Modern Architecture

Modern Architecture has recently become quite cool. Architectural historians such as Jonathon Meades are to be found singing the virtues of Brutalism in all its hideous vainglory.

How can such ugly monstrosities suddenly be worshipped in this way? Haven't they looked around our towns and cities to see what decrepid cespits of visual insensitivity they have become?

I think the answer to that is quite simple: no they haven't.

The problem is that fashionable critics like to treat modern architecture like it is a sculpture or a work of art to be peered over as if in some giant open air museum. What they fail to understand is that if you don't like a painting or sculpture you don't have to look at it, if you don't like a piece of music you don't have to listen to it, and if you don't like a book you don't have to read it, whereas you have to put up with whatever architectural shyte the powers that be see fit to erect in your town. You have no choice in the matter. For this reason architecture should not be seen as a pure art form but one that connects to society. Architecture is about national and regional identity, about civic pride, about feng shui and our interaction with our surroundings. One never seems to hear architecture discussed in terms of how it relates to its surroundings or what the people using it have to say.

As pure sculptures some modern architecture looks impressive. A minature version of the now-demolished Tricorn centre in Portsmouth would work as an exhibit in the Tate Modern, but in the townscape of Portsmouth it was a disaster that has now been thankfully removed.

A second problem with modern architecture is that it relies on 'newness' to be impressive. It was, and often still is, designed to be a complete contrast with existing architecture, to represent some march into the space-age or whatever. The trouble is that much of it just isn't particularly nice to look at and some of it is downright awful. The 'newness' quickly fades once people have got over the shock value and start to realise what an actual eyesore these buildings are. Also, if whole city centres are built with this 'new' architecture then there isn't very much 'old' architecture with which to be a contrast to.

Blobs and snazzy cubes are all the rage today but, like the earlier modernist glass stumps and concrete turds, if a building relies on newness and shock value to impress then once the newness and shock value fades, as inevitably it will, then the total lack of actual beauty becomes all too apparent.


Richmond waterfront has beautiful pastiche Georgian offices. These were described in a derogatory manner as "fake" by architectural critic Jonathon Glancey because inside they are just modern offices. How can a building be "fake" exactly? It is what it is is it not? What do the people using them think? I suspect they are very popular, with a nice outside and a modern inside. I wish more buildings were like this.


What would Glancey make of the Aviva offices in York? I think it works very well - it is just an office block but in the middle of a historic and beautiful city and is deliberately designed to blend in, unlike a hideous 1960s hotel nearby. So much so that I once heard a tourist ask "what's that one" before being amusingly told it was just an office building.


It shows that it is possible to build practical buildings that blend in with their surroundings and manage to look both modern and traditional at the same time. What problem do architectural critics have with that?

It is also worth pointing out that, until recently, York was an industrial town with a railway carriage works, a huge sugar beet refinery, and two large chocolate factories, giving a lie to the notion that an industrial town can not also be beautiful. The Terrys factory in particular (now being converted into housing) shows that even a factory can be nice to look at.


Despite its unappealing exterior, much modern architecture is quite satisfying inside. The Sheffield University Arts Tower and adjoining Library is a good example. You get a good view of the park when sat in the library, the tower has a fun pasternoster continuously-moving lift and the two buildings are separated by an enclosed walkway leading onto a mezzanine floor. It is well-designed inside, as a sculpture the building is clean and well-proportioned and it retains its newness against the older university buildings.

On the other hand I can't help thinking that the modern part of the University should just have been built in the same red-brick style as the original quadrant. There could still be the view of the park, the mezzanine floor, the paternoster lift and all the success of the modern building on the inside whilst keeping in character with the original red-brick building. There is a lack of sculptural detail on modern buildings such as these which means they can never be as visually appealing as most older buildings.

The architectural establishment still seems to believe that a building has to have an exterior style that is somehow consistent with the interior. But I don't think the users of buildings really care that much, and probably quite like a building that looks nice on the outside but has a modern feel on the inside.

(on the other hand some modern buildings are the worst to work in - energy efficiency is taken to stupid levels with fake air-conditioning sending stale air round a building interior again and again giving people illnesses - why not just have windows that open ffs?)

arts tower

How much better would it be, for instance, if the Grade 1 listed wart of Ipswich - the Willis offices - had some classical fascade made of stone cladding? It could still be "high-tech" inside, still have groovy escalators and a swimming pool whilst contributing and not taking away from the townscape of Ipswich.


I admit to quite liking the interior. It is light and airy, the escaltors are probably quite effective (like the pasternoster lift in the Arts Tower) and the roof garden is a nice feature.

But it could have all these features without looking like a branch of MI5. It could quite easily have a traditional exterior in keeping with the historical buildings around it. Architects seem to want to shock; it would be better if they just designed nice buildings.

One of the problems is possibly that modern architects don't believe in such a thing as ideal beauty. The ancient Greeks identified that visual beauty is best created by conforming to the Golden Ratio which is 1 to 1.62, or the ration of one's upper arm to the lower arm, which is also the ratio of the lower arm to the hand, and so on. Images that conform to this number are seen by people as more visually pleasing. Classical architecture is designed with this in mind, but this thinking seems to have been forgetten from about 1950.

It is pointed out by architectural critics that in the past many new buildings were as disliked as many modern buildings today and yet these older buildings are now popular; therefore the same might happen to modern architecture today. However, until the 20th century is was not possible to build anything as tall as today and materials like glass, concrete and steel make modern buildings very incongruous compared to those of the past.


Therefore the shock value of modern architecture surely exceeds anything that was possible in the past. Because modern buildings do not make any attempt to conform to the golden ratio or any notion of inherent beauty it is unlikely they will be admired in future other than as nostaglic period pieces. And, in any case, architecture critics in the past might have been just as out of touch with the general public as they are today.

There should be a rediscovery of the concept of ideal beauty in architecture, as should an appreciation of how a building sits with its surroundings and complements what is already there.

A good example of where this has occured, probably by accident more than design, is at Canary Wharf. Despite its modest height, is, in my opinion, the most visually impressive skyscraper cluster in the world. The way the HSBC and Citybank towers stand geometrically and symmetrically alongside the original tower makes it like some giant latter-day stonehenge. And being on the water makes the huge areas of glass seem appropriate for its setting. It does not usurp any heritage or damage the nearby skyline. At least if you're going to build skyscrapers the relationship between them should be considered, as should how they sit among the wider landscape.

It is only heritage laws that stop London becoming another New York or Shanghai. Architects probably wouldn't care. London might be able to manage and not be ruined by more high-rise buildings if they limited to corridors such as the City, Canary Wharf and Vauxhall, leaving visual valleys of low-rise buildings in between. Let's hope that is the case.

canary wharf

The conclusions from all these examples are:

1. The architectural establishment and critics should stop thinking they are above the views of the general public. They should recognise that the public generally like old buildings, or new buildings built in an old style.

2. Shock value quickly fades, and what may seem new today quickly looks dated.

3. There is nothing wrong with a building that has an interior that is not consistent with its exterior style.

4. The setting of a building is crucially important - how it sits alongside what is already there, both its immediate neighbours and the overall landscape of the town or city.

Modern architecture has been a disaster for the townscapes of Britain, and much of the world. Let's hope a recognition of this can lead to better buildings in future, with an understanding that architecture isn't just an art project but has a profound effect on everyone.