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The psychopath is in the detail

British architects have been gripped by wood mania

A mania for wood detailing has gripped British architects in its tongue-and-groove. Ouch! It doesn't matter how dark or twisted the urban alley you wander down is, at the end of it you're bound to find a spanking new block of "luxury" flats, its façade a chequerboard of plate glass and outsize Venetian blind slats. More often than not, this gallimaufry will be dubbed with some spurious-sounding pseudo-place-name, such as "Viking Wharf" or "Visigoth Quay".

Not, you dig, that all this wood detailing is the same - and nor, of course, is it all real wood! There's vertical tongue-and-groove such as you would expect to be cladding a sauna; there are rough-hewn planks horizontally ranged; there are the inevitable slats; and there are cod-Kyoto battens arranged in grids like the pieces in a permanently frozen game of Jenga, that hip version of spillikins that was all the rage a couple of decades ago, and to which I was introduced by (you guessed it) an architect.

Indeed, when I first noticed these timber wedges being hammered into the whory old faces of British cities, it occurred to me that perhaps the artificers' inspiration had been Jenga itself. After all, if Hollywood can make films out of theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Jordan can "write" bestselling novels, why shouldn't the built environment become the aftermath of a W11 dinner-party game writ horribly large?

Factory Girl on Methedrine

My nephew Jack, who did his first three years at the University of New South Wales but who's now transferred to the Architectural Association in order to qualify as a Jenga player, has a different take on our reforested cities. He cites the influence of the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, who, despite winning the Pritzker (the Nobel of architecture prizes), still operates out of a one-man practice and espouses a philosophy characterised as "touch the earth lightly": the use of indigenous materials, and careful apprehension of climate, topography and site, to produce holistic structures, often of great beauty.

Poor, dear, deluded Jack - we'll learn 'im. I doubt the Brit woodentops have heard of Murcutt, let alone been influenced by him. No, their sylvan bastards are undoubtedly the result of an unholy, and unconscious, miscegenation: one of the progenitors has to be the mid-1980s concept of "riverside" and "loft" apartments that owe their genesis to the death of the London docks. Having reached an early and complete expression in Canary Wharf, these have since spread like some sinister virus from the defunct industrial and dock sectors of most British cities until they infest even the leafiest of 'burbs.

This kind of housing, which owes its origin to the colonisation of Manhattan's defunct industrial and warehouse spaces by trendy arty Sixties types, carries with it a subliminal message: it doesn't matter if you're a City wonk who spends his days spoofing the pensions of millions for billions; you can still aspire to the libidinous and freewheeling condition of a Factory Girl bombed on Methedrine. Sadly, judging by the current impasse of the British economy, this exercise in psycho-ergonomics has worked only too well.

The other partner to this splintery equation is the environment . . . stupid. During the first half of this decade, Britain experienced an unprecedented run of hot summers; architects and developers rushed to respond to global warming by tacking bits of wood on to every little box of ticky-tacky they assembled. Just as the half-timbering on a 1930s Tudorbethan semi spoke of Shakespearean solidity and olde worlde charm, so the new timbering spoke of a deep, sensitive and emphatically sustainable response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's forecast of a 3° rise in global temperatures by the middle of the century. Unfortunately, they should have consulted with the Factory Girls in their wharves and quays before shouting "Tim-berrrr!" because, as anyone from the financial services industry could've told them, the value of stocks and shares can fall as well as rise.

No one really knows what the impact of global warming will be on Britain's temperate island climate: the hot years of 2001-2005 have been succeeded by the wet ones of 2006-2009. Hell, some householders in Tewkesbury have probably had to tear the blinds off the façades of their luxury flats and build rafts to escape the deluges of the past three summers. If, as some predict, the Gulf Stream is "switched off", and Britain plunged into a new Holocene, the sight of its citizenry huddled in their manifold layers of Gap woollies around fires made from useless wooden architectural detailing will no doubt become commonplace.

At the very least, we can expect to see these pseudo-green embellishments weathering to a silvery-greyish hue, and streaked black with the toxic rains of our conurbations, since most of the wood used is either cedar or iroko, which doesn't require regular creosoting.

Our woeful postmodernism

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) viewed architectural detailing as "criminal" and coined the slogan "Form follows function" to describe the kind of technologically inspired, Promethean architecture that would come to characterise modernism. So, for the past two decades, this "discourse" of twaddle has all been Terry Farrell kiddie-geometry, or Quinlan Terry classicism-nouveau - and now comes the woodiness, not so much criminal as outright psychopathy. Modernism may have had its brutal consequences, yet what can we make of our woeful postmodernism, where form seems to follow nothing but a lack of gumption?

Madness of Crowds will appear fortnightly. Will Self's new column on food, Real Meals,will appear in the new Critics section on alternate weeks

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.