I wonder how much you feel your life has been touched by modern buildings. I have just visited an exhibition which held some peculiarly personal references for me.
After the War, the south bank of the River Thames was scarred by the devastation of bombing. The Festival of Britain was organised, filling a riverside site with unconventional new structures, mostly temporary although the Royal Festival Hall has lasted. There was the Skylon which appeared to float in the sky and the tent-like Dome of Discovery. Architects had to design buildings that could be assembled quickly, often with structural engineers in a key role. I was taken as a six-year-old and the whole site was unlike any street or neighbourhood I had ever seen.
Today there is an exhibition dedicated to this type of building at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich. Models, drawings and, above all, architectural models are displayed. Not everyone likes the style of construction – all that metal and glass. If it has a fault, the exhibition does not acknowledge how much controversy modernist architecture has caused. But there are plenty of excitements.
As you approach the Sainsbury Centre there is an extraordinary tower outside, a leaning latticework of bright red steel. This turns out to be a recent reconstruction of a sculptural design from 1919: Vladimir Tatlin’s renowned Monument to the Third International. Quite a sight. But on reflection probably less revolutionary than the earlier Eiffel Tower, which is not mentioned in the exhibition.
There are however drawings and paintings of the Crystal Palace, from Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, itself built on revolutionary materials and techniques. Such a loss that this building was destroyed by fire! Its name lives on in London’s Premier League football team whose ground was close to my school.
The Sainsbury Centre is itself a modernist construction of steel and glass. It was designed by Norman Foster in kit form for easy assembly on site, and in a manner that gave maximum flexibility of use inside. It houses a permanent exhibition of sculpture and artefacts from cultures around the world. With its clean lines and natural light, I find it most appealing.
Other exhibits included Richard Roger’s competition-winning design for a new wing to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. It was never built. Prince Charles excoriated it as ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend’. Instead, a tame but rather pleasing post-modern extension was built in the classical style much preferred by the Prince of Wales.
However, some of the design elements found their way into a subsequent building by Richard Rogers: his new HQ for Lloyds of London – the famous steel and glass tower with the lift capsules on the outside and a soaring internal atrium crisscrossed by elevators. While I was in the exhibition, an architect was explaining to an overseas visitor how the design team had felt the need to reassure the traditionalists at Lloyds by recreating the old board room from their former building.
Other major buildings illustrated include the international railway terminal at Waterloo from which I used to catch the train to Brussels and Paris; London’s Stanstead airport which has provided the model for airports elsewhere; and an exhibition hall in Leipzig, Germany, which I once visited.
And a small display of objects tells of the inspiration architects drew from the manufacture of automobiles and aircraft.
Most of the buildings celebrated are large structures. Almost more revolutionary I felt were designs for housing to be built in kit form: houses to be made with window units from trains and buses. They were to be inexpensive, ecological and colourful, flexible in use and easy to extend. But rarely built – when it comes to homes, it seems we like our traditions.
My childhood memories however also include large numbers of ‘prefabs’ built across London to house the many thousands who needed new homes after the War. In their way, they were a successful answer to a pressing need, but few now remain.
Indeed modernist architecture has never gained much popularity. Too technological for most people’s taste perhaps? But some highly successful and conspicuous examples can be found in every modern city. In London, we have a few much-loved examples. Their official names are largely ignored. They are known as the Gherkin, the cheese grater and so on.
The one exception to this renaming is The Shard: Britain’s tallest building. But then, the developers had the good sense to give it a congenial and memorable name.