No longer a crime

Pause moment: with high-tech now historic, is New Ornamentalism taking hold?

You just can’t get rid of some architects. If they’re successful, everyone wants to use them. The older they get, the more in demand they are. It was true in the past of America’s Frank Lloyd Wright and France’s Le Corbusier, it’s true today of America’s Frank Gehry, Italy’s Renzo Piano, Britain’s Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. This has always been an art where wide acceptance comes relatively late in life – though the current crop of septuagenarians are striplings compared with Oscar Niemeyer, creator of Brasilia, who is incredibly still working at 100. Even so, we’re now at a pause moment. What on earth comes next?

The problem is most acute here in Britain, because in Britain we have enjoyed a long, golden era of architectural eminence. It might not have seemed quite that way to those of us living here, but that’s because we generally mistrust our best architects, and force them to make their names overseas. And that’s what began our last great period. When Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, with no work to speak of in Britain or Italy, jointly won the competition to build the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1971, the nascent style known as High Tech hit the world stage. Rogers’ former partner Foster was close behind: his seminal Willis Faber (now Willis Corroon) building of 1975 in Ipswich is now Grade 1 listed – hence protected – as architecturally and historically important. Rogers’ follow-up to the Pompidou, the Lloyd’s of London building he won in 1978 and finished in 1986, is now also likely to be listed soon, to protect it against unseemly alterations.

That tells you everything. When a given style is regarded by conservationists as under threat, then plainly it is no longer current. High Tech is still a highly saleable currency – look at Foster’s mega-projects in Russia and China, or Rogers’ billion-Euro Barajas airport in Madrid, so much better than his compromised T5 at Heathrow. Rogers is also enjoying a retrospective exhibition at London’s Design Museum, fresh from its showing at the Pompidou. But younger architects don’t design like that. It’s so last century. Incredible, in a way, that it’s had the run it has.

Come to that, even the younger architects working for the famous names don’t do things the same way. Nor do they necessarily default to one of the other tropes of recent times – the “polite modern” white box. Recently derided by no less a luminary than Kevin McCloud, head of the Grand Designs aspirational-home franchise, the truth is that the white box is another 1990s thing, and has – like the weird-shaped icon-building boom – run its course. So what do we find instead?

Rogers’ co-operatively-run firm is now known as Rogers Stirk Harbour. Ivan Harbour, one of those younger names, is responsible for the first Maggie’s cancer-support centre in England, in London’s Hammersmith, just opened. It’s a graceful, cheerful, modest and very necessary little building and it is nothing like the work his boss used to do. Hand-crafted, solid-walled, richly-coloured, not remotely mechanistic beyond the gesture of its floating roof canopy. Arguably this is not so much in the high-tech tradition, as in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Which, appropriately enough, defined the previous high point of British architecture, a century ago.

However, Harbour’s Maggies’ Centre does not engage with the latest obsession in British architecture, known as New Ornamentalism. In a nutshell, ornament is no longer a crime. Actually, a lot of High Tech was ornamentation by stealth – all those exposed struts and pipes and connectors were finding ways to dress up the basic box – but there was always an underlying functional rationale. With New Ornamentalism, there is no such thing. Ornament is just ornament.

It’s been around for a while, of course – architect Will Alsop, always the cheerful maverick, never had any crisis of conscience over strictly unnecessary stuff like decoration. From his Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library to the black-and-white box on stilts that is his Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto, he blazed a trail in the jazzy surface treatment of low-budget buildings. And of course the very famous Herzog and de Meuron have been playing around with surface decoration throughout their careers. Indeed, to some extent they legitimised it.

Alsop champions one of the larkier younger sets of architects, the firm known as FAT (it stands for Fashion, Architecture, Taste, provocative words when they set up shop in the late 1990s). FAT is now getting to build, rather than merely goad people, as they did in the early days, with manifesto slogans like “Kill the modernist within”. Take the abstracted (concrete) Gothic screen of their Sint Lucas Art Academy at Boxtel in the Netherlands. It’s actually a very old architectural device – the imposing new façade uniting a less than sublime collection of older buildings behind, in this case from the 1960s. It’s none the worse for being lightly leavened with humour.

The same is true of the new John Lewis department store in Leicester, now being completed by one of the starrier younger names of the moment, Foreign Office Architects or FOA. Department stores, like theatres and art galleries, are blank-walled boxes that have to be dealt with somehow. FOA are a deadly serious bunch, but in Leicester they used net curtains – sold by the kilometre in John Lewis – as an inspiration. The result is a hugely enlarged filigree pattern, sandwiched in glass to form the building’s skin. When were net curtains ever trendy? In this form, they are.

The equally serious firm of Caruso St. John, best known for its austerely beautiful New Art Gallery in Walsall, shocked their fans when they fervently embraced multi-coloured patterning on their Museum of Childhood extension in London’s Bethnal Green in 2006. They are now busy building an arts centre in Nottingham with coloured concrete panels moulded with, again, local lace patterns.

New ornamentalism comes in many forms, however. Some architects still can’t stomach pattern-making for its own sake. Instead, they shuffle the windows around, use bright colours, work with artists, or do all three simultaneously, as another younger firm – Haworth Tompkins – have done with the Coin Street neighbourhood centre in London’s Waterloo. There they worked with artist Antoni Malinowski, a partnership that goes back to their first big cultural project, the Royal Court Theatre rebuild. It’s as if artists have licence to do things that architects cannot. They give permission to be unfunctionalist.

What does all this tell us? That following the eclipse of high-tech, the pendulum-swing between rigorous, minimalist modern and decorative post-modern has slowed to a halt. There are no longer any knee-jerk value judgments to be made about what is good and bad, style-wise. We are at an interesting moment. But although New Ornamentalism is the most obvious of the various trends going on right now – shaggy eco-tech is another, the sort where buildings sprout plants and wind turbines – these don’t really add up to a movement as internationally significant or long-lasting as High Tech was.

I look at it this way. If Arts and Crafts faded at the start of the 20th century, and High Tech at the start of the 21st, then how long are we going to have to wait for the next authentically British architectural movement to emerge? Quite some time, probably. All that pattern-making might just be architects doodling while they try to think up something new.

Text and photos of Maggie’s Centre, London, and Coin Street Neighbourhood centre © Hugh Pearman. Photo of John Lewis store, Leicester, © Helene Binet. Photo of Sint Lucas Academy courtesy of FAT. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on May 11, 2008, as “Think outside the white box”.


Richard Rogers at the Design Museum until August 25:
Helene Binet, architectural photographer:
FAT architects:
Haworth Tompkins architects:
Caruso St. John architects:
Essays on Britishness in architecture, edited by Hugh Pearman: