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Thursday24 July 2014

Will Elizabeth II leave a worthy built legacy?

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As the Queen’s Jubilee approaches, Piers Gough and Francis Terry square up over the current monarch - is she an architectural friend or foe?

“Yes”

Piers Gough, partner at CZWG

After the Edwardian period, the first half of the century was timid in architectural terms. It took European migrants to produce any modernism at all while we Brits did mostly flaccid classicism.

The rediscovery of confidence is the story of this long Elizabethan period. The cheery austerity modernism of the Festival of Britain and Golden Lane gave way to the baroque Brutalism of the 1960s, which fermented the precocious genius of Foster and Rogers’ High Tech.

The third genius of the 1970’s, Stirling, meanwhile cracked the tricky concept of postmodernism.

The 1980’s were characterised by an exuberant explosion of the pleasure principle, a mostly commercial architecture specifically to be enjoyed outside the austere tastes of the profession, before, in the 1990’s, the Lottery gave us public buildings that were actually popular. Ironically architects were back in esteem just as their importance in general diminished.

The 2000’s saw the inevitable cold douche of arty minimalism segueing into the sepulchral calm of neo-modernism, its international master Chipperfield typically conquering the world first and home later.

This later period also saw the confidence to employ foreign architects here bringing the fierce intelligence of Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate and Laban.

And then to crown the period, we have Zaha, the greatest woman architect ever who also started to build her suavely expressionist beauties abroad. The first Elizabethans conquered the world and returned with the spoils. The architects of the second Elizabethan period have left a legacy of some great architecture all over the world as well as here.

“No”

Francis Terry, partner at Quinlan Francis Terry

Francis Terry, partner at Quinlan & Francis Terry

If you buy a flat-pack chest of drawers, it will last a few years. You could take the same money and buy a 19th century equivalent and you would have a piece of furniture that would last you your whole lifetime.

The same can be said for architecture. Most buildings constructed during the past 60 years were designed in a way that gives them little chance of lasting more than a few decades. From the moment of their incarnation, their ultimate destiny was a landfill site because they were created with obsolescence built in. This means that, by the end of this century, most of the architecture of the second Elizabethan period will be virtually non-existent.

This should be an uplifting thought when one considers the skyline of the city of London, which only recently looked like a Canaletto, but now resembles a half-baked Shanghai. It would be wonderful to think that all those towers — Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Shard to name just a few — that dominate the skyline will soon be gone. But unfortunately the current ones will only be replaced by newer, larger structures, further dwarfing St Paul’s, the only permanent building among them.

The legacy of British architecture since 1952 will, like the buildings themselves, probably fade into the shadows within a relatively short period of time.

We should not be too despondent about this; historically most architecture is temporary and forgotten. Most buildings are knocked down within a fairly short time of their construction as their sites pass into other hands and other uses.

Like flat-pack furniture, they serve a certain purpose at a certain time. It’s just not the sort that will be inherited and cherished by future generations.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Why ask Piers Gough? Isn't one of his projects in the running for the Carbuncle Cup?

    And what does any of what's happening in architecture have to do with monarchy? This is 2012, not 1712.

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  • tesserae

    I thought Architects were responsible for our architecture, she has let them get on with it, rightfully. Unfortunately some have built purely for themselves, got a special name for this, others built to make a statement for the public, not to it. She's staying well away out of the fray.

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