Battle of the Styles - no ceasefire in sight
13 Sep 2016
A recent celebration of the life of Michael Manser at the RA brought back many memories. Michael was a very supportive friend and mentor in the early days of our practice, and someone who over the years I always enjoyed meeting, often with his wife Jose. He was a true gentleman and a fine modernist architect whose legacy lives on through his son, Jonathan.
To many he will be remembered as the President of the RIBA in 1984, hosting its 150th anniversary at Hampton Court Palace. The guest speaker, Prince Charles launched his attack on modernism with his infamous and some would say discourteous “monstrous carbuncle” speech. It was an attack on modern architecture in general but its specific target was ABK’s national Gallery extension that was, as a result of his intervention, scrapped.
The architectural world is a very different place 32 years on, but the 'Battle of the Styles', as it was dubbed, is still being fought today. Nowhere is this more evident than central London where the balance between the historic fabric and the requirements of the market is consistently being challenged. The modernist thread of thin facades and curtain walling is still very much alive, however a more contextual modernism has emerged in the wake of Eric Parry’s Finsbury Square project. The best of this contextual architecture respects the grain and materiality of the city; it considers proportion, scale and public space and sits comfortably in its context.
Two recent projects on Victoria Street illustrate this very nicely. PLP’s Nova scheme presents a scaleless curtain walled envelope that could be anywhere in the developing world, yet it is only a mile or so from the Parliament Square. Closer still to Westminster is Patrick Lynch’s Zig Zag and Kings Gate buildings, built for the same developer, but intellectually and architecturally far superior. Lynch’s buildings have depth that allows the architecture to be read in layers rather than as a veneer, and that is what sets them apart from the curtain walled anonymity up the road. This is not to say that thin facades do not have a place, and the modernist tradition is still being pursued with elegant results, RSHP’s Leadenhall building for example.
It is not difficult to see how contextualism can be pushed to the point where it becomes pastiche. The desire to maximise internal floor areas suggests that facades should be as thin as possible. It is when a façade is flattened out and decorated that problems seem to occur, designers start to look at colour, decorative aluminium finials are attached, post modern references to fluting scribed into the 60mm stone cladding, fritted patterns on glass or laser cut decoration enlivens a dull envelope. Nearly all the buildings that made the cut for this years bdonline (Building Design) Carbuncle Cup - the legacy of that 1984 speech - demonstrate this trend.
The Battle of the Styles will rage on I am sure, the pressure to build quickly, and to build big will challenge all but the very best architects, BIM and off site construction will inevitably produce bland repetitive and unimaginative buildings. It is our duty as architects to think harder and longer about the decisions we make, decisions that will stand for decades to come.