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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?

Beaubourg boo-boo: view of the the Pompidou Centre in Paris, by Richard Rogers, arguably the point at which he sold out
Beaubourg boo-boo: view of the the Pompidou Centre in Paris, by Richard Rogers, arguably the point at which he sold out

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