I grew up in Norfolk, a baron landscape scattered with small villages, each containing a twee public house, a convenient post office – with a well stocked penny sweet shelf, a family butchers to whom I visited regularly as a child growing up in the local gamekeepers house and the local cricket pitch where summer nights felt endless and I wished the days would never end. We returned home when the streetlights turned on, when the car headlights lit the lane and when the afternoon drinkers left the ‘horseshoes’ in the village. Times were simpler then, whether my age is to account for this lost innocence or whether technology and a move to London are accountable is for discussion on another occasion.
I grew up within cycling distance of Sandringham house and once I had access to a vehicle, within easy driving distance of Blickling house, Holkham, Felbrigg and Oxburgh hall, it is clear to see where my love for the quintessential British family home came from. What was lacking from my early naive love for architecture was experience of a ‘promised utopia’, a new world. I had not yet seen the ideal new town of the future and this continued into my first job in the industry at seventeen years old; many of the projects I shadowed and aided in whichever way possible, were Victorian schools – delicate refurbishment of classical details.
One summer’s afternoon during a visit to one of the coastal properties, to whom my office had a duty of care, my perspective was altered permanently. The property sat on a hill, almost podium, looking down over the North East Norfolk coast and it immediately took a hold of me and created my love of everyday buildings, to me it was a thing of harsh beauty, it made no apologies and it served its purpose in such a way that its users were uncomfortable and unimpressed, yet adequately catered for. This building was Peter and Alison Smithson’s ‘Smithdon high school’ in Hunstanton. To this day, I still hold it partly responsible for my wish to convert from my training as a Technician to that of the position of ‘Architect’ I train toward today.
I recently celebrated the word ‘Sublime’ as the perfect definition for a battle between a manmade landscape and a natural coastline in North Norfolk, this battle was beautifully documented in the book ‘A Landscape of Architecture’ by Jonathan Hill.
Sublime’s common definition is ‘impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe’. So surely such a word would be perfect for description of such buildings as the UEA – Norwich, the Barbican EC2 – London, the Brunswick centre WC1 – London, the National theatre SE1 – London. The visual power, supplied by such buildings is immeasurable; materials so overwhelming they fill some people with disgust, buildings favoured by the arts community and those brave enough to submit themselves, a fractured grid of residential and institutional buildings, designs which if you listen to the media lead to anxiety and distrust – Shame on us I say.
Shame on us that so many of these projects have slipped through our fingers and succumbed to demolition. One wonders what went wrong, great, innovative British architects such as Denys Lasdun, Peter and Alison Smithson, Chamberlin Powell and Bon, those responsible for the above buildings saw a future for their Britain, a utopia within reach with a little perseverance for their country.
This vision has not withstood the test of time however, this time last year David Cameron (then prime minister of the UK) was quoted as promising to remove the buildings I love so dear, he described the country’s post-war social housing as a “brutal mistake” and a “gift to criminals and drug dealers”. A visit and tour of the now demolished Heygate estate in South London reinforced my anger at our lack of faith in what I feel was Britains true speciality in modern architecture.
I am reminded that I should find solace in projects such as the refurbishment of Park hill in Sheffield, this is little consolation, It isn’t ‘Urban Splash’s’ fault specifically after all, that a now iconic piece of graffiti on their site hoarding read “All those people, all those lives. Where are they now?” but I cannot help but feel ‘anonymous’ had a point and whilst I love the Barbican estate so dearly and crave habitation in the Brunswick centre so longingly, I cannot help but debate with myself over whether the crucial listing by English heritage which all of the above masterpieces now hold, is a social death wish or indeed a community saving grace. How long will the art community and trendy hipsters remain in said buildings? Who will afford the now un-affordable trendy apartments that have been so whimsically created? What will happen to my favourite pieces of British architecture when the time comes? And who will strive to create our utopian Britain.
Shame on us.