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

Pompidou Centre
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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.