In the face of fashion

Hugh Pearman follows the trend of flirting with the unfashionable in the world of architecture, where the colour of your pinboard can be very revealing

Fashion. As they say, there’s no escaping it. I once worked for a big firm of architects and designers where the pinboards were covered in dove-grey felt (this was the early Eighties). One day, when an office floor was renovated, these pinboards were stripped. Beneath the grey felt was the acid-green felt of the previous, mid-Seventies, period. Beneath that was the bright orange of the early Seventies. And the final layer was the brown hessian of the late Sixties. I left the practice long before they progressed to what became the late-Eighties/early-Nineties architectural pinboard standard: white shiny metallic surfaces on which you fastened notices with thick disc-shaped magnets.

Everyone is susceptible to the fashion thing, though some ride across more peaks and troughs of the fashion cycle than others. Lord (Norman) Foster’s mid-Seventies Willis Faber building in Ipswich, for instance, despite being soberly black-glass on the outside, had a lot of the bright greens and yellows of the period inside – in particular that green rubber-stud flooring that was once near universal, and now is hardly seen anywhere. Then Foster entered his long grey/ silver period, from which he is only just emerging. It was a bit of a shock to find certain areas of Foster’s Reichstag in Berlin done out in strong colours. One is aware of a seismic shift going on.

Foster’s old partner Richard Rogers had the opposite problem. When he won the commission for the Lloyd’s of London building in the late Seventies, and had to undertake not to paint all the external piping in bright colours like the Pompidou Centre, he did manage to get the interiors done out with particularly lovely high-grade bright blue carpet tiles. The legend goes that he wanted them to be bright red, but the conservatives at Lloyd’s (that’s 100 per cent of them) vetoed this on political grounds. True or not, the bright blue turned out to be an affront to the institution anyway. There, it was the client that proved to be a slave to fashion, ripping out the offending blue, and replacing it with something neutral.

I’m all for going against fashion, but I confess to a slight sense of shock when I first encountered a new chequerboard-pattern block of flats in London’s Dalston, by young architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. This block, for the Peabody Trust, has been highly controversial. Even though the architect told everyone it was going to do it, the vividness of the scheme as built rocked people. People are now getting used to it, appreciate that they have a local landmark, and the fuss is dying down.

I was suspicious of this block at first. True, it seemed to be the antithesis of the pervasive Polite Modern style. One can see why the perennially unfashionable John Betjeman wrote Ghastly Good Taste in 1933. Although nothing much has changed, you certainly couldn’t accuse AHMM’s Dalston block of that sin. Then again, were those checks merely disguising a very banal, cheaply-built block? Were they any better, apart from being abstract, from one of those cringingly awful “community murals” painted to cover supposedly ugly blank walls?

Closer investigation proves otherwise. Yes, the block is dirt-cheap and dead simple. Yes, the checks are a way to counteract that. They are decoration. They are not painted, but done in squares of contrasting render, so should last. The architect is happy to admit its debt to the great Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who used a similar chequerboard technique on council blocks in Pimlico in 1930 – by which time he had, of course, become very unfashionable.

Which brings us to Rem Koolhaas, an architect who is always fashionable, as his current exhibition at the ICA demonstrates. One of the most telling things he said recently was to claim to find merit in the obscured architecture of the preceding generation. Only up to a point, it transpires. In the mid-Seventies it was cool for Koolhaas to find provocative merit in Sixties council blocks, but on questioning it turns out that, in the Nineties, there is no way that he is going to find merit, provocative or otherwise, in the Post-Modern excesses of the Eighties. But there are those who do, among them the aesthetic stormtroopers of the practice known as FAT, who find in Post-Modernism just the kind of fruitful provocation that Koolhaas now shies away from.

So there’s no escaping fashion, but there’s also no escaping its counter-cycle, which is another kind of fashion. The ultimate test for FAT, of course, will be eventually to rediscover the merits of Polite Modern. But by then they, like Koolhaas today, may be too far into the mainstream, whatever that is by then, to be able to back out.

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