Hugh Pearman: Take a break and mourn

When architectural wonders are demolished, the buildings are elevated to the heights of martyrdom. Hugh Pearman unwraps reasons why design doesn’t have the same effect.

Every section of society needs its heroes and martyrs and, in theory, design is no exception. But the moment you start to think about it, you realise there is a gulf between design and architecture on this one. People mourn when a great building is demolished. It becomes a cause célèbre, it achieves martyrdom. Demolished masterpieces become the built equivalent of saints. But who mourns when a chair finally slips out of production, when a magazine is closed, when a newspaper ditches one design for another, when you can’t buy a particular pen any more?

Well, it can happen, especially with vehicles. Great crowds gathered when London’s last remaining tram made its final journey. Some tears were shed when the last Alex Issigonis-designed Mini left the production line for a museum last year. We can predict with confidence that there will be events to mark the final retirement of Ken Grange’s chisel-nosed InterCity 125 diesel express from service, whenever that may be.

But vehicles are produced in large numbers, and some always survive, lovingly maintained and polished by enthusiasts, to keep the record intact. Such is the affection in which trains are held, that there will no doubt be authentic particulate-rich heritage trips available on a Grange 125, in original British Rail livery, of course. That train, having been so very successful for so long, is not a martyr. Not in the way of the original, tilting, abandoned Advanced Passenger Train, or the Blue Streak rocket, or the TSR2 supersonic fighter jet. Promising prototypes that never made it – these come closest to design martyrdom.

Perhaps a case can be made for good corporate identities that get ditched in favour of bad ones but for the real tear-jerking thing, you have to hand it to architecture. With rare exceptions (McDonalds drive-thru’ restaurants, say, or Travelodge hotels), every building is a one-off. Buildings also last a relatively long time, so people get used to them, even to the point of liking them.

As I write this, the bulldozers are flattening a much-hyped post-war masterpiece, the Brynmawr Rubber Factory in Wales. It was built in the 1940s as a piece of social engineering – a factory to relieve an unemployment problem, regardless of market forces. For what seems like several decades now, I have slowly been tiring of Brynmawr and its iconic status. Factories, because of the volatile nature of manufacturing industry, do not last very long. This is why a key high-tech building – the Reliance Controls factory in Swindon, designed by both Richard Rogers and Norman Foster in their Team Four days, a multiple award-winner – was built in 1967, and demolished in 1991.

Brynmawr should logically have been demolished 20 years ago when it ceased to be used, but, luckily for its supporters, it had those decades as an evocative ruin, which isn’t bad. But in death it has achieved still higher status. Brynmawr has become the modernist equivalent of London’s Victorian architectural martyrs, the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange. Those landmarks were swept away in the early 1960s by greedy developers and indifferent politicians despite screams of protest from the then-nascent heritage lobby. The noise surrounding Brynmawr is not just similar – it’s identical.

And yes, it is regrettable that the best buildings of any era should vanish. But how bright the star of the Euston Arch has subsequently shone. Its death forced the conservation movement to organise itself more effectively. Now the veterans of the Brynmawr campaign have a bright, faraway look in their eyes. I have met them. They seem strangely unaffected by the tragedy. This is because the building has instantly become a legend, a myth, a saint. It is now far more powerful a symbol than it ever was in its decline.

It’s not so easy for those of us weeping over the imminent death of the traditional Kit Kat wrapper. Very few people ever actually saw Brynmawr. But untold millions have experienced the deeply satisfying tactile sensation of peeling a Kit Kat and doing creative things with the foil. No longer. It’s going to get a plastic pouch like every other sweet and biscuit. But do they send round counsellors to the bereaved? Are questions asked in Parliament? Does Jeremy Paxman interrogate the traitors at Nestlé? No, it’s all treated as a bit of a joke, necessary progress. Oh yes, design is most definitely short-changed when it comes to martyrdom. Which is why the Kit Kat wrapper gets its obituary here.

Latest articles