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Thursday24 July 2014

Speeding off into an uncertain future

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While the MGB is going strong, much of the architecture of its time has not survived

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the MGB, an endearing British sports car that, especially in its slightly later Pininfarina-designed hardtop GT form makes a good everyday driving machine today. My eye was caught this week by a 2012 calendar that fell from the January issue of Classic Cars. It celebrates the MGB.  

April shows a chap driving his lady wife to the steps of a BOAC 707 while other well-dressed passengers file politely aboard the elegant jet. September boasts an Eagle-style cutaway drawing of the MGB roadster highlighting its “chassisless construction” along with “Lockheed hydraulic front disc brakes” and a “conveniently placed ratchet-type hand brake between bucket seats”. October has a bright red MGBGT racing along the fast lane of an empty M1 in 1965 under one of the concrete bridges designed by Owen Williams.

But, August is my favourite. Here, a white MGBGT has pulled up across the street from the recently opened Bull Ring shopping centre designed by Sydney Greenwood and TJ Hirst, working for the architect’s department of John Laing & Sons, a firm that also built motorways and the concrete bridges that spanned them.

It is after dark. A splendidly attired doorman opens the door of the MG — he wears white gloves, of course — to allow a smart young lady out. She swivels from her leather bucket seat demonstrating that those expensive lessons in deportment at the Lucie Clayton School have not been wasted.

Her chap, meanwhile, sporting a natty dark suit and a pair of heavy, black-framed architect’s glasses, appears to be reaching inside his jacket for a pistol. Beyond car, security guard and Ipcress File-style Midlands couple, bright streaks from brake lights appear to flame past the thrilling new architecture. 

Aside from thinking that someone really should put on a fresh show about the relationship between cars and architecture, what fascinates me about this image is the fact while the MGB has survived very successfully into the second decade of the 21st century, the Bull Ring — or at least the 1960s Bull Ring — has gone. Gone the way, in fact, of much building shaped by a consumerism as rampant as the sculpture of a raging bull adorning the shopping mall in the calendar photograph.  

It does seem strange, and somehow wrong, that the inexpensive little car shown here should easily have outlasted the seemingly all-so-solid architecture behind it. And, yet, as the British economy has become the slave of consumerism since the opening of the Bull Ring in the mid-Sixties, so architecture has adopted its ways.

Cynical supermarkets, beloved of design quangos, are raced up in the full knowledge that they will be torn down again within the life of an ordinary car. It makes me wonder why we bother with all these heavyweight, gas-guzzling buildings when, given their increasingly temporary nature, they could be replaced by inflatables, tents or market stalls. Architecture like this comes and goes so fast today that you’d think, unlike an MGB, it was just for Christmas.

Jonathan Glancey is architecture critic of the Guardian

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