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

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

SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge