The View from the Inglenook

A mist of disenchantment with modern architecture now shrouds England. In the early 1960s it was different. Then visitors from the Continent streamed across the Channel to declare that in school building the British led the world. A new generation of architects had broken the stranglehold of Sir Albert Richardson and the old gang who for so long had stifled their initiatives, and had seized the fabulous opportunities which the swelling budgets of government departments and the local authorities provided. Oxford and Cambridge entered an age of building unsurpassed even by the mid-Victorian age: practically every architect of note in the new movement has a building to his name there. The creation of the new universities presented even more glittering prizes for the profession. So did the vast building programs for new towns or for rehousing those who lived in slums. The property boom financed hundreds of new office blocks and the architectural profession exuded self-confidence.

Then the tide turned. The cutback in public expenditure has been so severe that architects now search for work in the OPEC countries; the property boom is over. Few private firms now make sufficient profits to convert them into prestige head office buildings. As the opportunities have vanished, the tale of past disasters grows in length. These buildings, masterpieces of planning and inspired by the gospel of functionalism, so often don’t function. At the National Theatre the acoustics of the two main auditoriums disappoint, and virtually none of the labor-saving machinery works, so that most operations have to be done by a labor force which the design of the theater was intended to eliminate. This is only the most notorious of public scandals.

To what extent the disasters are caused by the architects themselves or by the low technical standards of the British building industry is a matter of opinion. But certainly the influence of accountants has also been deplorable. In nothing have government departments been more effective than in enforcing cost-effectiveness. So remorseless has been their scrutiny, so intent are they to get a bigger bang for the buck, so determined to employ norms to regulate the size and cost of hospital wards, laboratories, school rooms, family housing units, and canteens, that low-ceilinged boxes of buildings imprison those who work in them. Last-minute cuts imposed by further revisions of the budget compel architects to make hasty revisions, use shoddier materials, and cut corners, with the result that after a few years the buildings fall apart and maintenance costs enrage those who live in them.

Not that private enterprise has been all that much better. The magnates of the City of London after the war used their accountants like bloodhounds and set the worst of examples in the despicable office blocks they rushed to erect on an incomparable site—the bomb-devastated wastes surrounding St. Paul’s.

But the resentment against modern architects goes even further. They and the planners are accused of wrecking city centers, engulfing what were living communities in a sea of concrete,…

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