Defiantly other

The dark knights return: four profoundly unfashionable buildings in London.

Number One, Poultry, is an office and retail corner block at the heart of the City of London by James Stirling, first designed in 1985, but only completed posthumously by Michael Wilford in 1997. It is a good and interesting building, publicly permeable, multi-layered, the antidote to most commercial speculations of the time. But it is also 1980s post-modern (PoMo) in style. The style is not yet old enough to have come back into favour. So the big fat Pharaonic hen of Poultry – look, you can see the folded wings, and its beak, and it sits on a circular nest – must bide its time. It is generally regarded as a late aberration by a once-great architect. Besides, the design replaced an unbuilt slab by Mies van der Rohe, an architect openly worshipped by devotees. No, it is just not done, to like Number One Poultry.

Still less so, the MI6 building by Terry Farrell on the riverside at Vauxhall. This is one of three big PoMo palaces Farrell contributed to London at the end of the 1980s – the others being the “mating jukeboxes” of Alban Gate on London Wall and the arched office development over Charing Cross station. MI6 is the one that works, despite being savagely anti-urban. It’s not in the same league as Poultry, but it has a weird integrity: a Mayan temple crossed with the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Rome. It is billboard architecture, crude stuff in blastproof smooth buff concrete and green glass, but it’s got something going for it. It is a real fortress and it looks like one. It is, of course, off the critical radar. Farrell is regarded as a dangerous lightweight. Worse, an apostate who renounced the shining path of modernism, a charge Stirling managed to avoid because of the strength of his back catalogue. For this sin, Farrell has never been forgiven. To admit to liking the MI6 building is to invite ridicule.

(Let’s get one thing straight: this is not a piece in praise of 1980s postmodernism. In general I regard that period with distaste bordering on loathing. But every period, every style, yields some pieces worthy of more than knee-jerk dismissal. To continue:)

Another Thameside building, Portcullis House by Michael Hopkins, is not PoMo, but is as intensely disliked as if it was. Finally completed in 2000, it had been designed at the start of the 1990s. This is a very large annexe to the Palace of Westminster. Hopkins attempted to be contextual without resorting to historicism. Busy facades and a chimneyfied roofscape are the result. He also designed it as a pioneering naturally-ventilated low-energy building with a 250-year lifespan. He might as well not have bothered. Because Hopkins is a truth-to-materials man, and because everything you see has a defined function rather than being merely decorative, his reputation survived the mauling this building received, though it hastened his slide into unfashionability. His subway stations underneath are OK, people say kindly. Yes, everybody hates Portcullis House.

The final building of my quartet was also designed for the long term. The British Library at St. Pancras was pretty much the life’s work of Colin St. John Wilson. It too went through various iterations but the entrance sequence you see and move through today is exactly as Wilson designed it in the late 1970s. It was heavily influenced by Wilson’s Scandinavian-modern heroes (part of the “alternative tradition” of modernism as he saw it). Wilson also saw the 19th century English Free Style as part of this tradition, and was comfortable being right next to the neo-Gothic fantasy of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Hotel. The materials of the Library, and its massing, reference Scott. None of which counted for much, partly because people were nostalgic for the historical associations of the old Reading Room in the British Museum, mostly because Wilson’s was by then the architecture of an earlier era. When the Library finally opened in 1998, it was greeted with a huge collective yawn. Today it is seldom discussed. It is just there. You are eyed askance if you say you admire the British Library.

All four of these buildings are clearly massively unfashionable. But not just today. More interestingly, the length of time it took to bring each to final completion meant that each of them was unfashionable from the moment it was completed. Unlike many buildings which are praised extravagantly when new, only to be critically re-evaluated later (think of Tate Modern by Herzog and de Meuron, or the British Museum’s Great Court by Foster), these four were scarcely praised at all. They had no grace to fall from.

But are they bad, these four unloved buildings by four knighted architects? Well no, if you consider what bad architecture actually is. Truly bad architecture is what you get, say, on both sides of Battersea Reach, upstream of Chelsea, where various developers and their poodle architects have created Dubai-on-Thames, a Chasm of Aesthetic Doom. The real pits are what you find skewered by blogger “ghostofnairn” on his Bad British Architecture site. That’s what bad is. But the really bad stuff doesn’t excite much critical attention either. We take that for granted.

So what is it about these four buildings, if they are not actually bad architecture, rather just not old enough or modish enough? Perhaps they are ugly. Certainly none of them could be described as elegant. But then again, there are plenty of ugly buildings that are regarded as masterpieces, particularly if the Smithsons are involved, and it’s all a bit subjective, isn’t it? Piers Gough, seemingly the only British postmodernist of that generation it is OK to like, can produce only ugly buildings in my view, and everybody seems to love the old rascal. Will Alsop, ditto. So that argument carries no weight.

Ah, but all of these buildings are SOLID. Here we’re getting somewhere. In their different ways, they all sidestep the high-tech orthodoxy of British architecture’s ruling priesthood. Heavy masonry, solid bronze, big lowering roofs in the case of Wilson and Hopkins. All four of these buildings reject the assumption that transparency and lightness are necessarily virtuous. That does not make them all monumental in character – Farrell’s is the only obvious monument, Stirling’s is a riff on Victorian commercial architecture surrounded by far more monumental older buildings, Hopkins defers to Barry and Pugin, while Wilson tries every trick he knows to avoid grandeur and bulk. But all offer an alternative to the shiny-cladding look beloved of picture editors everywhere. These are matt-finish buildings. It is dangerous to deny picture editors their glitter.

All four of my problem buildings are by good architects, and I include Farrell there because – despite some high-profile misses like Alban Gate – he has interesting things in his portfolio and is an original thinker. I’m no huge Farrell fan – he’s just too clunky for me. But I know that the worst Farrell PoMo is streets ahead of the commercial copycat stuff from the same period that nobody ever talks about except in general terms.

This is one of the curious things about architectural criticism: the worst offenders routinely escape censure because they are never considered worthy of criticism in the first place. The baddies escape every time. However, better architects who are perceived to have stepped out of line somehow, or to have missed the mark – those are the ones who take the rap. Today’s fall guys are Make, the practice that splintered off from Foster and is thus forever doomed to be unfavourably compared with him. I don’t like most of what Make does myself. But there are infinitely worse architects out there. Really.

I will confess now that I have a perhaps perverse liking for a lot of unfashionable architecture. I am interested in its very unfashionableness. I like the fact that Basil Spence is regarded as being Not Modern Enough. I like Seifert’s Centre Point even though some still sneer at it for being derivative, because I know that all architecture is derivative of something. I know that provincial architecture is, well, provincial. I try to accept it for what it is. I know that personality-led practices will always garner more critical attention than good anonymous firms, and that this is not necessarily fair.

I am keenly aware of the snobbery underlying many critical pronouncements on architecture, including my own. The fact that there is effectively a list of architects and buildings and places that it is deemed appropriate to like, and another list that causes fastidious noses to wrinkle, fascinates me. I’ve been accused of being over-fastidious myself, and I can be. But cities are made of all sorts of different architectures. I therefore resist being told what to like, and what not to. Perhaps this comes from never having been trained as an architect, and thus having avoided indoctrination. Perhaps I just have poor taste. Whatever.

All of this is by way of explaining why I am interested in these four problem London buildings by Stirling, Farrell, Hopkins and Wilson. It won’t do, just to airily dismiss them as all somehow crap. It makes me wonder why Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London, say – also a long time in the making, and out of its time when finished – is NOT perceived as problematic (or even PoMo) when it could easily be argued to be both, is frantically overwrought, and is, if not actively ugly, at least jolie-laide. I like it. In the end, it’s not what a building is, or does, or looks like. It is how it is perceived. And perceptions can change.

St. Pancras is a fine example. High Victorian architecture of this kind was routinely derided right up to the 1970s. In the 1950s, you could hardly give away Pre-Raphaelite paintings. When Wilson started designing the British Library next door to St. Pancras, it was still under threat of demolition. Only Pevsner astutely noted how paradoxically modern it was in its planning. Similarly, the work of Denys Lasdun, say. One forgets just how deeply hated it once was, until his reputation was salvaged by a new generation of critics. I contend that my quartet of buildings – if they survive this dangerous period in the critical wilderness – will sooner or later regain favour.

I am aware of the law of critical bounceback – that because you take an oppositional position, the temptation is to over-praise your chosen subject matter in compensation. I’ll try not to. All these four buildings have their flaws (name me a building that doesn’t). Farrell can’t do fine detail, his building is cartoon-like. Wilson somehow avoids a main façade altogether, has a weak clocktower, and uses jarring colours and some flimsy-looking materials in places. That big black bronze roof of Hopkins seems to suck light and joy out of its surroundings. Poultry is perhaps too much of a drawing-board geometric exercise and is certainly wayward in its Egyptian references. But it works, and it works well.

I revisited all four on the same day while writing this. I actively enjoy two of them – Poultry and the British Library, both of which engage very successfully with the public – whereas with the security-maxed MI6 and the aptly-named Portcullis House, it’s more a case of seeing and appreciating what the architect is up to, which is not the same thing. However, the tour confirmed my view that all four are overdue a reappraisal.

If I had to sacrifice one to save the other three, it would be Farrell’s MI6. Sorry, Terry. And if I had to take just one of the four with me to my desert island? Stirling’s big fat hen, no question. I’d sit in its roof garden, or stand in its conning tower, and gaze out to sea. Watching the stylistic tides wash back and forth.

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. An exchange of views on Twitter made it impossible for me not to write this, not least because it organises my own previously muddled thoughts on the subject.


Stirling talks about 1 Poultry in 1991:
I cautiously review the completed building in 1998:
British Library opening, also 1998:
I review Portcullis House in 2000:
Really bad British architecture:
B******s to Architecture: