Xenophobes keep quiet

Like it or loathe it, but let’s just build it, appears to be the philosophy behind the V&A’s Boilerhouse project. Sutherland Lyall wonders if this is a defeatist attitude from an architectural community that feels its era is over, and is desperate to hand


I don’t think anybody was not expecting a fuss over Danny Liebeskind’s proposal for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Boilerhouse site. And I don’t think anybody is so naive as to imagine that the Prince’s Brown Nose Brigade will allow it to be built. I’ve almost given up on tilting at this loathsome crew with its pathetic yearning for the return of a better, earlier state of society – one in which the wretched peasantry and Johnny Foreigners would be taught forelock-tugging before entering the world of toil for the quixotically and courteously indulgent upper classes. Actually, that sounds just like the “world” of a standard sword and sorcery fantasy yarn.

I’m not actually interested in whether Dannyboy’s Boilerhouse is great architecture or not. My old Modernist architectural friends point to the fact that the highly wrought facade has little to do with what goes on inside and how gauche it looks. Others say what a great plan and some simply keep stumm.

But I think I’m reading it correctly when I say that, like it or secretly loathe it, there’s a surprising ground-swell of ordinary architectural opinion which says for Christ’s sake let’s build it. This is surprising because, in general, architects show less professional/corporate cohesiveness and loyalty to each other than any other trade, including manicurists. And it’s surprising because Liebeskind ain’t even a local lad.

The latter fact normally gets elderly colonel-type architects writing to architectural papers demanding to know what’s wrong with British architects. In fact, the good ones all seem to be busy designing everywhere else except the UK – and presumably suffering attacks from similar letter-writers in the architectural papers of Korea, Germany and Slovakia. But for all that, and for the fact that we have a good number of very talented and successful home-grown architects, I sense that Liebeskind may well represent a significant moment in British architecture.

What’s new as of last year is talented foreign architects running their own big projects here in the UK. Maybe the feeling is that the era of great British architecture, starting in the Sixties, has run out of steam and is now sorely in need of a fresh injection of talented people such as Liebeskind and Santiago Calatrava, the great Spanish engineer-architect who last month was appointed to remodel Britannic Tower, the second largest building in the City of London.

In the old days, foreign designers would have been working here in somebody’s practice or as students or teachers. The Americans invaded a decade ago to get a foot in the EC door – but they were represented by successful commercial practices rather than notable talent.

And what is also new is that the usual architectural xenophobic suspects have kept a low profile about that fact. Why should this be so? One argument is the notion that the architectural community tacitly accepts that it’s probably desperately in need of exposure to some exciting architectural thinking and design and if it’s not exciting itself then at least the excitement comes from somewhere else. And it’s not predicated on a dream of a reruralised Britain with peasants aaahing respectfully at their gates on summer evenings and sighing forever long into the silky dusk.

Maybe it’s also a forlorn belief that foreigners with big-league clients are slightly less likely to have innovative projects terminated by the Prince’s witchfinders. The theory goes that the knock-on effect is that local talent will therefore find it easier to get bright and unusual designs through planning committees. Personally, I wouldn’t put any money on that but its currency is an indication of the sad state of architectural morale.

There’s also an argument doing the rounds that under a forthcoming Labour government, the National Lottery might well be used to fund a group of Mitterrand-style grands projets for London. Even the most cynical of commentators couldn’t disagree with that idea.

The big question, apart from whether the Labour Party has the will to reform the Town and Country Planning Act and the way its reactionary officers police it, is whether Labour will be prepared to follow

Mitterrand in welcoming the architectural talent of the outside world. I think a lot of local architects might think that a good idea.

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