans for new City of London skyscrapers are on hold, others are not.

In Britain, the Odeon-like Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon by Elisabeth Scott was built during the same slump, 1929 – 1932. Oddly enough its £100m successor by Bennetts Associates with theatre consultants Charcoalblue is being built right now – within the shell of the old building, during another big recession. The much tighter new 1,000 – seat theatre will open in 2010.

But back to the City of London. Richard Rogers’ proposed 737-foot Leadenhall tower – nicknamed the Cheesegrater, just across the road from his famous Lloyd’s of London building – is to have its construction halted for the time being at foundation level. But the1,016-foot “Shard” by his old chum Renzo Piano at London Bridge is powering ahead. And while you can’t help wondering about an equally controversial project, the 500-foot hooded cobra of Rafael Vinoly’s Fenchurch Street tower (the stop-or-go decision there is planned for March) things seem set fair for another supertall example, the 945-foot “Pinnacle” on Bishopsgate. That’s better known as the “Helter Skelter” because of its spiralling shape, and is by American architects KPF. To put it in context, that’s half as tall again as the existing Tower 42 (previously the NatWest Tower) or Norman Foster’s newer Gherkin.

Take a stroll through the City today and – although there are perhaps fewer cranes than there used to be – you’d almost think there was a boom on, what with big lower-rise developments under way by the likes of France’s Jean Nouvel or London’s Nicholas Grimshaw. Further west you’ll find Piano doing another of these big-but-not-skyscraperish commercial schemes right next to Centre Point at the end of Oxford Street, while Rogers is well advanced with his enormous ultra-luxury apartment blocks for the Candy brothers in Knightsbridge. These, of course, were all begun long ago and – barring absolute economic Armageddon – are too far along to stop now.

Around the country, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the bubble of speculative apartment building has burst. Most of those formulaic new blocks pepperpotting city centres were driven not by need, but by overseas investor clubs transfixed by capital gain, who often had no interest in seeing them occupied. Good riddance to them. On the plus side, however, some promising cultural projects have made it through the madness.

Despite everything people like to say about the alleged maladroitness of Liverpool, it is now well advanced with its new £70m Museum of Liverpool on the revived Pierhead. Shame they sacked the original Danish architect – shades of the Sydney Opera House there – but at least it’s there, and will open in 2010. Meanwhile in London, we shall shortly be seeing a £13m extension (into a former public library) of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, courtesy of Belgian architects Robbrecht en Daem. It will open in April, nearly double its previous size.

I find myself wondering about London’s biggest cultural project, Tate Modern’s £215m extension into a brick-and-glass ziggurat behind the old power station of the original building. Last time I checked, they were still hoping to get the thing done ultra-fast in time for the 2012 London Olympics (a revised planning application goes in this month, January), but had raised only one-third of the money. Unless director Sir Nicholas Serota has some magic cash fountain, I’d expect some backpedalling soon. Which would be a shame, as now is a great time to build. It’s getting cheaper. So if a powerful city like Birmingham can find the wherewithal to build its proposed new cultural quarter (central library and Birmingham Rep combined), now’s the time to get on with it. And if not – well, there are plenty of defenders of the existing Brutalist 1970s library.

One group of people who always look on the bright side during a recession is the conservation lobby. Less good existing stuff gets knocked down. For instance, the City of London was making big plans to expand its office empire both east – into the old East End – and west, into Smithfield. Those plans are now on hold, with overblown plans for Smithfield axed and a new architect, John McAslan, appointed to come up with something more appropriate.

Across the UK, you’ll find lots of schools being built – some good, some awful. Many hospitals and clinics. Even a surprising amount of private housing, in expansion zones like Milton Keynes, Ashford and Didcot. Big new inter-city railway stations, such as London King’s Cross by John McAslan (again), and Birmingham New Street by rising stars Foreign Office Architects, are in hand. And there’s always our Austerity Olympics. The work cannot stop. The main stadium is now emerging.

Stuff, then, is happening. But stylistically? Well, the New Puritans are triumphant at the thought of the death of the weird-shaped icon building. It’s not dead yet – Abu Dhabi is still collecting the things, for instance, building itself a cultural history overnight – but the end of its reign is perhaps in sight, for the time being. Did the year that saw the death of Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House and thus the progenitor of the whole icon craze, mark the end of the line? Only, I think, until the money returns. But when it does, history tells us that the architecture will be different.

Every artistic movement has its decadent phase, followed by a clearing out of the aesthetic stables. This time will be no different for architecture, but for one interesting detail. Last time round saw a return to clean-cut modernism and the ruthless expunging of post-modern ornament. This time round, some at least of the New Puritans are getting very interested in ornament again. Odd though it may seem, we may be in for quite a bout of pattern-making in the next wave of buildings. But they’re more likely to be a sensible shape.

Text © Hugh Pearman. An expanded version of the article published in The Sunday Times, 4th January 2009, as “All hail the New Puritans”.

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