The British and Modern Architecture – part 1

When I studied Architecture, I used to volunteer and work at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), helping out at lectures, exhibitions and film seasons and in the office that arranged them all. So it was nice to go back for a lecture last month, ‘Triumphs, Carbuncles and Hopeful Monsters – the British vs Modern Architecture’, as a paying guest – I used to always miss the beginning of Tuesday-night lectures because I was working front of house (and I didn’t miss my old role of being roving-mike carrier at the end either)!

The Brits Who Built the Modern World – exhibition

But first I had a look at their Brits Who Built The Modern World exhibition, in their new architecture gallery. It’s nice they have two rooms dedicated to exhibitions now – they used to happen on landings and in other spaces not really designed for the purpose.

The exhibition was smaller than I expected (I thought all the available ground-floor rooms would be used but one is still a conference room) but it’s great that it’s free.

The exhibition ties in with the recent BBC4 series of the same name, but where the programmes focused on High-Tech architects Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw and the Hopkinses, as well as the mainly Postmodern Terry Farrell, the exhibition includes a slightly more varied range of architects.

High-Tech was the dominant style when I was thinking about studying Architecture as a degree – the most prevalent, most talked-about and becoming the most influential.

Going back a bit further, I was brought up in Milton Keynes, where many late-C20 architects designed Modernist buildings – and the shopping centre was a masterpiece in glass, steel and marble – the same materials as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. I lived in Milton Keynes because my dad worked at the Open University there, so I have a soft spot for anything OU-related too, to go with my love of modern architecture. Neatly, this exhibition and series of events and TV programmes links in with Open University resources called Building Stories.

The show draws mainly on RIBA’s huge library of drawings and photos but includes some models lent by practices as well as some video clips – including one of Prince Charles’s ‘Monstrous Carbuncle’ speech 20 years ago, the starting point for the night’s lecture – more on that and him later.

I would have liked to see more models (I’m a bit old-school) and more video content showcasing the buildings (the clips were mainly interviews). But in a relatively small show they provide a taste of British architecture across the world from the post-war period to the present day (while a companion exhibition at the V&A covered the colonial architecture of the British Empire 1750-1950).

Highlights were discovering there’s a style called Tropical Modernism, and seeing some unfamiliar examples from little-known architects such as James Cubitt & Partners, working where the money (oil) was after the war.

Pivotal Pompidou Centre

I also liked Rogers & Piano’s B&B Italia offices in Como from 1973 – and described by them as a ‘small-scale dress rehearsal’ for their Pompidou Centre in Paris, which is a favourite of mine and features prominently in the exhibition. The Pompidou Centre is viewed as a pivotal building, a turning point where Modernist architecture started to branch away from concrete into a more High-Tech style, using lightweight materials and new building techniques, that came to dominate international public architecture for a while.

The Pompidou Centre (1971-1977), often described as a ‘fun palace’, was designed to rebel against the French president who commissioned the competition following the 1968 uprising and riots. The ‘inside out’ design puts not just the structure but also the services on the exterior, with pipes colour-coded for water, air, etc, and the flexible interior freed from fixed structure.

On the TV programme, Piano described it in terms of “machine language … like a tool, not a palace”. It was also the only one of the 681 competition entries that suggested creating a public piazza as part of the design. (More about piazzas and squares in part 2 of this post…)

Architect Amanda Levete said:

“There aren’t many buildings that actually change things forever; that they change the way we look at the world. Centre Pompidou spawned a new generation of architects who unashamedly celebrated the art of engineering in a way that was very explicit.”

In the book by RIBA Publications to accompany the exhibition and TV series, Hugh Pearman notes that the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, by Foster & Partners, was in a way the UK counterpart of the Pompidou Centre. In the book, he says that happening upon the Sainsbury Centre being built at the UEA alongside Denys Lasdun’s original campus buildings was a formative experience in his architectural journalism career. I would have liked to see more of Denys Lasdun’s and Basil Spence’s work generally but the organisers only included one example from each, choosing to focus on their overseas work. I’m not sure whether this was limited by the materials in the RIBA collection or by lack of space, or whether the focus of the exhibition was always intended to be mainly High-Tech with just a flavour of its antecedents, contemporaries and successors.

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