London’s love affair with brick is a bore, says the author of a new book who prefers buildings that delight in being daring.
Seventy years from now anyone with a passing interest in London’s architecture will have no trouble spotting most of the homes built in the capital in the 2020s.
Just as we can spot a Sixties brutalist tower block a mile off, so they will recognise today’s modest, low-rise brick housing schemes in what has been dubbed the New London Vernacular.
To their champions, such as Peter Murray, the chairman of the New London Architecture forum, these inconspicuous “brickie” flats and townhouses, in countless shades of beige, represent a polite rejection of thrusting glass-andsteel residential skyscrapers in favour of something altogether more “rational and elegant”.
Kindergarten Wolfartsweier: a school for young children, created to look like a giant cat, in Germany (© Dirk Altenkirch)
But to the writer and curator Owen Hopkins they are simply “banal and reductive”, as he argues in his new book, Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore, published by Phaidon.
He celebrates more than 200 buildings from Britain and around the world, built mostly in the Eighties and Nineties, that are distinguished by their vivid nonconformity.
And London has lots of them: Charing Cross station; the MI6 Building at Vauxhall; Portcullis House next to Parliament.
Hopkins dismisses the discreet charms of the New London Vernacular homes that are sprouting up everywhere in the capital and berates London’s boroughs for agreeing to them.
The Binoculars Building: the entrance to an underground car park is hidden behind this huge pair of binoculars in Los Angeles (© Elizabeth Daniels )
“The equation made by planners across the city is that if a building is clad in brick, then it is somehow ‘in keeping’ with London, as a city of brick, and that the project should be waved through, even if it is architecturally and in urban terms, a disaster on every other level,” he says.
He delights in those buildings that wear the badge of being “out of the ordinary” with pride and he is not alone.
English Heritage has been falling over itself to list buildings written off only a few years ago as silly, or tasteless and ugly, says Hopkins, adding: “Postmodernism was once a dirty word that no self-respecting architect would dare to utter.”
He gives the example of No 1 Poultry in the City.
No 1 Poultry, the City of London: one of the UK’s most-admired postmodernist buildings (Courtesy of WeWork)
It stands on a site once earmarked for a tower by the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who coined the expression “less is more.”
A debate over the tower’s appropriateness raged throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties and the project was finally dropped after Prince Charles made his famous “carbuncle” speech, in which he said the proposed tower might be more at home in downtown Chicago than London.
So James Stirling was commissioned to design a building that would be “more London” and it was completed in 1997.
It is now deemed a triumph of postmodernism and in 2016 became the youngest building in England to gain a Grade II listing.
- Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore, by Owen Hopkins, is published by Phaidon, £29.95 (phaidon.com)