sun 22/10/2017

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, BBC Four / The Man Who Fought the Planners, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, BBC Four / The Man Who Fought the Planners, BBC Four

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, BBC Four / The Man Who Fought the Planners, BBC Four

Tales from the starchitects, and a tribute to a brilliant maverick, Ian Nairn

Top rank: from left, Sir Michael Hopkins, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Lord Norman Foster, Lord Richard Rogers, Sir Terry FarrellBBC/OFTV/Jackie King

There really was astonishing talent on display in The Brits Who Built the Modern World (*****), as full a television panorama of the work of the five architects whose careers were under examination – Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Michael Hopkins and Terry Farrell – as we’re ever likely to get. Peter Sweasey’s three-film series, fascinatingly rich in archive footage, was supported by the Open University and produced in partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects (which has published an accompanying book), emphasising that it’s once-in-a-lifetime project.

The starchitects were thoughtful in their recollections and generous with their time without succumbing to self-congratulation. Their stories often overlapped (to a sometimes bewildering degree), as over the decades they have worked together, in partnerships, and individually, often competing for commissions. Frequently the process of realising those commissions appeared improvisational – as Lord Rogers said of his design for the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank headquarters, “How the hell are we going to do it?” (A study of feng-shui helped the process along). Or the same architect’s earlier collaboration with Renzo Piano (“We were impossible people,” Rogers’ Italian partner remembered) on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with its “unbuildable” initial design, not to mention tensions and cultural differences with the far more starch-shirted client, the French state.

No wonder that insurance companies, particularly the mother of all insurers, Lloyd’s of London were ideal clients, since they inherently understood the nature of risk. (The Lloyd’s building exterior by Richard Rogers, pictured above; images by Nathan Kendall) The client relationship was clearly more complicated for Terry Farrell at Vauxhall Cross (pictured below left): the architect learnt only late in the process that it was actually going to be a new home for MI6. It was encouraging (because so often it happens the other way round) to learn that Grimshaw’s design for the Camden Sainsbury's came to reality because the local council planning department grew fed up with being presented with less imaginative designs by other players. And always interesting to be reminded how, in the years when they weren’t winning many commissions at home, they were building prodigiously abroad, producing some of the world’s most iconic contemporary buildings.

The five architects came from different backgrounds, but had many things in common. They were influenced by the optimism of the post-war period (the 1951 Festival of Britain a highlight), as well as later counterculture: all have retained a radical, democratic element to their work. The experience of visiting America was crucial, and the practice of pre-crafting metal segments off-site for later assembly, Meccano-style, came from there (just as well, since British builders were often simply not able to deliver expected quality). Open-plan adaptability, a commitment to keeping ground-floor areas as public space, the inside-out style, the passage from High Tech to post-modernism – it was all here. As were the attacks in the 1980s from Prince Charles, and the debate started by the lattter’s celebrated “monstrous carbuncle” comment on a proposed National Gallery extension.

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, which concludes next week, was the crown jewel in the current BBC Four architecture season “Nation Builders”, which also includes Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, presented by Jonathan Meades, the second part of which will be broadcast on Sunday. Meades was also one of the outside commentators in the smallest and most intimate film of the season, The Man Who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn (*****).

It was a tribute to the maverick architectural commentator who excoriated the paths which post-war town planners were taking through his celebrated Outrage, published as a special issue of the Architectural Review in 1955, and his associated concept of “subtopia”. He came into architecture from service in the RAF as a pilot, and always brought that looking-down-from the skies perspective to what he saw around him. He died in 1983, at the young age of 52 – that fondness for beer finally caught up with him – around the time that Prince Charles was launching his assault on contemporary styles. Nairn would certainly have agreed with the latter that the damage wrought by the Luftwaffe was nothing compared to what was being inflicted on the country by contemporary planners (“Stop the architects now!” was one of Nairn’s slogans).

Over his short life Nairn was hugely productive, making films for the BBC (Nairn as broadcaster, pictured, above right), as well as writing for the Observer and Sunday Times (he never got the hang of a typewriter), and writing the series of books (like Nairn’s London, pictured left), for which he will remain best known. His predominant emotion may have been disappointment (“now gone, all gone”), but he fought like hell against the destruction.

Kate Misrahi’s film movingly caught his idiosyncratic achievements, his broad vision of architecture as being most important for its connection to humanity, his shy but man-of-the-people character, and his empathy with the great cities of the North, Newcastle especially, which had fallen on hard times. A southerner by birth, born in Bedford, he managed a final miracle when his death certificate gave his place of birth as Newcastle. The cause of death, cirrhosis of the liver, came as no surprise after the testament we’d heard from friends and colleagues to Nairn's fascination with pubs and capacity for booze. He can’t always have been an easy man to work with, but what an impressive legacy he left behind.

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