Why Churches?

The practice of visiting historic churches (especially of taking, say, two busses out to a remote village to do so) is not a fashionable one. It is something to be filed alongside clingfilm-encrusted egg salad sandwiches, lukewarm pints of Hobgoblin, inveterate curtain-twitching and an unhealthy obsession with the genetic make-up of the Anglo-Saxons. Historic churches, increasingly shorn of their original purpose, are gradually being absorbed by The Heritage Industry, to be melted down into raw Heritage and reconstituted as easily consumable chunks of National Story. Anyone under thirty visiting a church – especially one outside of a city – is likely, if anyone is about, to be met with dark looks and an unspoken What are you doing here? 

In spite of all that, there are very few things I would rather do with an idle afternoon than tuck a Pevsner under my arm and spend a couple of hours peering at a chancel arch. It is a fixation I don’t think I can really help – churches, and all their architectural elements, are objects of endless mystery and fascination to me. As a relatively young person, as a socialist, and as someone who is (I like to flatter myself) on some level engaged with, and not completely pessimistic about, modernity and contemporary culture, I have often struggled to reconcile this fixation with the small-though-often-big-C conservatism of the average church-snooper. I don’t generally like Philip Larkin (at all) but I think he had it about right when, in his poem “Church Going”, he singled out the “ruin-bibber randy for antique”. I love churches (not to mention canals, real ale, folk music and the South Downs) but I don’t recognise myself in these people.

It was (surprise!) William Morris who, for me, pointed towards a way out. Morris – himself ironically at serious risk of being absorbed wholesale into the tea towel industry – was both a committed socialist and what might today be called a serious anorak when it came to churches. Successor in part of the (mostly) backward-looking High Tory radicalism of figures like Pugin, Ruskin and Carlyle, Morris rejected their conservatism to develop a view of Gothic architecture which pointed towards the possibility of a method of working which was exuberant, unfettered and free of alienation. His utopian vision consisted of this Gothic method of working spread amongst society as a whole, manifesting itself not in a Merrie England of jovial peasants and pleasant cottages (as is often erroneously assumed) but in a boundless proliferation of as-yet-unknowable artistic forms.

I don’t want to go on too much about Morris because a) I think everyone should go and read him for themselves and b) that’s not really the purpose of this short blog post, which is essentially to justify my weird hobby (and maybe to insist on its reclamation from the ruin-bibbers). My opinions on churches certainly derive from my reading of Morris, but they are, I think, mine nonetheless, and I want to try and work them out here. For me, historic churches – especially those built in the Gothic style – are structures radically free from the grim architectural triumvirate of dull utilitarianism, thoughtless extravagance and slavish imitation (they have this in common with the best works of Modernism). Gothic builders adapt, negotiate, synthesise and create – the basic structural forms are all of a type (pointed arch, vaulted ceiling, roll moulding, nave, chancel, transepts and so on), but the way those forms are used – their dimensions, their placement, their decoration – is wonderfully elastic. Gothic architecture flowers into a dense foliage capital, flies off into a rib vault, thuds back to earth in a heavy column, flits about in a web of tracery, whispers fervent prayers high up in the clerestory, laughs in a gloomy corner with a leering grotesque. Scattered about, meanwhile, are lurid wall-paintings, serene brasses, morbid tombs, little carved figures. The little figures especially seem to reveal themselves at random, dancing, drinking wine, sinning, repenting, doing good works, farting.

The best historic churches, then, point to something outside of the flattened, cynical parts of our contemporary moment, the horizons of which seem sometimes to be irrevocably shrinking. Whether crudely or masterfully done – and Gothic architecture can, wonderfully, accommodate both – they gesture towards a latent capacity in people to think, feel and labour in a way which is by turns urgent, curious, tranquil, thrilling, profound, active, irreverent, bizarre, loving and fearful, and moreover to embody these emotional capacities in a collective sense, in the work that they do and the places where they gather. Historic churches are, more than most buildings, the work of innumerable and unknowable hands, often reaching across centuries to embrace one another, and in this they are works of empathy as much as works of masonry. This (I like to think) is not to indulge in nostalgia – I don’t think we should all jack it in and become stonemasons. Churches are, like everything historical, objects of our most remote futures as much as they are of our murky past. They are the tangible crystallisations of hidden potentialities which are at once strangely outside of us and irrevocably tied to us.

The custodians of the Heritage Industry will try and tell you that churches stand for Something Quintessentially English, or that they represent the value of tradition, or piety, or even “the countryside” in some horrible fossilised sense. They are wrong. Churches are living works of art, as much as any work of art can be said to be the product of living brains and limbs, and the things they have to tell us are far stranger, and far more revolutionary.

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My grandmother and the Holocaust

NB: I have put this post on this blog because I don’t have anywhere else to upload it. It is not directly relevant to architecture.

Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary film Shoah took eleven years to make, six of which were dedicated to gathering testimony in the form of recorded interviews. Originally commissioned to make a two-hour feature film, Lanzmann ended up amassing over three-hundred and fifty hours of footage, which, after five further years of editing, he managed to pare down to just over nine hours. Those nine hours are the form which the finished film took (the outtakes themselves have been made into four separate feature films). The film’s length is one of its most vital attributes: the Holocaust, it is suggested, was such a vast, sprawling historical evil – such a colossal, world-shattering catastrophe – that a serious attempt to create a documentary account of it must contort itself far beyond and out of the established forms of conventional filmmaking.

I think of this fact when I think of the life of my paternal grandmother, Ruth – ‘Nanny’, as I knew her (‘Nanny’, perhaps, to her numerous great-grandchildren too). Born in 1929 in what was then the city of Gleiwitz, on the border between Upper Silesia (then German territory) and Poland, she was part of a Jewish family, and was herself Jewish – Kapitza was the family name. Gleiwitz would become known to posterity through the ‘Gleiwitz incident’ of 1939, during which members of the SS posed as Polish militants and attacked a German radio station in order to provide a pretext for their invasion of Poland later that year. Of her childhood in Gleiwitz (now the Polish city of Gliwice) she said very little – or, at least, very little to me. Her reticence on the subject is completely understandable, of course, but the truth is that I was, for most of the time in which I knew her, too young to understand her experiences during that time, or, later, not appreciative of their extent and profound importance. In 1938 (one year before the Gleiwitz incident), along with her mother (her father had died some years earlier from tuberculosis), she fled Gleiwitz for England, settling eventually in Preston, Lancashire, where she remained for the rest of her life. She converted to the Catholic faith, something which for her possessed a deep and abiding importance. She also met my grandfather Ronald – ‘Grandad’ – in Preston, and in due time her surname was changed from Kapitza to Spurrier. In 2015, on the shoulders of her children and grandchildren, her coffin was carried into the graveyard at St Mary’s church in Fernyhalgh, a small red-brick building of the eighteenth century, surrounded by fields, where she was buried next to the primary school at which she had once been a teacher.

I think of my grandmother when I watch Shoah because that film has led me to understand something about the importance of her experience. I have sometimes felt as though my family’s connection to the catastrophic historical wound of the Holocaust is somehow insufficiently direct. There are scores of people alive today who had parents or grandparents murdered, who had sisters, brothers, wives, husbands or children murdered; who came close to death themselves. Neither myself, nor my father, nor any of his siblings are Jewish in a religious sense, though the bizarre and arbitrary system of Nazi racial classification would identify my father as ‘Mischling [‘mixed blood’] of the first degree’, and me as ‘Mischling of the second degree’, theoretically barring us from higher education and restricting who we could marry (if we had lived in German-annexed Poland at the time, as my grandmother did, it is likely that we would have been classed simply as ‘Jewish’, and exterminated).

What watching (and then re-watching) Shoah has taught me is that to attempt to establish any kind of hierarchy of suffering when speaking about the Holocaust is to view it in fundamentally flawed terms. Lanzmann refused to structure his film in chronological order, arguing that to do so would be to impose an artificial sense of order on a historical cataclysm so sprawling and horrific as to defy sense-making. The Holocaust is not a singular historical event, the details of which can be sifted through and neatly ordered into categories, and neither can it be made sense of in isolated parts (though the thorough study of its every minute detail, from its earliest causes to the specifics of its organisation, is, of course, an absolute necessity). The Holocaust was, and remains, an incomprehensibly vast ocean of grief and anguish, a knotted, tangled, boundless forest of acute human cruelties and centuries-old oppressions, a teeming mass of trauma on a huge and complex scale. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, spoke the following words to Lanzmann in an interview for Shoah: “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” That poison is spread deep and wide, and one affected part cannot be separated from any other.

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Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

My grandmother avoided the onslaught of the Wehrmacht by one year. That act of escape – which meant exile, at the age of nine, from the country she had known since birth, as well as separation from her entire family, most of whom, I am told, were murdered in the succeeding years – led eventually to the creation of a very large family of her own. It also led to my existence. I never asked her about her life before I knew her, nor did she readily speak about it. What I know about her life – which is still not very much – I have pieced together through other people: I learned at her funeral that she often remembered the horse-drawn carts that would clatter through the streets of Gleiwitz. She remembered also being pelted with stones as a young girl on her way to school.

In 2016, my brother and I returned to the country of my grandmother’s birth. We did not visit the city now known as Gliwice, though we passed through its immediate neighbour, Katowice, on our way from Poland to Vienna. We had been staying in Kraków, from where we visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz – now Oświęcim – which were only thirty-five miles or so from Gliwice. We had arrived on an impossibly slow, impossibly antiquated train. In the main camp – Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau – neither of us spoke much. I was fixated on just how industrial the entire place appeared, and could not help but contemplate how many of my ancestors had ended their lives within its confines (a contemplation in which, so some of the faces around me seemed to suggest, I was by no means alone). We returned to Kraków on a bus laden with tourists. In the cathedral at Vienna, my brother lit a candle.

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Imaginary Edinburgh

If you go to Edinburgh’s New Town and stand at the corner of George Street and Hanover Street, looking south towards The Mound, you will be duly rewarded with a compelling piece of architectural symmetry. The weighty columns of the stubbornly Greek Royal Academy building greet the eye first, their thick rotundity rooted resolutely to the earth. Behind that, the belligerent pinnacles of the Elizabethan-style New College bristle just above the skyline. Farther off still, the spire of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall (now ‘The Hub’), a Pugin-esque soot-blackened needle, looms malevolently over its neighbours. If you are standing in the right place – dead in the middle of Hanover Street – you will see these buildings line up spectacularly, as though each had sprouted out of the one before it (I made a poor attempt to photograph this spectacle about a year and a half ago, the results of which are below).

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I owe this observation to a lecturer, speaking at the Scottish National Gallery, whose name and even occupation I have utterly forgotten (my apologies, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this). This nameless speaker made a comparison between the aforementioned architectural assemblage and the genre of painting, popular between the 17th and 19th centuries, known as Capriccio, in which an artist places together numerous buildings – often imaginary, often historically disparate – in a kind of sublime, fantastical vision. This genre was taken to its heady extremes in the 19th century by artists such as Charles Robert Cockerell and Thomas Cole. Our speaker even suggested that his Hanover Street assemblage had been deliberately constructed as a tangible manifestation of this artistic genre.

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‘The Professor’s Dream’ (1848) by C. R. Cockerell

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‘The Architect’s Dream’ (1840) by Thomas Cole

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‘Altitude Comparison’ (1840), by C. R. Cockerell

The existence of such a thing in Edinburgh points to some of the city’s wider architectural qualities. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid once described Edinburgh as “a mad god’s dream”. Mad gods aside, he was right: Edinburgh is a dream. Or, more accurately, Edinburgh is a vision – that is, Edinburgh is a city which, far more than most cities, has been consciously shaped, sculpted, pressed into service.

The two dominant architectural styles in Edinburgh are wildly divergent, something which serves to emphasise its artificial qualities. On the one hand (and the one side of the railway, often enough), stern but harmonious neoclassicism. On the other, the deadly serious whimsy of the Scots Baronial style (arrayed both throughout and around the city are innumerable rows of 19th century tenement buildings, which seem able to veer from one idiom to the other without any noticeable stylistic break, a considerable architectural feat, and one of the myriad reasons why many of Edinburgh’s Victorian tenement buildings deserve to be thought of as examples of some of the best domestic architecture in Europe – but that’s another blog post altogether). Edinburgh’s twin styles are reminders of its dual character – ‘The Athens of the North’ to some, ‘Auld Reekie’ to others.

In the 18th century, the Nor’ Loch – now the site of Princes Street Gardens – was drained, and on its northern banks construction of the New Town began. Everything about this project was classical – it emphasised proportion, harmony, good taste and good manners. Thus Edinburgh’s first real reincarnation began: no longer a cluster of vernacular buildings grouped around a defensive structure, Edinburgh (or at least part of Edinburgh) became a seat of the Enlightenment, all columns, pediments, friezes and rusticated ground floors. “Men of genius and learning” (Hume’s words) could live in elegantly proportioned houses, amble down perfectly straight thoroughfares, into precisely measured squares (or rather, agoras).

Of course, the architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town served a political purpose as much as an intellectual or aesthetic one. In many ways it was a built reflection of Britain’s ascent to imperial and economic power during the 18th century, which was contemporary with the ascent of the House of Hanover to the British throne. Evidence can be found in its street names, reflecting this new monarchical order – George Street, Hanover Street, Charlotte Square, Frederick Street. Even the names of its principal mews tout the rising power of the (relatively) newly formed union between England and Scotland – Thistle Street and Rose Street. Indeed, an early plan for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town took the form of a Union Flag. The aim was to show that Edinburgh’s political elite, in its embrace of a precise, strictly ordered, technologically impressive architectural idiom, considered itself an inextricable part of the rising power of Great Britain. This was a new, fearless, confident architecture for a patriotic, aggressive, expansionist era.

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Edinburgh’s second reinvention was borne of patriotism just as much as its first, only this form of patriotism had a different focus. To be extremely reductive: during the period between the last few decades of the 18th and the first few decades of the 19th centuries, through its success in industrial and imperial ventures (including the slave trade, it should not be forgotten), Scotland experienced an influx of new wealth and status. An intense interest in Scottish identity and the question of Scottishness followed. The social and cultural strands leading to up to this phenomenon are far older and more complex than is generally assumed, dating back at least to the mid-18th century, with such cultural objects as James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, and having its roots both in Enlightenment thinking and in Romanticism, as well as numerous other intellectual, artistic and social trends. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a newly wealthy and prominent Scotland took very seriously the question of establishing Scottishness, and the task of propagating it. The twin forces of radical insurrectionism and Jacobite resentment were genuine fears for the Scottish establishment at the time (events such as the Radical War of 1820 suggest their fears were not entirely unfounded). By uniting the people of Scotland under a new banner of ‘Scottishness’, it was hoped, dissident elements would be quashed amid a resurgence of popular patriotism. The most striking manifestation of this project was the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822, in which the patron saint of Scottish myth-making, Walter Scott, played a leading role. His Royal Highness, dressed in entirely invented ‘Highland dress’ (see below), the guest of Scott and his newly created Celtic Society of Edinburgh, was touted as a ‘Jacobite monarch’ with ironclad Stuart heritage, in an attempt to quell his Jacobite critics. Traditions were invented, pageantry displayed, and ‘ancient orders’ created out of aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs.

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The architectural manifestation of this movement – which persisted right across the 19th century, reaching its zenith from the 1860s to the 1890s, establishing itself across the globe wherever a Scottish diaspora existed – was, of course, the Scots Baronial style. Anyone resident in Edinburgh for more than a few hours will be familiar with it: turrets with pointed conical roofs, small windows, crow-stepped gables, crenellation, battlements. Bourgeois houses made to look like miniature castles and tenement blocks with arrow slits. This style and its offshoots produced some very good work and some very bad work, but the fact remains that it is everywhere in Edinburgh, and indeed is probably one of the reasons why tourists often speak of Edinburgh as being so ‘magical’ or so palpably ‘historical’. Scots Baronial is fantasy on a grand scale, an act of architectural dress-up – it wants you to believe in a world of noble lairds rather than feudal overlords, of honourable battles rather than pointless internecine conflicts, of Walter Scottishness rather than just Scottishness.

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A typical example of Scots Baronial architecture: St Leonard’s Hall, Edinburgh (1869-1870)

In this way Edinburgh was remade again, a city heaped upon a city, put to work as a piece of propaganda – a showpiece for an ascendant political order. The Edinburgh that exists today – or at least, ‘old Edinburgh’ as it exists today – might thus come to be seen as an accumulation of political visions – ideology in brick and stone. Not that other cities are necessarily free from such qualities, rather ‘old Edinburgh’ seems uniquely and overwhelmingly created, conjured up by successive generations of illusionists in service to their political paymasters. This process is ongoing, in newer and perhaps more pernicious forms (the replacement of the decades-old Old Town Bookshop by a vaguely Harry Potter themed tat shop gives some indication of the nature of the current trend), and shows no signs of abatement.

This is not to indict Edinburgh on the charge of dishonesty, or to condemn it as a kind of Caledonian Disneyland – Edinburgh’s propagandists and theatrics have created some thrilling buildings and landscapes over the centuries. It is simply to point to the fact that there is more of pageantry and pomp in Edinburgh than there is of tradition and custom, more of illusion than there is of solidity, and more of statecraft than there is of spontaneity.

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Modernist Sussex And a Way Out of Crisis

Brighton & Hove is supposed to be a radical city. Or, at least, Brighton is. Or, at least, parts of Brighton are. It’s certainly worth noting that the Brighton Kemptown constituency has voted Conservative in the last two general elections. Either way, Brighton has a reputation – occasionally a proven one – for political unorthodoxy and resistance. In spite of this reputation, however, the place is more or less bereft of radical architecture. By radical architecture is here meant architecture which (successfully or unsuccessfully) seeks in its intended purpose, its design and its organisation of space to remake – and to remake in a progressive, sometimes revolutionary way – the lives of the people living, working and existing in its presence. There is some passable modernist building in Brighton, certainly: some good (and some not so good) housing estates, some of which display a genuine sympathy for and attention to their intended occupants. On the whole, however – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly – the best radical architecture in Sussex is to be found exactly there: in Sussex.

Outside of Brighton – a ‘People’s Republic’ as some would have it – the county of Sussex (divided in the 19th century into West Sussex and East Sussex but in all areas except administration essentially a coherent unit) is not particularly suggestive of radicalism in any concrete sense. In its modern form Sussex is broadly deserving of this characterisation – electorally it mirrors its coastal setting: a sea of blue. Its essential components are demoralised seaside resorts, quiet market towns and quieter villages: no Poplarism or Red Clydeside here. But this hasn’t always been the case: During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the people of Sussex rose in their droves. In the time of the English Civil War the MP for Chichester, William Cawley, was a regicide – one of those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I, the ‘man of blood’. In Lewes in the later 18th century, the famous radical Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, first began to become involved in matters of civic society. The predominantly rural county of Sussex was a centre of riot, rick-burning and running battles with the Yeomanry during the Swing Riots of the 1830s, in which wretched and oppressed agricultural labours fought tooth-and-nail for a scrap of what was every day being ripped away from them by enclosure and the rise of a mercantile agriculture. The unofficial motto of Sussex is widely held to be the phrase “we wunt be druv” – an assertion of the individual agency and independence of the rural Sussex worker against the ruling order.

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Following the advent of the 20th century, radical Sussex might be said to have withered on the vine. There were collectives of nominally progressive artists and thinkers, such as the members of the Bloomsbury Group who had gathered themselves at Charleston, but the majority of them were characterised by a conspicuous withdrawal from the realm of political thought and action. The University of Sussex might still be said to carry the torch, although its management appear to have committed to cashing in on its radical credentials for the purposes of marketing (something thankfully met with resistance by some of its staff, and certainly by a sizeable but diminishing portion of its students).

And yet, dotted along the coast, from Bexhill to Saltdean, from Falmer to Chichester (yes, Chichester) are examples of the work of architects and planners who, during the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century, created buildings expressly designed to facilitate new and exciting forms of living: to provide environments in which the lives of the people were not secondary considerations – inconvenient intrusions on aesthetic innovation – but the founding principle from which exciting and explicitly modern structures would emerge. It must be said that many, if not all of these buildings are not the work of local architects. This is immaterial, however, because it is their situation which matters – amidst aggressively quiet villages and UKIP strongholds these buildings provide for the contemporary observer a reminder of what is available to us if we remain open to the possibilities of a radically remade future.

The best and most famous of these buildings is the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. It was built in 1934 at the behest of the socialist aristocrat (a more common paradox than you might think) and mayor of Bexhill Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr (this is a sobering reminder that despite progressive leanings much of what constituted the British left’s purportedly progressive agenda, especially during the Attlee years, maintained a distinctly patrician administrative structure). Nonetheless, the Pavilion itself is a triumph: confidently modern and emphatically public. Its architects were  Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both internationally renowned proponents of resolutely forward-looking modernist architecture in many of its various forms. The Pavilion faces outward towards the sea in what might almost be interpreted as a gesture towards internationalism. Indeed, its enthusiastic embrace of the emphatically Continental style known as International Modernism is especially remarkable given that the style is practically unknown in Britain. Its clean, straight, industrial lines, its ocean liner-isms, its openness and navigability, its central location, its concrete and steel body, its deliberate newness – all these features are combined into a structure built explicitly for the use and leisure of the majority of visitors to Bexhill: day-trippers and bank holidayers; working people. The De La Warr Pavilion presents – like its counterpart the Saltdean Lido, 30 miles and 2 years away – a genuine faith (a naïve one, perhaps, but an admirable and still relevant one) in the capacity of industrial and technological progress to create better conditions of life for everyone.

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The De La Warr Pavilion

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Saltdean Lido

More examples exist: there is, of course, Basil Spence’s Sussex University campus – a piece of considered and thoughtful Jaoul-inspired modernism brilliantly alert to the complex and rewarding relationship between modernity and history, centered around an agora – an explicitly focal space of public gathering in which can still be seen stalls, gatherings, marches and rallies. There is Chichester Festival Theatre, a theatrically bold concrete structure which projects the theatre’s pentagonal stage – an embodiment of the public-spirited philosophy of ‘theatre in the round’ – resolutely outwards onto and beyond its public face, loudly declaring that art is not there simply to be collected in private dwellings or performed to wealthy fee-payers, but exists for the enrichment of all. There are even little houses such as the one five minutes from where I grew up in Bognor Regis, nestled amongst mock-tudor semis and monotonous bungalows. Though less public-spirited, Beach House, designed by Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin – a committed socialist who famously declared that “nothing is too good for ordinary people” – again asserts in its own quiet way the capacity even in dour, craven old England for radical architecture to exist in spite of it all.

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Falmer House, Sussex University

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Chichester Festival Theatre

These buildings are geographically circumscribed by a county known in our day for its conservative politics (Brighton excepted). In the same way, the current political moment seems characterised in many places by petty selfishness, aggressive ethno-nationalism, rampant misogyny and cynical pessimism. Though many of them may not have succeeded in their ambitions, the buildings of modernist Sussex still stand as challenges from history, reminders that even though our prospects seem hopeless, things have not always been as they are and need not always be as they are. A better world is possible, and it is our duty to build it.

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Beach House

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The Utter Pointlessness of Brighton’s i360

From thence to Venice, Padua, and the rest,
In one of which a sumptuous temple stands,
That threats the stars with her aspiring top,
Thus, hitherto has Faustus spent his time

The history of architecture’s preoccupation with height at various points in its development needs no introduction, and neither does the recent spate of steel-and-glass Babels springing up in London and elsewhere. Jonathan Meades’s excellent program on architecture and the vertiginous provides a beguiling introduction to an exhaustive subject, and to write a paltry blog post on it would seem to be at once a little hubristic and fairly pointless.

What does beg a brief consideration, however, is the intrusion of such an Icarian structure into a place so apparently averse to the lofty and the vertical: Brighton. The Queen of Watering Holes has recently had bestowed upon it – by that benevolent patron British Airways, no less – a monumental pole of such prodigious height that the remainder of Brighton’s seafront appears like a diminutive model town in comparison. The ‘British Airways i360’, as it is clumsily termed, has been constructed opposite Regency Square (the residents are, I’m sure, quite thrilled to have such monumental and exciting new architecture obscuring their view of the sea), on the site of the entrance to the old West Pier, now a picturesque wreck. The ominous connotations of such a monument to decay and collapse do not, however, seem to have deterred the i360’s developers (who, to their credit, have fully restored the old West Pier’s charming mid-19th century ticket office).

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The point of this engorged beam, first of all, is difficult to determine. On their website, British Airways implore the prospective i360 passenger to “take a flight to the skies and see Sussex as you have never seen it before”, ignoring the fact that for the majority of Brighton’s residents who have paid even a cursory visit to the hills and beacons of the South Downs, they most certainly have seen Sussex in this way before. Hollingbury Hill, Whitehawk Hill, Mount Caburn, Ditchling Beacon, even the top floor of the tower blocks at Whitehawk and Sussex Heights: all these vantage points provide vast and delightful vistas of Brighton and its surrounding country, to the extent that to spend vast amounts of money and resources on the pursuit of a view which (I imagine) could effectively be termed only slightly better seems at best a little pointless, at worst a tremendous waste (especially at a time in which Brighton is in the grip of a major housing crisis). The i360 is a building the only purpose of which is to facilitate what is, in effect, already possible (I should point out that, at the time of writing, I haven’t been up the i360, and if, come the time for my ascent, the sheer majesty of the hitherto inconceivable scenes arrayed before me cause me to lapse into a glorious reverie, I will willingly cede the point). There is, it must be pointed out, an argument that the i360 will be another Guggenheim, attracting tourism and cultural interest to Brighton. What this argument appears to ignore, however, is that Brighton’s very appeal lies not in polished surfaces and sumptuous set-pieces but has, since the 18th century, lain in raffishness, deviance, liminality and play. From the North Laine to St James’s Street, Brighton’s architectural soul has ever resided in archaic Victorianisms, absurdly sumptuous Regency caprices and on-the-fly vernacular dwellings. To turn it into another ‘top-end destination’ would obliterate its original attraction altogether.

Brighton is, of course, no stranger to fanciful architecture. The Royal Pavilion springs to mind as the most immediate example, and indeed its forceful whimsy was subject to considerable ridicule at the time of its construction and afterwards. The 19th century radical William Cobbett harboured particular disdain for the Pavilion, which he satirically termed ‘The Kremlin’:

“Take stalks 9 inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of [a] box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s ‘a Kremlin!’”

As I have argued before, the Royal Pavilion is by no means an innocent building. But its architecture is, ultimately, historically and (arguably more importantly) aesthetically meretricious in some sense. If nothing else, it is a genuinely beguiling building which occupies a comparatively unique position in the architectural pantheon and thus deserves to be maintained. It is difficult to argue the same for what is effectively a colossal metal pipe with a ring around it. At best it might stand as a monument to the crass tastelessness of the 21st century.

I am wary, at this point, of straying into ‘what an eyesore’ territory. Some wonderful works of modernist and Brutalist architecture in Britain have been derided and torn down because of their deliberate departure with pre-existing aesthetic norms, and architectural boldness is, I think, a principle to be clung to. But openness to the possibilities of a new and possibly strange future does not entail blanket acceptance of bad architecture – everything is and should be open to analysis, and the i360 does not stand up to analysis. It is stark without being dramatic, intrusive without being challenging, unadorned without grace and uniform without harmony. It looks like an industrial chimney, without even the Promethean theatrics of a billowing smokestack.  The i360 is not even fanciful enough to be a grand failure – rather, it will no doubt remain lodged in the earth for aeons, ferrying streams of people up and down its weathered shaft until England itself is consumed by the sea, after which it might at least act as a momentary refuge for a terrified family before it plunges them, unthinking, back into the ocean.

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“A brickbat flung in the public face” – the failed Brutalism of Edinburgh’s St. James Centre

Jonathan Meades, in a recent column on the neglected merits of postmodernist buildings, wrote that “Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit late. Much of the finest work has already been destroyed.” He’s right: lengthy is the list of perfectly serviceable – and at times masterful – late-Modernist buildings to have collapsed under the weight of collective disdain. During the later years of the twentieth century, ‘carbuncles’ were lanced, ‘concrete eyesores’ dislodged and the architectural legacy of Brutalism slowly (but not completely) eradicated from the body of British architecture.

We are hardly in unfamiliar territory here. The plight of Brutalist buildings is well-documented. Likewise, the subsequent  re-assessment and re-appraisal these buildings have enjoyed is, as Meades observes, not difficult to miss. Brutalism is suddenly fashionable. Popular blogs breathlessly laud its aesthetic principles, films by prominent directors take it as their subject (or rather lacklustre cinematic adaptations of excellent novels do) and long-neglected housing estates are subject to (questionable but illustrative) ‘renovations’. The reasons behind this – and the ramifications of it – are myriad, and doubtless dealt with better elsewhere. This is not my purpose.

In an atmosphere of what can appear at times a permanent and rigid division of opinion – philistine Tricorn-defilers on one hand, wide-eyed Trellick-fetishists on the other – it seems necessary to say: back to the buildings themselves! It is far too easy to think of aesthetic movements in the abstract, conceiving of them in terms of recurrent themes or prominent features. This is a dangerous trap to fall into – architecture is not a set of principles. Architecture is what is built. The merits of architecture must be primarily considered in terms of the material specifics of buildings – what it is like to enter a building, how it feels to walk around it, what it looks like from the street, the mode of living which it facilitates. Certainly the broader trends of an era or a movement are perfectly subject to analysis, and in such a case it is sometimes necessary to think in generalities, but if it is not grounded in built specifics – in tangible examples – then such a debate is worthless. It would be like a literary analysis without any quotes. Defenders of the school of Brutalism (myself included) would do well to remembers this as much as its detractors. The hopelessly misguided ‘Brutalism Appreciation Society’ group, popular on Facebook and inclined to heap praise on anything that even vaguely mimics the language of modernism, is a particularly irritating example of the ill-considered adulation which dogs Brutalism’s renaissance. All that glitters is not gold – all that is concrete is not unfairly condemned.

With this in mind, I want to turn to a building which, in its 40 years of life, has been almost universally despised by the residents of the city in which it stands. The St. James Centre in Edinburgh is scheduled for imminent demolition, to the apparent delight of the good Burghers themselves. In the face of such universal scorn it’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the ill-fated underdog, and last week I determined to have a look around it before it vanished for good.

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The St. James Centre was designed in 1964 by Ian Burke & Martin, and completed to a slightly altered plan by Hugh Martin & Partners in 1970. It was built on the site of St. James’s Square, a collection of late-eighteenth-century terraces which over time became first a neglected slum and later a centre for the printing industry. The old square is described in the Edinburgh edition of The Buildings of Scotland as having possessed “a bleak nobility”. Demolished in 1965, in its place was built the current structure.

The authors of Edinburgh’s edition of The Buildings of Scotland – John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker – write of the new St James Centre in a tone which, while not entirely condemnatory, is by no means sympathetic. They ascribe its existence to “Mammon, devoutly wooed by a Town Council naturally eager for modern development”. They speak of its “huge intrusive bulk” and its “callously blank backside.” It is not entirely difficult to see what they mean – from Calton Hill, a prominent Edinburgh vantage point, much of Edinburgh’s New Town is rendered entirely invisible by this vast and hulking mass of concrete. At street level, the Centre is unsympathetic to the structures surrounding it, dwarfing the neat Palladianisms of the Register House and the Dundas mansion, looming over them like a golem. It is not a pretty building.

But then, who cares? ‘Prettiness’ is not a precondition for good architecture. Buildings that coddle and sooth are rarely memorable, and frequently insipid. The whole appeal of Brutalism is in its willingness to embrace the uncertain and the strange, the disconcerting and the unnerving – in its willingness to leap optimistically into the possibilities of the future, even if they appear at first to be hostile (perhaps because they appear at first to be hostile). Architectural critic Reyner Banham described Brutalism as “a brickbat flung in the public face.” The St. James Centre is not entirely lacking in such a quality – climbing a concrete staircase which projected out over the road, I felt a little of that slightly terrifying vertiginous thrill which Brutalism is so fantastically capable of producing. Looking out from the top of Arthur’s Seat I felt my eye drawn to the Centre’s gleefully obtrusive mass, rising out of the ground like the great plug of basalt from which I was viewing it. When I got up close to the rough but uniformly fluted concrete which much of the building is clad in, I felt at once a sense of vast, deep geological time – the long timescales of rock and stone – and a sense of explicit modernity, with its attendant process of uniform industrial manufacture. This was a profound and electrifying disjunction, and a reminder that Brutalism is as concerned with texture as it is with form.

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Ultimately, however, the building is a failure. Its failure lies, surprisingly, in its timidity. Its designers were afraid to engage with the possibilities of a Brutalist aesthetic which has at its heart confrontation, experiment, expression and strangeness. It is too uniform, too half-heartedly rectilinear to evoke that sense of fracture and dislocation which Brutalism is so capable of. At the same time, however, it is just irregular enough in its massing that it fails to become, as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation is, exhilarating in its uniformityIt tries to speak in the language of Brutalism, and occasionally manages a sentence or two, but as a whole it fails to grasp the intricacies, afraid to speak too confidently for fear of being misunderstood. A tower here, a disjointed block there, but the whole adds up to little.

Inside, the imaginative capacity of the architect all but disappears – whether as a result of a later renovation or simple architectural laziness is not clear. The appeal of Brutalism is as much in heavy, sparse interiors as it is in confident, brash facades, but all that is to be found inside the St. James Centre is a series of bland shopping centre-isms, lit by a timid pitched ceiling of opaque glass. There are no experiments, no capacious echo chambers or weighty low ceilings, no sweeping curvilinear pillars or exposed stairways. Crucially, there is no bare concrete. Likewise, the King James Hotel is standard hostelry fare (the notable exception to which is the bizarre but delightfully perverse wedge-shaped hotel bar, complete with a deliberately misaligned grid of a ceiling and long, low windows). I cannot speak to the merits of the offices contained in the higher levels, having not been able to enter them. Thankfully, Gifford, McWilliam and Walker of The Buildings of Scotland can: they are “the image of system-built bureaucracy”.

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In this way, then, the St. James Centre is an important building, though not one worth battling to preserve. It is a lesson in nuance, in understanding the appeal of Brutalism as something beyond rough concrete, spiral car parks and monochrome photos. Architectural failures are often as informative as successes – their inadequacies and absences illustrate  by implication the merits of a style properly executed. The St. James Centre, though condemned to disappearance, is just such an illuminating failure.

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On ‘Old Buildings’

‘Old buildings’ are things you go out of your way to see. You might see them environed by sunset on a tourist’s Instagram account, or on a leaflet encouraging you to pay money to be shown round them. They are characters in the advertising campaigns of travel companies, crudely approximated on tea towels and mugs, thrust in your face at airports.

Sometimes they are not well known. Sometimes old buildings sit squat amongst grandeur and pomp, maligned and unobserved. Perhaps they do not conform to a particular historical aesthetic. Perhaps they are too plain. Perhaps they have been tinkered with over time so that they do not even appear old anymore, their sequestered histories still stubbornly persisting in the form of a strangely low ceiling in a back room, or the shock of a clumsy wooden beam amongst modern stucco. But they are old buildings too.

Every time – genuinely every time – I have made an effort to explore or contemplate an old building, I have been left with a slight sense of failure. It is something like yearning, or the feeling of having left something unobserved. Staring intently at the rounded arch of a Norman church, I have told myself that here is history – ancient minds devised this, ancient hands fashioned it, ancient eyes saw it. I have strained in my imagination to strip the scene of all the trappings of modernity, to imagine the building I am looking at ‘as it was’, peopling it with characters in period costume, speaking in unfamiliar ways. I have tried to imagine the consciousness which created this particular feature. Why was it beautiful or practical to them? Why did they use the materials which they did? Why so crude, or so ornate, or so ordered? The experience is like looking at an old grave. It might hold you rapt for countless reasons, but what can never be replicated is the truthful experience of its original historical moment. You can stand at an ancient grave, you can know who is buried there, you can perhaps even feel a sense of loss; what you cannot feel is the grief of those who looked at the headstone and saw the name of their friend, or their parent, or their sibling inscribed there. You can look at the design of the tombstone – unadorned, MEMENTO MORI carved at the bottom – and appreciate its purpose, the aesthetic considerations behind it, the fashion which necessitated it in the mind of the bereaved, but the peculiar contemporary subjectivity which charged its design with meaning is lost. Like a modern historian speaking an ancient, long-dead language, the content may be explicitly historical, but the moment of reception is always absolutely new.

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It might appear as though I think this is a cause for lamentation – I do not. It is precisely this melancholy – this uncomfortable but exhilarating lurch back and forth between temporalities – which makes historical buildings so fascinating. They hint at the absolute, concrete, tangible reality of history: they are there, they can be touched, inhabited, utilised. Yet at the same time they bring crashing down on you the undeniable reality of the ‘truth’ of history, which is always unreachable, discernable only through signs and hints, never to be recovered in its totality. Historical buildings, explicitly situated as they always are within the immediate, physical environment of the present moment (as opposed to, say, a historical text, which has its existence partly within the less straightforwardly concrete sphere of the imagination), achieve this vertiginous effect like no other object. An absolutely ‘authentic’, totally tangible history is held out before you in all its material solidity and in the same instant is cast away forever. Such is the particular power of built history.

What, then, is the contemporary observer left with? Just as with any historical object, what remains is a series of signs, endlessly mutable by context. What might have appeared to Victorian eyes as civic might and commercial prowess appears to modern eyes as buffoonish pomp and megalomaniacal self-confidence. This is not to disavow the importance of such a building – although its significance for us is not the same significance which it had for its creators, it may still be an interesting, beguiling, informative, unique or unnerving structure. What is important is how these buildings are treated: to freeze them in time, to insist on historical places being left entirely alone, is to indulge the fantasy that the material reality of history exists as something which we might just claw back to our present moment, if only we can arrest the passage of time. Instead, it is necessary to be open to the necessity of change and the never-ending persistence of history: to retool, to tinker – perhaps even to demolish where necessary. At the same time, it is vital to remain attentive to the particular potency of historical buildings, beyond the simply utilitarian or the profitable. Each demolition must be seen as the loss of a particular arrangement of signs. Perhaps a certain building constitutes a frequently replicated set of signs, or perhaps it might sign in newer, exciting ways with the intervention of a modern builder (though this is not a particularly frequent occurrence at  our present moment) – very well, hammer away. But perhaps a certain building does not appear frequently, perhaps its elaborate gable or its imposing façade speaks to us in a way not often seen. It is with buildings such as this with which it is of the utmost importance to be attentive and careful, even if their utility is not apparent. We must refuse to surrender to the fantasy of fallacious nostalgia, all the while remaining humbly attentive to the unique potentiality of historical objects.

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