Rip facade off mod angst

The Walkie-Talkie building, by Rafael Vinoly. (Jacob Carter/Rex Shutterstock)

The Walkie-Talkie building, by Rafael Vinoly. (Jacob Carter/Rex Shutterstock)

Very interesting chat in the Guardian, “Should Britain’s ‘worst building’ be torn down?” with its art critic Jonathan Jones and Design Museum director Deyan Sudjik debating the future of the recent winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the Walkie-Talkie building, and its towering ilk. Here is Jones making his basic case:

It’s time to reject this fatalistic sense that grandiose design mistakes are irreversible – that we just have to put up with them. I seriously think this building should be done away with. The reason is not just that it is silly in itself, bulging on the skyline like a model that has somehow wandered out of the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds, but even more urgently to shock developers into some sense of humility. … London is being wrecked by outrageous crimes against architectural taste. 

To which Sudjik replies:

But much as I would wish this unappetising lump gone, dynamiting it, or, more likely dismantling it piece by piece over a couple of years, is not a great idea. We demolish far too many buildings, too quickly. It is enormously wasteful, and it creates the idea that there are quick fix answers to tough problems. … You suggest that architecture leaves the public without a choice; they simply can’t ignore it. I am sure that you of all people aren’t suggesting that all new buildings should be as inoffensive as possible for fear of upsetting people?

Jones again:

But I think 21st-century Britain has a neurotic compulsion to overprotect the new. The reason for this is that asinine conservatism was so fashionable for so long that we’re terrified of returning to it.

Here’s an exchange, truncated in transcription for brevity’s sake, that will interest all of us who have supported Prince Charles in his opposition to modern architecture:

Jones: But now, everyone is so scared of sounding like Prince Charles or seeming to be a lover of mock-Georgian that we tremble to take the wrecking ball to this massive, tasteless monstrosity. …

Sudjik: You [Jones] suggest that the Prince of Wales is guilty of “asinine conservatism” for wanting to stop the building of the very same towers that you want to knock down? That sounds like having your cake while trying to eat it, never a good look. …

Jones: You’re quite right of course – I was being unfair on Prince Charles. History has proved him right. But on the other hand I love modern architecture. …

As usual, British modernists have a hard time reconciling their love for modernism with their love for London. That’s because they’re irreconcilable. You can’t love both modern architecture and London. You can try. You will fail. The continuing assault on the city by the developers of skyscrapers was bound to drive some modernists over the edge.

This internal contradiction inevitably afflicts the logic of discourse when a taste for the novel encounters a deep love for the natural, the traditional, the long established and much beloved – such of it that remains – which even modernists experience, deep in their subconscious, in everyday life.

Such deep love is usually attributed to the public, to Prince Charles, to contemporary classical architects – all retrograde influences on the “progress” of architecture. But it even haunts the sensibility of modernist critics, architects and their camp followers. Nobody, not even those with expensive design educations or financial interest in the conventional wisdom, can fully suppress their natural instincts, not even if they are members of design review boards in Providence, R.I.

What we see here in the Guardian is an unusually messy, public and embarrassing expression of the inevitable modernist angst, generated by the constant internal conflict between the principles they adhere to and the instincts they were born with.

Have fun. Read the whole thing.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Rip facade off mod angst

  1. Cliff says:

    The first thing that came to mind was – a toaster. Toast anyone?


  2. kristen says:

    London sets a date to review its tall buildings policy, but the “discussion may take place with press and public excluded.”


  3. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Off with her her head!…
    Lady Remington must go!…


  4. SteveMouzon says:

    I call that entire corner of London the Vanity Quarter. If the Brits could just keep all the starchitecture confined there, that would be an accomplishment.


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