According to Robert Booth’s piece in The Guardian, it appears that the next battle in the style wars of architecture will take place in London’s Hyde Park. Booth’s piece, entitled “Architects’ vision of London takes inspiration from 19th-century Paris,” describes the effort of Quinlan Terry and son to push back against the onrush of some 250 skyscrapers of 20 or more stories already proposed there.
This project reminds me of the Chelsea Barracks imbroglio that did so much to put the idea of new classical architecture front and center in London several years ago. Quinlan Terry’s insurgent proposal for apartment blocks was a frontal attack upon Richard Rogers’s modernist scheme. After Terry’s design trounced that of Rogers in a slew of polls, Prince Charles called upon the landowner to sack Rogers and, and indeed the royal family of Qatar gave the latter a proper heave-ho.
Booth quotes Terry getting to the essence (as I suggested in my last post, “The granularity of cities”):
I think we have the hearts of ordinary people on our side every time, but not the politicians or the architects. That is sad because we have right on our side. Steel and glass don’t produce useful buildings that last more than 25 years. We are trying to create density in a grain rather than with a tower of 20 storeys and space all around it. If you look at Rome, Paris and Milan you have that dense urban grain.
Let us hope that this pere/fils proposal does follow the pattern of Chelsea Barracks by striking a chord in the media and giving rise to comparisons between Hyde Park Barracks (coincidental moniker!) and whichever creepy modernist competitor arises. Pit the design for the barracks imagined by the Terrys against not just modernist proposals for the Hyde Park site but for modernism anywhere in the city – such as the twinned proposals of Norman Foster and Frank Gehry that will deface historic Battersea Power Station. Allow the public to make its preference known. Tradition will deal a setback to modernism, and the tipping point that will level the playing field after half a century of modernist domination (achieved by generally unscrupulous tactics) will come closer.
The closest thing to this sort of a battle in America is the fight over a proper memorial for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The official proposal by Gehry has gathered hardly any supporters (a fundraising campaign actually cost more than it brought in), has seen Congress hack away at its federal funding, and has raised hackles among the public and even among many architecture critics, who are baffled by Gehry’s inability to slam-dunk a supposedly done deal.
But in this case, although there was an excellent counterproposal competition hosted by the National Civic Art Society, the public was not and has not been offered the sort of side-by-side comparisons, let alone a poll to vote on, that Brits got from the media in the Chelsea Barracks fight. Prince Charles was involved in that fight, and he is also involved in the fight against more London skyscrapers. True, nobody of Charles’s prominence is fighting the good fight on our side of the pond, but maybe we do not really need royalty (Brad Pitt is on the wrong side) to win our battles.
In Charleson, a pair of young architects, Christopher Liberatos and Jenny Bevan, fought, alongside an angry public, a new modernist school of architecture proposed by Clemson University in the city’s historic district. They sketched brilliant classical counterproposals that were published and, one thing led to another, and Clemson withdrew its proposal. That scenario could in theory unfold over and over again throughout the United States.
Soon, for example, Brown University in Providence will (I trust) be announcing a design for two new buildings on and near Hope Street. Four lovely old houses are to be demolished. Ground has already been broken for the Applied Math building, with no announcement yet for a design, though a mockup shows shingles apparently intended to keep restive neighbors calm. A new building for Brown’s School of Engineering is being designed by KieranTimberlake. Insiders suggest it will also be modernist.
I challenge traditional architects in Rhode Island – and there are plenty – to come up with an alternative proposal. That’s assuming Brown ever does publicize its designs, which it probably wants to delay as long as it can. I will put them side by side. Let’s see what happens. (The Providence Preservation Society should come out hard on this, since the widely advertised “done deal” in this case is apparently not quite chiseled in stone.)
They shall not pass!