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Tuesday22 August 2017

Age of margarine classicism

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Once upon a time, seven out of 10 people claimed they couldn’t tell the difference between a heavily marketed margarine and dairy butter. How dumb were those people who couldn’t pick up on a difference that must have been as great as the gulf between modern movement and neo-classical architecture?

I ask this because, although I was away when the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG) ann-ounced the results of a YouGov survey proving that nearly eight out of 10 British people prefer “traditional” to “modern” architecture, the illustrations of buildings used in the survey recall the Stork v butter debate of half a century ago. They deserve to be challenged.

The four buildings shown, one of which is Dixon Jones’s Kings Place — my Guardian office — are in one sense indistinguishable. Modern or “traditional”, they are all contemporary office blocks.

The two with “traditional” facades, however, are the least traditional of the quartet because the heyday of neo-classicism offered little precedent for the design of 21st century office blocks.

Those few that there were, such as Somerset House on London’s Strand, were as scholarly and as palatial as the TAG’s examples are untutored and glum.

You can dress up an everyday office block in any facade you like, yet nothing will ever hide its matter-of-fact nature. Not only do floor heights give the game away — where are the piani nobili in the two “traditional” designs? — but you also know instinctively that behind those weakly expressed entrances lie ordinary speculatively built offices.

Just as the TAG announced its findings, Kings Place received two awards from the British Council of Offices: Best of the Best and Best Commercial Workplace. Even if 77% of those who took part in the TAG survey preferred the superficial look of the two “traditional” office blocks, I wonder what they would have said if they had visited all four buildings?

You might expect me to champion Kings Place, but it was built as a speculative office by developer Peter Millican — the Guardian is only one of its tenants — and it really is a step forward for British office buildings.

Housing a public concert hall, art galleries, cafés, and a canalside terrace, it’s as big spirited as a British spec office has been. It may even set a precedent for a new wave of likeable office blocks.

I would happily take a random group of visitors around buttery Kings Place and then around TAG’s favoured “traditional” — or margarine classical — offices and then ask people how they really felt about the TAG’s choices.

Meanwhile, beyond the confines of Little Britain, steel and concrete-framed boxes are being rushed up at daunting speed in developing cities worldwide.

None would be better with margarine classical facades, but all could be better if planned with a little thought and generosity. Better modern butter than traditional margarine.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Well then, if "the heyday of neo-classicism offered little precedent for the design of 21st century office blocks", then one could say those who design traditional-styled office buildings are being really, really innovative, isn't it?

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  • Jonathan illustrates the perfect example of the 'heads I win, tails you lose" argument. We commissioned a survey to make an unfettered comparison between two architectural styles. In any comparable survey, you reduce the variables to a minimum: office or public buildings (one was an arts building, the types can be very similar), all with vertical facades rising off the back of pavement, all about the same height. This way you get accurate results. If we'd put Somerset House with the Lloyds Building we'd have been howled down for a biased choice. Of course we couldn't get everyone to visit and of course such surveys only show you what people think when they look at four photos. The idea that if you show them round and tell them how wonderful it is they'll think differently is the classic architects' "I know I'm right and if you don't agree I'll browbeat you" and in this context just silly. Whether you like or don't like the buildings is irrelevant and as to the idea that they're not classical because they don't have a piano nobile just illustrates such a lamentable ignorance of classical architecture as to make all the other comments on the type valueless. When we published this we were pretty sure that we'd get: I don't care I know modernism is best, surveys can prove anything, there should be more surveys until the public get it right (like Ireland's referendums) and so on. It is a miracle of journalism that Jonathan has managed to get all the non-arguments into one short piece. Let's be clear, this survey indicates that about three quarters of the public, everywhere in the country and in all income groups, when faced with four office or public building facades of roughly similar proportions prefer the ones in a traditional style - that's all. It it valuable information but it is limited information. It starts to gain more meaning when you put it together with a number of other surveys that come up with identical figures - several housing surveys including one (suppressed) by CABE and the recent poll on a classical and modernist facade option for a planning application for an hotel in Hampton Court. These were all pretty much 80% traditional to 20% modernist. Clearly this is important information and should be taken seriously.

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  • I can't believe it's not architecture! This survey was certainly more about marketing than about design or serious debate i.e. manipulating statistics in order to make headlines and sell something unpalatable. Possibly the comeback of outdoor toilets. They used to be traditional, along with rickets and indentured servitude. Pass the crackers...

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  • Glancey's presents his view on classicism typically utterly bitterly.

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  • No traditional building by any living architect has outside toilets. Nor do their clients suffer from rickets. Do you have a serious objecton to them?

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