Friday, 24 June 2011

Post-War Architecture

I recently had an argument with an architect friend about the merits of Brutalist Architecture. I argued that, as with all things, Sturgeon's Law applies and the vast bulk of it is an utter blight. Poured concrete fortresses designed specifically to upend the viewer's sense of space and mass ("exhilarate") do not make liveable environments.

You could argue that it represents a vision, that it is bold, striking, clear, clean, and has of late acquired a historical "warmth" through familiarity and association. You could argue those things, but then you could argue that quite a few nice people have been born as a result of the many rapes committed in the tangled concrete intestines of cheaply-erected poverty warehouses like the Trellick Tower.

I'm not saying that I don't see the stylistic boldness in the cantilevers, I'm just saying I don't want to be underneath them, because the impression of hanging weight above you is not "exhilarating" as much as it's immensely disconcerting on an animal level. This kind of thing makes for striking video game levels and sci-fi movie sets, but vast expanses of temporarily congealed grey slurry hanging above you in person are threatening. Additionally, the sheer finality and planar blankness of Brutalist design does not lend itself to anything much in the way of modification and softening but graffiti, something it attracts almost as well as the walls erected by political segregationists.

This particular dislike of mine forced me to examine my stance on contemporary architecture. Do I, in fact, like any of it? I had to think hard. I admit that I like looking at books of architecture. And I like how some of the more imposing designs look in carefully composed and lit photographs. But do I actually like any of the buildings in person? No, I actually don't.

Of particular vexation is the popularity of utterly talentless swine like Frank Gehry, who apparently think that building a rapidly decomposing structure composed of concave mirrors in a hot climate is a tenable architectural style. His Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall is renowned by locals for creating a "death ray" that heats the surrounding pavement to sixty degrees Celsius and sunburning passersby.

I can't help but feel that something went horribly wrong with architecture after the Second World War. The understandable desire to leave history behind was acknowledged as a flaw by Post Modern architects, but their solution was not to move back and carry on from where the pre-Modern styles left off, but to tack hideous, infantile references to older styles onto the same asymmetrical building blocks. The funny thing is that I like challenging art, but challenging architecture is art you can't escape. Have you ever got hopelessly lost in one of these "adventurous", award-winning public facilities designed to escape the confines of the grid? This is bad design. There seems to be a genuine problem of architects needing to escape modish peer criticism instead of building something likeable.

Of late I've noticed that materials like stainless steel and stone have made a pleasing comeback here and there, but I still haven't seen a new building that looks remotely inviting. Every time I see a small, humble old house made of carefully cut stone with lumpy windows next to a towering robot factory, I can't help wondering if the architect in question felt like a bully when observing the contrast himself.

I hope he did.