Architectural modernism needs spin. A prime example of truth laundering by its media propagandists was a 2004 Entebbe-type raid by London architectural journalists on Scotland’s parliament building. Nicely wined and dined, they had a job to do, and boy, did they deliver! Most Scottish journalists were excluded from this opinion formers’ junket.
Holyrood’s budget, variously quoted at £10-40 million, had ballooned to over £430m for a London-authored scheme funded from Scotland’s revenues, leaving the punters livid. David Dimbleby had likened it to a Spanish airport while The Herald had mocked the debating chamber as ‘the biggest IKEA kitchen in the world.’
Cloying words of comfort came thick and fast from the jetted-in hacks. The Times’ Marcus Binney, founder of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, dubbed Scotland’s ‘cathedral of devolution’ a ‘thrilling masterpiece full of surprise and invention’ its debating chamber ‘as complex and rich as the vaults of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona’ and so on ad nauseam. Hugh Pearman, of my old stable, The Sunday Times, gushed that it was ‘insanely bespoke, positively wilful, but potentially glorious – never mind the cost; drink the quality.’ The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey purpled: ‘Here are committee rooms and private offices to read fairy tales in.’ In the RIBA Journal (later edited by modish archiphiliac Pearman) Clare Wright told us our ‘understated’ building betokened ‘a modest democracy rather than anything more politically bombastic’ which deftly put us Scots in our place.
Holyrood suffered more laundering when it won the 2005 RIBA Stirling Prize, a ‘prestigious’ trade bauble named after a man whose own productions could be a bit iffy – problems in his 1963 Cambridge history faculty building were so bad the university even considered razing it. But Edinburgh had to have its version of the Millennium Dome, as decreed by Downing Street. Commentators like the late Charles Jencks sought to present the building as a devolution icon when, of course, having been foisted on Scotland by a UK cabinet decision, it was the precise opposite.
The real story, needless to say, was the one these hacks weren’t telling. An earlier breed of journalists like Harold Evans, Duncan Campbell, or John Pilger would have exposed the incompetence at Holyrood’s heart, but not this lot. They were modernism’s hired guns. The architecture – good or bad – was only part of the story, with the architect in this case becoming the hapless victim of intrigue and skulduggery. The scandal, in essence, was about Westminster diktat, dodgy commissioning, failed procurement, and gross mismanagement. Their job was to persuade us that, yes, the Emperor did have clothes.
The Modernism v Traditionalism debate is architecture’s phoney war. Just as there is some good modernism, so there is some poor traditionalism. Two Edinburgh buildings, until recently, told the story. Both were by Sir William Kininmonth, a Scot trained in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens and who’d gravitated towards modernism on his return to Scotland – except in one case. Adam House, in Chambers Street, is an essay in anodyne pastiche classicism which compares not at all with its near neighbour, the Old College of Robert Adam and William Henry Playfair. It has all the drab ambiance of its time – 1954 – without any of the dignity of the age it tried to evoke, the 18th century.
The other example, the Scottish Provident building in St Andrew Square, was that rare thing – an unashamedly contemporary building of the 1960s which didn’t try to outdo its Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian neighbours. It wasn’t a particularly ground-breaking design, and its interior was a gloomy disappointment, but the street elevation somehow harmonised with the rest of a block which read like a textbook, beginning with Waterhouse’s Prudential Assurance building, and continuing with Burnett’s R.W Forsyth’s department store extension, John McLachlan’s elegant office block at no 4, and John Carfrae’s National Bible Society Italianate palazzo to the east of Scottish Provident’s offices. The range terminated with an undistinguished 1950’s corner office-block, whose principle virtue was that, demolished, it could have made way for something more interesting as a bookend to Waterhouse’s Gothic sandstone.
It wasn’t to be. Several significant listed buildings were unlawfully ripped down, breaching EU regulations. The destruction of Kininmonth’s building was cryptically described as a ‘temporary demolition’, presumably on a par with the world’s best-known crucifixion being a ‘temporary death’, though in this case there would be no resurrection. The cleared site was given over to a vast and charmless chest-freezer with vertical gold fins of a type popular in California, where they break the glare of scorching sunlight – so appropriate on a north-facing Edinburgh facade…
The corner building had a stone plaque recording the fact that philosopher David Hume had lived on the site. This was to be preserved and re-instated but has reportedly vanished – in line, perhaps, with the decision to expunge his name from his eponymous high-rise tower in George Square.
Standing up for classicism
If modernism’s fading scribes have for too long had the publicity edge, we might hope that today’s millennials, their focus on social justice and our dying planet, can see through the fatuous peccancies and deliver an unadulterated version of the truth. If only! Sadly, modernism’s propagandists of (soon to be) yore have been joined by a few ill-informed souls who deem traditionalism, and especially classicism, the anti-diversity emblem of a reactionary establishment.
This began in America, where the nascent ‘national style’ of classicism is thought redolent of white supremacy by such scribblers as New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman whose MAGA war on Architectural Diversity Weaponizes Greek Columns was probably as close to endorsing the ultra-right spirit of Ayn Rand’sThe Fountainhead as that once liberal newspaper has ever got. Rand, you will recall, had a crypto-fascist vision of an America in which developer-schlock high rise would redefine every city, with traditionalism eliminated as ‘decadent.’
Of course, America is another country, and Washington DC is hardly Edinburgh. Or is it? A little fact you won’t find in the history books is that it was Scot George Walker who first suggested the location of Washington DC in The Maryland Journal on January 23 1789. Fired by the splendour of Edinburgh’s 1767 neoclassical New Town, he even returned to his native capital to recruit artisans for his friend L’Enfant’s Great Experiment.
This modish US anti-classicism has seeped into our British discourse, affecting a faux leftist flavour which overlooks the fact that modernism’s underlying dynamic is a free market neoliberal one in which ‘star’ architects join the ranks of the super-rich, while developers and their asset management backers are making fortunes building for wealthy corporations and oligarchs.
Scotland’s Parliament building was also the creature of prescriptive decision-making by a Cool Britannia-obsessed government in Westminster which regarded the Calton Hill chamber-in-waiting as a ‘nationalist shibboleth.’ Many politicians, in their stadial simplicity, regard heritage as the past, and expensive new signature buildings as the future, and thus symbols of progressive virtue. Derek ‘Dolly’ Draper, indeed, greeted New Labour’s 1997 triumph with the words ‘at last, the deification of the heritage is history.’ – a mental state described as ‘palingenesis’ – fear of the past – by Blair critic Leo Abse MP.
The fallacy of modernism
Modernism’s inherent fallacy is its anachronism – less a harbinger of a bright future than a shade of its own often inglorious past of civic destruction, dodgy deal-making, and structural failure. Despite some good buildings, like Basil Spence’s Causewayside petrol station, now a drive-thru wine emporium, vulgar failure predominates. Spence’s brutalist Hutchesontown high-rise Glasgow ‘dampies’, as social and physical disasters, were dynamited (with one fatality) in 1993.
The problem with ideological modernism is a self-serving exclusionary imperative in which the architecture of the past is often viewed as unfit for the present. The fact that, in environmental terms, the retention and retro-fitting of existing buildings will always be more energy efficient than the creation of new ones of concrete, steel, and glass is rarely considered. This culture of anti-historicism is not confined to architecture, of course. It seems to have permeated all our cultural institutions. I hear that BBC Scotland, for example, will ‘focus exclusively on contemporary Scotland’ in commissioning future drama, and material based on Scottish history will be off-limits.
Could we be embarking on a post-COVID period of reflection on the socio-economic purpose and cultural meaning of the Mies-Corbusian modern movement and its skin-deep alter ego, post- modernism? Might minds be concentrated and political attitudes be adjusted in light of 250 years of unfettered exponential industrial growth and environmental degradation which is now testing the world to the point of destruction? In total, building and construction accounts for close to 40% of all global carbon emissions – and that’s before we start heating, cooling, and lighting.
High rise Seattle, Shanghai, and central London are no longer the models we should be following. Modernism is about to run its course, and architectural vanity with it. Don’t just listen to me. The UN Climate Change Conference, due to be held in Glasgow in November 2021, is where the last rites are going to be performed, I suspect.
Image of Scottish Parliament: Scottish Parliament Building, Holyrood by Kim Traynor. Licenced under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; Shanghai images via author; Scottish Provident by Jonathan Oldenbuck via Wikimedia Commons; Hutchesontown via UK Housing Wiki