“We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Sir Winston Churchill.
I was lucky enough to go to a boarding school whose origins stretched back to the reign of Elizabeth I. The Latin School, as it was then known, occupied a place in the churchyard in Wantage until it was moved to its present site in 1849 and rebuilt in the Gothic style by J. B. Clacy. Clacy thoughtfully incorporated the Norman doorway of the old school into part of his design. I particularly remember the towering edifice we knew as ‘The Gods’ (demolished in the 70s) which comprised four high-ceilinged classrooms with gas mantles suspended above the tiered rows of desks (a handy source of ignition for the popular gasper and other experiments). We grew up surrounded by antiquity. We had a sense of being part of history and we contributed to it as well (though not always entirely respectfully).
Courtesy Historic England
I was also lucky to receive recently, a copy of James Stevens Curl’s new book, ‘Making Dystopia’, subtitled: ‘The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism’. In it, Curl sets out a compelling argument that architecture’s Modernist movement’s deliberate exclusion of ornament, denial of history and devotion to a new industrial architecture, has done more over the last 100 years to generate dysfunctional societies than we might care to admit.
I write this as I sit beside the Deep Water Bay at the docks in West Hartlepool (developed in the mid-19th Century) loading the Willem de Vlamingh cable layer. Across the bay is The Headland - old Hartlepool (origins 7th Century) – with a small fishing fleet moored around its breakwater. Locals are particularly firm in their allegiance to their respective territories.
Janecki z Krakowa and I are billeted at The Grand Hotel in West Hartlepool. The hotel, built in 1899, must have once been truly grand as evidenced by the surviving plasterwork and stained glass in and around the stairwell. Opposite the hotel is the former Wesley Chapel, built in 1872. Now roofless after a fire in the upper storey, it must have been equally majestic in its day.
Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ had been my only architectural reference until now and Curl’s book came as a broadside, opening my eyes to what’s around me as I go on my travels. Though Curl rightly highlights the lack of care and attention to context in many modern developments, he gives credit where it’s due. I think he would applaud the efforts made in the design of some of the newer buildings in Hartlepool that reflect the styles and materials used in the 19th Century. On the other hand, the cattle market shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds demonstrates Curl’s polemic perfectly. It resembles a lean-to of Bilbao’s Guggenhiem, dropped into a largely unspoilt Georgian market town.
Curl is forthright in his condemnation of the Modernist’s inability to create housing and workplaces that people might have liked to inhabit. Postmodern ‘celebrity’ architects who compete to design the next confection in the à la mode come in for short shrift, as do many architects continued slavish adherence to Corbusian dogma – Corbusier’s plans for the re-modelling of Paris are worth a look.
‘Making Dystopia’ is a seductively gripping read and Curl has avoided the academic convention of making things for the layman, all but unreadable. Curl's magnum opus is also a tough read for those like me who have no foundation in architectural history. As an indictment of the ‘one size fits all’ political and cultural landscape towards which we seem to be moving, Curl's book has exposed some of its roots with surgical precision.
Churchill would have got the point.