Beaubourg boo-boo: view of the the Pompidou Centre in Paris, by Richard Rogers, arguably the point at which he sold out
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Hippies to yuppies: the Brits Who Built the Modern World

Foster, Rogers and co began their careers with radical and idealistic values. So why did they end up building flats for oligarchs?

The Brits Who Built the Modern World
BBC4; Architecture Gallery at the RIBA, London W1

There is a gripping tale to be told about Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael Hopkins – “the most successful generation of architects Britain has ever produced”, as BBC4’s three-part The Brits Who Built the Modern World said as it began on 13 February, with what turned out to be depressingly characteristic hyperbole. But this was not that tale.

The other tale goes like this. How did a generation from the 1960s, once all bushy-tailed and idealistic, fired up with that decade’s progressive ideas about social change, end up famed not for affordable housing, schools and hospitals, but headquarters for financial multinationals, glistening airports for booming China and the most expensive apartment-block-for-oligarchs in super-gentrified London? How did a generation that fell in love with the technology and “can-do” freedoms of postwar America help import its economics and ideology to Britain? When the geopolitical wind changed direction in the 1980s, this crafty lot turned on a sixpence and transformed the architect from servant of the state to entrepreneur. How did the hippies become yuppies? We never quite found out.

Radical. We kept hearing that word throughout the series: we were very radical. Look how we thumb our noses at Prince Charles! At one point, the architects were even referred to as “punks”. There are few things less punk than an architect: they usually end up where the money is, sod politics. There is no question that their “non-monumental” engineering and design were adventurous – but there was a time when Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw, Hopkins and Farrell were socially and politically progressive, too: when they might have built another kind of Britain altogether.

Back in the late 1960s, when they dressed in Sergeant Pepper velvets, Farrell and Grimshaw built a co-operative housing block in north London, 125 Park Road, made from aluminium (and so nicknamed “the sardine can”), with an open-plan interior that could be reconfigured wherever you wanted to throw your beanbag. Just afterwards, Foster built an insurance firm’s office – complete with roof gardens and indoor swimming pools for all, bosses and proles together in the same open-plan space (“the workplace as one great commune, with typewriters”) – which dropped a bit of California acid right in the middle of Ipswich. Rogers, always the one most interested in politics, even wrote a revolutionary manifesto, all hot under the collar after Paris 1968.

So, what happened? The Pompidou Centre. Rogers recounts the argument he had with his then partner, Renzo Piano (who went on to build that other monument to the revolution, the Shard in London), about whether or not they should enter the competition to design it. Rogers didn’t want to build monuments to presidents, especially for a regime that had so forcefully crushed the soixante-huitards. “I lost,” he says. A decade later, after experiencing the lows of the late-1970s recession, he was building the headquarters for Lloyds in the City. Foster, Grimshaw, Hopkins and Farrell, always more pragmatic than political, followed suit. They saw which way the wind was blowing: they built HQs for IT firms, art galleries, research centres for oil companies, flexible spaces for the new service economy’s flexible workforce. Turned out they bet on the most successful horse.

“In the 1930s,” the series began, “five children were born who grew up with dreams of building a better world . . . and that’s exactly what they did.” The trouble is, the show, like this generation of architects, never questioned just what this better world might be. There was no critical voice. They talked of Dan Dare and hoped that we’d all hop off into the sunset through their piazzas and open plans, happy families. Yet neither the architects nor the series ever seemed to ask how architecture gets built, for whom, and why – it was as though it was created in a vacuum. How I wish the series had been made by Adam Curtis, a side order to All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, his story of how Silicon Valley tech-hippies ended up as lackeys for neoliberal capitalism.

The accompanying exhibition at RIBA’s new gallery, though small, is far more nuanced. We get a glimpse of that other tale, if you read between the lines. Its collection of models, drawings and photographs at least connects the quintet to what was happening, you know, in the rest of the world and all that. It shows they weren’t heroic lone wolves but part of a huge impetus exporting international modernism from postwar America, first around the fragmenting British empire, and then around the ballooning US empire.

There is one significant omission, though, from both the TV series and the exhibition. We hear from the architects, the engineers, the politicians, the moneymen (almost all men), but not one syllable from people who use the buildings. Us. I’m not sure these architects even know us any more. Why do I say this? Right at the start of the series, Norman Foster said, with a straight face, that the terminal he’d designed for Virgin Galactic “makes space travel accessible beyond the few”. Is that what he tells himself? Yes, to the few who have a quarter of a million to burn on a space trip. What planet is he on? 

Tom Dyckhoff presents “The Great Interior Design Challenge” on BBC2

“The Brits Who Built the Modern World, 1950-2012” is at the RIBA until 27 May

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit