Generalising about Britain’s built environment

A summer visit to London is likely to include trips to destinations where you can linger for free, at least if you have the will-power to resist retail therapy (coffee, food, books, beer…). The South Bank’s cultural and culinary attractions amount to one such destination, another is the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park. For someone like me who dislikes travel, the pavilion business turns out to a good way to come eyeball-to-eyeball with internationally famous contemporary architecture.

Peter Zumthor with his Hortus Conclusus is this year’s builder-philosopher in Hyde Park.

From outside it’s a rectangular box with door-shaped openings. These lead into dark corridor punctuated by inviting light from within.

According to the Swiss Zumthor, this is apparently a nod to those neatly kept and perfectly rectangular vegetable plots that once surrounded houses of all kinds and sizes in his native country. Gardens as enclosures are an ever-necessary part of civilization, so it’s not surprising to see Zumthor explain that in this project “something small has found sanctuary within something big” (i.e. London).

Like many other London venues incorporating straight paths and corridors, this proves to be a great space for the city’s anxious parents to let their toddlers work on their running skills.

Zumthor hasn’t (yet) left a lasting, or at least physical, architectural impression in the UK. It would be good if he and architects of his calibre would.

On my travels in the UK this summer – from London to Cardiff School of Architecture’s ‘Economy’ conference in early July – I was again reminded horribly of why I became interested in understanding the built environment in the first place. It was because of how horrid everyday architecture and building are in the UK. More specifically, it was because so few British friends of mine appeared bothered by this crass awfulness. Not that I expect the house-building industry in the UK to ever start employing architects (let alone architects with a sense of beauty or appreciation of sustainable planning). The economics of the industry combined with the hatchet-job that’s being done to Britain’s planning system will probably ensure that won’t happen.

But it would be excellent if public buildings and monumental edifices at least were designed and constructed in a way that enhanced rather than cheapened the environment. Alas, new housing is overwhelmingly ugly and the rest is only a little less depressing. Even many of the new schools (or academies as they’re misleadingly called) are woefully uninspiring and cheap-looking. (Read down to the end of this wonderful blog post about East Dulwich’s Dawson Heights to appreciate the contrasts between uplifting and depressing buildings). And the increasingly routine and supposedly progressive combination of public or civic buildings, like libraries, combined with retail just makes me want to cry (I’ll refrain from commenting further on new ‘architecture’ in Cardiff).

There’s a lot going on in the oddity that is British architecture. But one certainty is that it is focused on place-marketing, whether permanent or temporary, like the Serpentine Gallery’s annual show of luxury talent. It’s unlikely that a wholesale upgrade in the built environment (or even a slight improvement) will arrive in the British Isles any time soon. So perhaps a bit of temporary, upper-class-oriented folly in a beautiful but still publicly accessible part of the big city, is worth supporting.

But in weeks and months to come, I hope to post a few texts about a city whose architecture is equally fascinating to me, Helsinki. More soon.


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