In early November there came a rather surprising announcement. A minister of Her Majesty’s government expressed an opinion. To the abject horror of all right-thinking persons, John Hayes, the Minister for Transport, declared his intention to reverse the destruction of the great Doric arch which stood proudly over Euston train station from 1837 until its utter destruction at the hands of cultural vandals in 1962.
“Recently, I have seen the stones pulled from the River Lea, where they were ignobly dumped in 1962. I support the Euston Arch Trust’s great ambition to see those stones stand in Euston once again as part of the rebuilt arch.”
But he didn’t stop there. In fact, the minster had even stronger words for the general state of architectural profession itself:
“The overwhelming majority of public architecture built during my lifetime is aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly.”
Mr Hayes even quoted HRH the Prince of Wales, who wrote in his book ‘Harmony’ that:
“Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamourised convenience…We have become semi-detached bystanders, empirically correct spectators rather than what the ancients understood us to ‘be’, which is participants in creation.”
With this observation in mind, it is helpful to picture, if you can, the skyline of any major city the world over: Tokyo, London, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, Kigali, Sao Paulo. If you struggle to picture more than one or two, I shouldn’t worry – they all look very much alike. In fact, this global similarity is the hallmark of modern architecture. In trying to break away from Tradition and the limits imposed by beauty and humanity, modern architects have achieved the banal victory of managing to make buildings that are ugly and inhuman. This is a process which has repeated itself around the world to such an extent that both in style and the materials used, the aesthetics of most major cities across the world look strangely similar. High-rise flats and offices, piling into the sky in a frantic concrete-fuelled frenzy, wide vistas of hanging glass with canyon corridors between.
Sky scrapers were, for a long time, confined primarily to the West; to cities in America, Canada and Europe, yet in the last twenty years they have also been flung up at astonishing speed across Asia, Africa and South America. In the old cities of Europe, there was necessarily less room for these ugly (and remarkably inefficient) behemoths. However, even London, which, whilst marred by 1960’s Soviet-style apartments buildings, proved remarkably resilient to the march of the concrete-and-glass titans, is finally succumbing to the modernist tide. Historic views are disappearing at an alarming rate in the old City of London. The latest eyesore to impose itself on the city was the Shard – a vanity project that still has a vaguely ‘unfinished’ atmosphere about its vicious lines, a veritable dagger in the heart of London.
Following Mr Hayes’ speech in early November, a rather less surprising announcement filtered out. Members of the City of London’s planning and transportation committee approved plans for a new skyscraper to play neighbour to 30 St. Mary Axe (the ‘Gherkin’) and the Leadenhall Building (the ‘Cheesegrater’). At just over a thousand feet tall, ‘1 Undershaft’ will have a bold impact on the City skyline, adding both its height and bulk to the already crowded City of London financial district. The new building has little to distinguish it from any other skyscraper the world over – it is a tall box.
Modern architecture expresses a desire for homogeneity peculiar to the community of architects itself, not to the populace or tradition they serve. The homogenising effect of TV and the internet on intangible culture is echoed in our built environment by the dull and repetitive building of concrete-and-glass monoliths around the world. It is as if in striving for novelty they have only found the dull monotony of a servile architecture and have become addicted to modernity and constrained by the limits of an architectural form inevitably divorced from human need. Architecture, as properly conceived, is the expression of useful beauty. The proper expression of architecture must be peculiar to the community and place in which it is expressed. Our ancestors were, of course, constrained by the resources available to them and their architectural styles followed this pattern. For example, most Cotswold villages are replete with fine examples of dwellings built from the local stone – in that way they express the Platonic ideal of sub-creation, they are merely human extensions and enhancements of the local landscape; they do not stand in deliberate conflict with their environment but harmonise the tension between the natural and the human. The new global architecture, unconstrained by local tastes or materials and fired with ideas transmitted by the communications revolution, builds everywhere the same. London? Concrete. Shanghai? Concrete. Dubai? Concrete.
This assault on the local is an externalised expression of the transformation of city communities around the world. Inevitably, as engines of economic growth, cities have always been somewhat more cosmopolitan than the countryside around them. Yet, never before have cities such as New York, Berlin and London come so much to resemble one another. Bizarrely, the cultural mix that has developed, the modern ‘multicultural city’, is labelled as ‘diverse’ and pushed as a positive social good. Yet, paradoxically, in encouraging the diversity of all these megacities, a bland homogeneity has prevailed – they are all so diverse as to be practically identical. This cultural homogeneity is then expressed in concrete form by a globalised architecture, painted again as diverse, vital and vibrant. No particular character develops, the comfort of bland conformity prevails; the local architectural style gives way to the progressive architecture sold by international architectural firms. The novelty of Tradition gives way to the uniformity of modernism. ‘Mundus alter et idem…’ [‘Another world and yet still the same’].
Despite his bold announcement and apparent commitment, John Hayes may, in fact, be fighting a losing battle against what Sir Roger Scruton calls ‘the cult of ugliness’, for this ‘cult’ is not merely confined to the Bauhaus-inspired perversions of the West, but is a poison that courses through the veins of the Global Architecture.