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Forty years ago this year, the Pompidou Centre opened its doors in Paris It was perhaps the most radical cultural building in the world, a statement of openness, flexibility, democracy and faith in the future. Some derided it as looking more like an oil refinery than a cultural centre, others ridiculed a building with its guts on the outside. But within months it became Paris’s most visited attraction, outstripping the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.
Its architect was Richard Rogers, the Briton who, with the Italian Renzo Piano, had been determined to create a new “High-Tech” architecture in which the audience determined the content — an idea of the future from the bottom up. It was to have been covered in multimedia screens, broadcasting its content to the city and the plaza in front — the space outside was as much a part of the architecture as the interior. These never happened and the escalator, once a free mobile viewing platform is now beyond the barriers, for ticket-holders only (partly in response to fears of terror attacks). Yet the brightly coloured building remains one of the most radical and striking structures to be built in the heart of a historic city.
Less than a decade earlier, the Greater London Council, working with some of the young architects who would go on to form Archigram, an avant-garde London practice whose work was as much influenced by comic books and sci-fi as it was by modernist architecture, had built the Hayward Gallery. A sculptural work of great power, it too was criticised by those for whom it was intended. It was described as a brutal, inhospitable concrete monstrosity and, as the rain began to stain its walls, it was little loved, except by artists who appreciated its austere, dramatic spaces.
Today Brutalism is fetishised and revered. Concrete clutters Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram feeds. Bookshop shelves sag under the weight of books as weighty as its concrete architecture. The architecture of the Hayward and its wider context, the South Bank, has become an indispensable part of London life. When proposals were made to build in the concrete undercrofts adopted by skateboarders in 2014, there was an outcry, and the city lobbied for the retention of the dark, dank spaces that were once so reviled.
London, it seemed, had finally fallen in love with modernism. Erno Goldfinger’s fiercely uncompromising Trellick Tower is now one of the city’s most desirable high-rises, the Barbican appears on tea towels and the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury has been rebranded as a contemporary destination. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist plaza is a settled part of establishment St James’s, although their Robin Hood Gardens housing in the East End idiotically is being demolished.
These buildings have now been adopted as heritage. But they were once the vanguard of contemporary architecture, glimpses into a radical utopian future. A cursory glance at London’s contemporary skyline shows a city falling over itself to build — more and taller. But compared with these buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, what will we leave behind? Has London architecture lost its radical edge? This is the city that built the world’s first municipal social housing, Shoreditch’s Boundary Estate, in 1890 — still a very fine place to live. Now we have the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, a fire allegedly accelerated by the cheap panels used for a cosmetic makeover to cover its uncompromising concrete. London, it appears, is no longer a city of radical architecture.
What went wrong and what can be done to restore this radical spirit? Should it be restored at all? Are we now too cynical for the avant garde? By its very nature radical architecture can upset. It is often, as was the case with the concrete behemoths of the South Bank, deeply unpopular when it is first built. Even the National Theatre and the Barbican, from the gentler end of the Brutalist spectrum, were much derided in their time (both finished in the 1970s when their rugged concrete style had become passé). Since Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building in 1986 there has been little architecture in London in recent years that could be called visionary or radical.
The one architect who introduced a genuinely original new approach was the late Zaha Hadid, but her finest architecture is elsewhere. London proved largely resistant to her unconventional style and only the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics and the Evelyn Grace Academy stand as testament to her talent — and both were compromised by cost-cutting. The most successful public building has been reuse of an existing, epic space, Herzog & de Meuron’s superb repurposing of Bankside power station as the Tate Modern gallery.
The city’s current architecture is surprisingly conservative. Most of the hundreds of towers sprouting across the city, or about to, are clad in polite brick, a sop to planning officers who like buildings to “fit in”. Developers have resorted to a polite modernism — polite in materials if not scale — and need to sell their schemes, so that architectural response is a commercial imperative.
The radical blockbusters from the 1960s and 1970s were all, without exception, backed by the state or the city. Real radical architecture needs the intervention of the authorities as the private sector will never take that kind of risk. The result has been a legacy that transformed the civic spaces of the city, but what is the legacy of today? The state and the city have withdrawn from architecture, with shocking results in the housing market and a lack of leadership in the public realm.
Today, London’s civic spaces are the byproduct of commercial development, the results of promises made by developers to create public amenity as a condition of planning consent — the Section 106 agreement. Ironically, Paris, which once imported its radical architecture from London in the form of the Pompidou Centre, now has a much more visionary approach to building. From its new museums to its spaces for swimming to its inventive and extensive new social housing programme and revival of industrial space, it is much more of a nexus for interesting architecture.
The Greater London Council’s architecture department used to be the biggest architecture office in the world, and its younger, hungrier architects made more innovative work. Now the city architect is a vague memory — only Croydon is making any real effort to revive public architecture. Much of what came out of the GLC’s golden age was poor and has not stood the test of time. Perhaps its utopianism and self-confidence now look naive and arrogant. But the upside was a layer of public and social architecture that still contributes to the city and still surprises. Until the city takes architecture seriously again, we will have to rely on the radicals of the past for our architectural thrills.