Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Architecture and Tradition

By David Hamilton

As you walk around English towns and cities you are struck by the masses of cranes bobbing in the sky. What these suggest is our town and city-scapes (urbiscapes) are being changed into something different. The architecture and the character of our towns and cities are part of our inherited culture.

Architects belong to a profession and have their own jargon and way of thinking and follow their own fashions. They follow each others’ work. One from Brazil I was in conversation with last week was stopping in London for a few days before going to look at some buildings in Paris. He spoke of how modern architecture is international not culture-specific and that it is big concerns that commission large projects. They are in the service of commerce.

There is a gap between architects and population which is expressed in the nicknames given to new buildings: The Gherkin and The Cheese Grater in London; in Liverpool, the Catholic cathedral is known as The Mersey Funnel or Paddy’s Wigwam and a piece of contemporary art in Newcastle is mocked as The Ice Cream Cone because it looks nothing like what it is supposed to represent. Contemporary buildings always look like something else and humorous metaphors highlight how comical they look! They can not be taken seriously and make the host city look silly.

An important factor is the break from traditional form. Tradition is renewed but slightly altered by additions like steps through time which is how change is normally effected, not by grand schemes that break the tradition like contemporary architecture and do not fit into their surroundings. This adds to the deculturation of local people who cease to feel they belong. Architecture needs to grow from tradition which helps anchor people in their community.

A cluster of buildings opposite The Lowry Gallery on Salford Quays near Manchester look as if they are collapsing not grand upstanding buildings that exude confidence in our culture: more an outpicture of our collapsing civilisation.

One appalling fashion in architecture is the widespread fashion for apartment blocks that are layered or serrated and look like Hong Kong slums; mini versions of The Kowloon Walled City - The City of Darkness, they look hideous from the start and will soon be unwanted slums.

In a world that is decultured we often feel a need to find our origins and be anchored to something deep and important that invests our lives with meaning and stability. On a recent visit to Cambridge a young Indian woman sat next to me and we got into conversation. She told me how a recent visit to India to see her grandparents had put her in touch with her culture. I explained that that is why I go to historic (traditional) towns. It seems strange doesn’t it? A man in his own country having to search for his culture!

Contemporary architecture dissociates people and makes them feel out of place in their home towns. Sheffield is a classic example and is being made ugly by new developments that have no relation to their surroundings or preceding buildings. If you talk to local people they are appalled at what is being done. It is as if the council have a grudge against them and want to destroy their city.

Continue reading at New English Review


Dr.D said...

Ordinary people need to speak up and let their voices be heard. This is their country that is being destroyed. It belongs to no other, and only they can save it.

Prince Charles has pretended to know about good architecture and to speak out on such matters. However, in this as in everything else, he has shown himself to be a caricature. At best he has been ineffective, at worst he has been damaging.

I agree with the author about the importance of architecture for the maintenance of culture. The modern monstrosities are clearly not a part of any culture, but rather more like something from outer space, and none of us can relate to them or feel comfortable with them. The best that can be hoped for is to not feel threatened. The answer, of course, is for the public to refuse to fund these mistakes. They need to be subject to public support, rather than being approved by a small committee. That would change the whole picture very rapidly.

Beverly said...

A multiplier of this change has been the destruction of those iconic symbols of a stable patrimony, the Country House. Although various forms of “Death Duties” have been in place since Napoleonic times, these were ratcheted up by twentieth century socialist governments, significantly contributing to loss of between 1200 and 1700 country houses. The tem “Socialist” implies a care for a society, yet “socialists” destroyed forever yet another part of the British cultural (and social) heritage with this architectural loss.

Anonymous said...

Beverley, a great deal of our heritage has been destroyed by Socialists but it was Lloyd George's early 20th Century attacks on the aristocracy that started it.