"Escape from Geriatrica"






















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As a boy in India, far removed from Britain, first by distance and then by the '39 War, I had received the idea that England was a green island that had been despoilt and ruined by black factories. Their sable besmirchings needed only to be removed for England to find her real and pure nature again. The fact that it was their belching black smoke that had wafted my Father's family to India and my Mother's to Argentina, was not vouchsafed to me. Nor did I ever come to understand that it was only the munitions made in those inky infestations that had prevented Hitler's blitzkreig from overwhelming Britain in the mere weeks and days that it had taken to roll over more rustic States at the other end of Europe.

Implied in this valuation there must have been the idea that British Industry was no longer needed to support the Imperial System. Perhaps it was because the Empire had been so long in existence, and was so enormous, complex and wide ranging, that it may have appeared, to my mother at least, from whom I assume I received these mythic prospects, a given property of the Globe.

This view of things was rudely shattered, by the votes of those very ungrateful worker-inhabitants of the inky factories, whose Attlee government collapsed the Indian Raj in 1947. My peculiar, but very vivid, picture of Britain, may not have been typical of the tribe of Imperial Functionaries to which my father's family, originally 18C, and early 19C, industrialists, had come to belong. But what it reveals is a view of Britain as a place to which the long-serving officers of the Raj sent their children to be educated, that is to say imbued with the imperial mythologies. Then, after a lifetime of Imperial Service, and, 'after a man's work was done', they returned to the 'green island' (long ago cleared of rustics and rendered into estates fit for the Imperial gentry) to engage in several tireless decades of 'country house life'.

In short England was a 'green place' inhabited alternately by infants and geriatrics. One's adultood was spent abroad, 'supporting the Empire'. I well recall my father peremptorily removing a fattish book from my hands, at the age of seventeen, and exclaiming "John, we have no time for Art, we have the Empire to run". Being recently retired, divested of servants, and this being London in the seedy 1950's, he probably wanted me to wash the car. But the Imperial imperative remained strong.

Coming to know Britain, as an Architect, over the succeeding half-century, it is clear that the loss of the enormous Empire - so large that no 21C British child could conceive of 'owning' such a huge and diverse 'property' - unless they thought of some latterday, Star-Wars, extra-terrestial, Galactic Imperium - was a catastrophe that affected not only Britain's wealth, power, status and so forth, all somewhat hazy abstractions, but our very lifespace, the concrete locus of our 'Britannic' being. This Green Island, in its specifically 'greenfield' locations, which, as everyone knows, are now its most desired and economically active tracts, is not a theatre designed for adults. It is a locus for the alternately infantile and senile.

Doubly tragic, also, is that this 'theatre of life's terminalities', has now been over-run, as by some blitzkreig from a toyshop, with the little futilities we call automobiles. The quiet country lanes, served by a dense mesh of railways until amputated by Lord Beeching, are torn apart by hurling steel and shod in smelly asphalt. Instead of seething with the sound of insects the 'countryside' shakes to the murmur of a million mobile playrooms. The two fractions of the living most excluded from the mythical 'green island' are now the very old and the very young for whom its puerile scale and micro-historical mythologies were, for centuries, so solidly inscribed. The 'English Countryside' is now a kindergarten and a garden-of-ease in which the young and old find themselves gratuitously imprisoned while the energies and powers of adulthood waste themselves in acting upon a stage that can support nothing but Nursery Rhymes and Tales of Yore.

To write the History of either 19C or 20C British Architecture, as if it was confined only to these islands, is to entirely avoid the fact that, during much of these times, its greatest constructions were outside the confines of this tiny place. How can one categorise 'Britain' without including Lutyens' new Delhi, or Classical Calcutta, or the acres of docks, railways, great bridges, huge ships, and many, many buildings of diverse and wonderful quality, all created by 'Britain' and not merely within the 'official' empire but by British Capital, Architects and Engineers in North and South America. To confine Britain to the locus of the 'green island', as seems to be the obsessive cult of both the preceding, and even more peculiarly, the succeeding generations of 'End of Empire', is to confine the British spirit, and the British achievement, to the nursery and the old folks home - that was, for many centuries, and still largely remains, 'our Countryside'.

The Architecture of the 1940's Welfare State was deliberately divested of its historical and conceptual culture and invested, instead, with the smalltalk of bureaucratic trivia like 'housing density'. Its devices, mere jolly coloured squares and slabs (now being, unaccountably, revived by New (in search of a Style) Labour, outlived the demise of their feeble ideological genesis, when they were hijacked by the Property Developers of the 1950's. These simple traders could not believe their luck in being encouraged to build commercial properties of unprecendented shoddiness and subliteracy, such as would never have been allowed before the War. But that's a Post-Socialist Mixed Economy for you.

Fortunately the Public hijacked the Socialist Planning system and turned it into an instrument that, at the very least, prevented the State and Big Business from further depredations, and lifespace degradations, raising the level of the Architectural 'playing field' to where it has remained up until the present time.

Yet this can only be a holding operation. The resurgent power of the Executive, and the Professions, under New Labour, in attempting the legitimate action of providing some positive lifespace-design leadership, has exposed an imperial level of confusion, concerning new, Post-Imperial, Models and Theories of Lifespace Design. The current position is that Exemplarity, Models, and Theories, are all suspect and politically incorrect. The only 'authentic' position of a 'work' is that it be as 'uniquely' (even within one Architect's Oeuvre) 'Authorial', as it is dedicated to Deconstructive counter-formalism and contra-functionality. The pursuit of an 'Architecture of Experience" is preferred to an "Architecture of Comprehension". Today, publications aim to combine pin-sharp images with pin-headed attitudes. No building can relate to another, or indeed to anything else. No building can relate to a background, or foreground, culture, of any sort.

The unique, arbitrary, unquestionalble, unintelligible, one-off output of an'Architectural Star' is now recognised as the only valuble contribution that Architecture can make to the human lifespace. To those that can read the smoke signals of our particular tribe it is a sign that the Architectural Avant-garde believes that Architecture, as conventinally understood as something 'surplus' to raw shelter, has become irrelevant to contemporary lifespace-engineering. Yet who are emitting these signals. Is it the Public? It is not. For example, the Judge Institute was voted, by the Public of Cambridge (not the Architects) the 'Cambridge Daily News Building of the Decade'. No, the pessimists, flying before a largely imaginary enemy, towards an illusory refuge (that of 'Fine Art'), are the Professionals themselves.

The solution to this problem, of this peculiar 'Death of the Architect' (if not the Death of Architecture), has been the object of my work ever since I 'discovered' it for myself, in 1950's North America, where whole 19C city-districts, of fine and solid buildings, better Architecture, all of them, than anything of the subliterate pasteboard built in the 50 years since, were being razed so as to make their sites into playgrounds for the automobile. I recount this story in "FAQ#7": "How will people house themselves in the future?"

In the USA, this remains a 'serious' question, not least because the economic churn needed to win the 40 Years War against Russia has left the US lifespace a distracted battlefield on which are coming to rust the economic engines of a way of life that can no longer be sustained by a scientifically informed electorate. In Britain, the Post-Imperial retraction has been like an ocean withdawing into a village pond. The British lifespace, once global in its compass, when it shrank into the territory of the Welfare-Greenfield world, ensured that nothing could be treated seriously at all. Nothing can be built in the English 'countryside' that is not situated inside the calculated extra-maturity of the hedgerow-land of Nursery Rhyme and Antiquarian Mumblings.

The Judge Institute, it is true, is built in a town, Cambridge. But it is a very 'precious', and mainly rustic, town, which, although it owns some buildings fit to be contemplated by an adult, has, in general, been kept in conformity with that fertile Victorian mythology of the Parfait Gothic Christian Knightly Gent from which the administrators of Empire would sally forth to 'tough-out' their heroic, manly, deeds. No one can say that this ideological imprinting did not work with an efficacy hard to imagine today. But what is to succeed it? How does Gothic Cambridge relate to the fashion-driven world of the 21C consumer, newly escaped from the satanic mills and possessed of a vibrant , numbingly idiotic, Pop culture? Has anything been built in the Univesity that can 'take-on' Pop culture and slug it out until it emerges victorious, admired (why not even 'feared') by the New, polychromatic, Culture of the Image while - and this is the key - retaining all of the solid Arcana of the Old Culture of the Text?

The small City of Cambridge has been the theatre of the most concentrated and sustained Architectural effort of Post-Imperial Britain. These projects have been mainly built by the University and its much older, and often much wealthier, Colleges. But the dimension of 'taking-on' Pop culture has, with rare exceptions, like Stirling's History Library, never been part of the 'cultural project'. Stirling, in any case, was addressing, with his Romantic Neo-Constructivism, a long-gone, 19C, 'industrial proletariat'. No, the Cambridge Modernist Project has been, for the most part, enclosed within the charmed circle of the 'country-house' culture, devoted to its quietist icons of greenery, natural light, wood, stone, leather and lead, horses heels, over the pavings..... an elegiac Nursery of Retirees, isolated within the cordon sanitaire of 'greenness' which protects the too-young and the too-old from the responsibilities, opportunities, liveliness, and tragedies, of adulthood, and real, happening-now, History.

And why not, one might ask? - except that such a peculiarly reticent stance would not seem proper in many other Cultures. Why should not a University, supposedly (as well as in reality) overflowing with high intelligence as well as diverse understandings, not see its role as participating in the formation of the lifespace culture (if we may not call it Architecture) of the wider world? I well remember, for example, writing the text accompanying the application to enter the Judge Selection Competition from Milan where I was competing for the design of an enormous Private Hospital. One knows of the conceptual width and agility of the Cambridge Professor and Graduate. But where is it evidenced in the Modern Architecture of the University, and where is it employed to project such inventions in pursuit of a legitimate and exemplary re-forging of the wider British lifespace?

These were some of the circumstances situating the design of the Judge Institute. They explain the huge scale, polychromy and intellectual density of its Architecture. This was Cambridge, authority of the ancient culture of the Text, 'taking-on' the new culture of the Icon, on its own ground, that is to say the 'street', and not merely 'putting up a good show' (and gamely failing - British-style), but playing, American-style, to win. The Judge very nearly powered-through to success. Even now it could succeed, at the global scale at which its discourse is pitched, if its interior was carried out as designed. One may refer to Duncan Hall, our US Project, to see what I mean. But more of that in due course.

Meanwhile, to most Britishers, the Architecture of the Judge Institute must seem well and truly 'surplus' to needs. But then an unfinished work will always seem unbalanced, and can only 'justify' itself when it is completed. Other Nationalities, more accustomed to the use of major Architectural discourses in their culture, are more than pleasantly surprised to find one in 'little old' England. There was an opinion-survey done a few years back and the non-British students of the Judge, instead of finding the Gallery interior excessively colourful and over-decorated, found it bare and 'cold'. Again, we will return to this surprising fact.







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