Immoral icons

The annual Stirling Prize celebrates British achievement in architecture. But the winning buildings

What happens to an icon when the cameras leave? Does architecture actually "regenerate" an area, or is it a mere handmaiden to gentrification? These are the sort of questions that tend not to be asked of Stirling Prize-winning buildings. So, with this year's RIBA Stirling Prize, the winning entry was presented as the latest instalment of a long-running political/architectural vendetta rather than a place which will have its own particular use and history.

At least Prince Charles must be annoyed. Having made several high-profile attacks on Richard Rogers (now co-director of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners), he finally won a direct victory through the cancellation of RSHP's Chelsea Barracks Housing Development, achieved through persistent lobbying of the estate's Qatari developer, a fellow blue-blood. This spat has since provided light relief in an architectural press more concerned with the mass unemployment the profession has faced after the crash, providing a polarised fight between the forces of reaction (in the form of the monarchy) and progress (in the form of Lord Rogers, as much a New Labour apparatchik as a once outrageously talented architect). RSHP's two 2009 nominations were already seen as a political statement, even before their Hammersmith Maggie's Centre, a small building for the care of cancer patients, became the second of Rogers' prizewinners, three years after their architecturally dramatic, environmentally dubious Barajas Airport.

This is a reminder that the Stirling Prize can provide drama often lacking in the buttoned-up world of architecture. The Prize started in 1996, as a conscious attempt to provide an architectural equivalent to the Turner, Mercury or Booker Prizes, using competition to bring it to public consciousness. The early winners were 80s hangovers - a coldly high-tech university building by Stephen Hodder, a historical-reference-riffing music school by Michael Wilford - but this was before "regeneration", the utterly ubiquitous Blairite buzzword-cum-building policy that promised to remake the presumably "degenerated" cities.

So the Stirling Prize truly established itself in the public eye, with Channel 4 assistance, in the form of a run of prizewinners in former industrial or working class areas. Will Alsop's Peckham Library in 2000, Wilkinson Eyre's Gateshead Millennium Bridge and Magna Science Centre in Rotherham, Herzog & De Meuron's Laban Dance Centre in Deptford. With the addition of the 2004 winner, Foster & Partners' 30 St Mary Axe (ie, "the Gherkin"), these buildings defined the architectural production of Blairism at its height. This is the architecture of the "urban renaissance", of the "icon", of the "Bilbao effect", after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, saviour of the Basque city.

It generally takes place in an area once devoted to either working class housing or industry. It has an instantly recognisable, logo-like form. It is usually a building for leisure rather than work or housing, and it tends to be grinningly optimistic, achingly aspirational.

These buildings have often been critiqued from a functional perspective. The Leeds-based practice Bauman Lyons commissioned a study into a selection of Stirling Prize-winning buildings, finding out from their regular users and staff that they had some rather mundane defects: leaking roofs at Magna, overheating at the Peckham Library, cracking glass at the Laban Centre. This has been used by traditionalists to critique the largely modernist biases of the judges, although recent investigations into Prince Charles' planned village of Poundbury revealed similarly shabby structural failures, without even the excuse of experimentation - and at least no Stirling-winning building has ever suffered from a leaking false chimney.

These functional critiques do reveal something of the short-termism of iconic architecture, with a building as much as an album or bestseller being allotted a mere 15 minutes of fresh-faced fame before use reveals its limitations - but it ignores a more interesting story of the close fit between these buildings' forms and their functions, the way their politics interweaves with their bright colours and their gymnastic engineering.

We could start with the Peckham Library, winner in 2000. Peckham is one of those inner-London districts about which, perennially, "something must be done", and in this case that something was a library. Unlike many other prize-winning schemes there is no doubting the building's importance, and it is very well used, albeit with a notable lack of books. Unlike David Adjaye's Stirling-nominated Tower Hamlets "Idea Stores", managerial bullshit hasn't entirely replaced self-education, and it's comforting that an area would have a public facility as its most monumental and impressive building, with the word "LIBRARY" rising unmistakably from its green cladding and obligatory wonky pillars. Yet the ideology of regeneration presents such buildings as a fait accompli, single-handedly improving the lives of those in impoverished areas, while the result is more often the middle classes moving into them - such as the end of Peckham estate agents call "Bellenden Village".

The 2001 and 2002 winners, where industrial spaces were converted to leisure by architects Wilkinson Eyre, were a more obvious colonisation of urban space. The Magna Science Centre (note the amount of "Centres" here) was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, and now offers up this technical process as an (admittedly astonishing) spectacle, as part of a redevelopment mostly consisting of a desolate business park and attendant call centres. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of what is arguably the most typical example of the once-vaunted "Urban Renaissance".

Downriver of the Tyne Bridge, a section of Gateshead's riverside was turned over to two immediately "iconic" buildings - the biomorphic undulating glass shed of Foster's Sage Music Centre, and a Cyclopean Joseph Rank grain silo that was redesigned by Ellis Williams into the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. Coals may now be delivered to Newcastle, but culture has come to Gateshead. What is seldom mentioned is how this ensemble relates itself to the surrounding area. Springing up behind the Baltic is a cluster of poorly designed, poky "luxury" tower blocks with attendant car park (far less architecturally distinguished than Owen Luder's awesome "Get Carter car park" in central Gateshead, currently being demolished as an obstacle to regeneration). While this little cultural district is poorly connected to Gateshead's estates and terraces, it is directly linked to the executive flats of Newcastle Quayside - via the Millennium Bridge, an etiolated structure representing the ease of an allegedly leisured society, as opposed to the fiercely mechanical Tyne bridges upstream.

Stirling Prizewinners often have very direct effects on their surrounding areas, which seldom feature in the brochures and television programmes. The Laban Centre, Herzog & De Meuron's dance school in Deptford, South-East London, winner in 2003, is a fine combination of the alien and the familiar, its drizzly metallic skin curving around the Creek. Adjacent, under construction, are a series of blocks of flats of significantly inferior architectural quality (which are nevertheless "in keeping") who claim on their hoarding to be "inspired by dance", and proclaim their sponsorship by RBS.

In almost all of these examples, the prizewinning building has become the advance guard of gentrification, each "icon" bringing in its train a familiar menagerie of property developers' "stunning developments", aiming to change the area's demographics. Perhaps aware of this, the Stirling judges have lately been veering away from the spectacular and iconic in favour of something more upstanding. David Chipperfield's Marbach Museum of Modern Literature, the 2007 winner, was a stern stripped-classical temple redolent of Fascist-era Italian architecture, sombre enough to calm even Prince Charles' nerves.

Recipient in 2008 was Fielden Clegg Bradley's Accordia, a housing estate in Cambridge. This was explicitly couched as an anti-iconic statement in the context of the financial crash, amusingly, as its self-effacing soft-modernist courtyards hide an indubitably luxury development, for affluent folk who prefer not to flaunt their bling. There is an "affordable" bit, where far smaller houses abut a nuclear bunker, built for the site's former incarnation as an MOD base. The bunker tends not to feature in the photos.

The 2009 Stirling shortlist presented a New Labour menagerie - finance capital, private meddling in public services, shopping and surveillance. Aside from a winery by RSHP and a retro-modern art museum by Tony Fretton, there was an office block for Scottish Widows by Eric Parry, in London's financial district; a jolly PFI Health Centre by AHMM, commissioned by the private-public Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT); and BDP's masterplan for Liverpool One, a privately owned and patrolled "mall without walls". If these had won, the jury would have given their implicit imprimatur to the City of London, the Private Finance Initiative or urban Enclosures.

Yet the Maggie's Centres are the sort of buildings many architects might prefer to build - places with a genuinely humanitarian purpose, although most would hope never to visit one. The Centres are named after the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, a designer and writer who founded a charity to commission world-class architecture for informal cancer-care centres, attached to NHS Hospitals. Perhaps Rogers won not because of republicanism on the part of the Royal Institute of British Architects, but because his Maggie's Centre was the only building the judges could morally justify.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" is published by Zero Books

 

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain