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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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