Putting on a brave face

Gaynor Williams despairs at the lack of courage emanating from Britain’s architectural quarters to produce fresh design for our country’s new buildings. As the millennium approaches, the heat is on to produce an inspiring environment, but will anyone be b

IF the UK was a stick of rock, it would have the word “fear” running through it. Fear of mad cow disease, fear of Europe, fear of unemployment. But most of all, fear of the future. What is it that makes us throw a nationwide fit when confronted with the bravura of Daniel Liebeskind’s proposed extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum? Something new, exciting, and forward looking? Off with his head!

We are wallowing in heritage at the expense of the future. Even William Morris, in his early days, found that his work won more public plaudits when it was a direct copy of a medieval original.

I have no objection to facsimile architecture. Magdalen College in Oxford has recently pulled the hoardings off the most extraordinary new building you’ve ever seen – extraordinary because it is genuinely hard to tell whether it’s just been restored or whether it’s just been put up.

But we shouldn’t get sentimental about the past. After all, it was never sentimental about us. In the 1800s we embraced technology and change. The future was an open book to men like Edward Jenner and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and they wrote its pages with gusto.

The best argument I’ve heard in favour of a more courageous approach to modern design came from Rover Group chief executive John Towers. Towers has transformed Rover from something of a laughing stock to a national icon, and speaking at a Newell and Sorrell do, he described the way the company forced itself to change.

Many companies in the West create a “downtown Calcutta environment”, he said. “Downtown Calcutta is oppressive and lacks any form of inspiration, and the first thing you want to do is get out of there. In business you have to create something more like springtime in Lucerne – an environment where people reach out for new experiences.”

In business as in life. What better way to help a country look forward, instead of back, than to provide a positive, inspiring and exciting environment? And oh, I forgot: modern.

With royalty faltering, teachers being told that the three rs were best all along, and the millennium arriving in a measly four years’ time, we need a few shots in the arm. Announcing the V&A’s plans for the Boilerhouse Yard site, director Dr Borg said: “Britain has some very exciting proposals to celebrate the millennium, but none have so far grasped the opportunity to do something exciting and challenging with architecture; to create a building in London which can achieve the status of a national icon, as the Eiffel Tower does for Paris or the Empire State Building for New York. In Liebeskind, we know we have selected an architect who can give us that building.”

The V&A has done plenty to preserve our heritage. When it attempts to help forge a new one, why complain?

Virgin on the ridiculous

The news that “Virgin brides are about to walk down the aisle” (DW 31 May) fills me with dread. No, not another story about reactionary 1940s moral resurgence. This is something much worse; something that reduces grown men and women to a submissive, Stepford wife-like state – the mighty power of The Brand.

Aren’t you just fed up with brand extension? Already, the high street is a homogeneous blob populated by drones fed on Next, Next, and more Next, with a dash of Marks & Spencer. Now, the world’s turning Virgin: life insurance, music, travel, PEPs. And now – marriage. OK, so Richard Branson is a genial retail genius. I don’t begrudge him his musical millions, his planes and his computer games – but Virgin Brides? These days? Is he or isn’t he an oxymoron?

Virgin Brides will provide a “total package”, presumably for those whose professional life-styles mean they have everything to spend except time. There will be clothing, a juice bar, general retail and a travel outlet – so you can conveniently buy tickets for your honeymoon. If you don’t have to make a meeting, that is.

There’s a definite gap in the market for well-designed wedding gear that is not ridiculously olde-worlde. And the rest of the “package” just follows on.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that, at the end of the day, imperialist brand-building eradicates consumer choice, rather than adding to it. Down with the Next factor!

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