Let the good times roll: 1980s
The decade marked a shift towards hi-tech and post-modernism, and the intervention of royalty
The three key UK architect buildings of the 1980s were Norman Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, Lloyd’s of London by Richard Rogers, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart by James Stirling.
Interestingly, Gordon Graham (an RIBApresident in the late 1970s) was instrumental in securing the commissions for the two younger architects, neither of whom had designed a tall building. Foster’s biggest building to date had been the low-rise Willis Faber headquarters in Ipswich; Rogers had of course been responsible for the Pompidou Centre but had not undertaken a significant office building.
Foster Rogers Stirling
In some ways this was Foster Rogers Stirling decade: Stirling had taught both Foster and Rogers, and the relationship between the three culminated in the 1986 Royal Academy show featuring three projects by each (all nine exhibits had been engineered by Arup). All three received the RIBA Gold Medal (Stirling the first of them in 1980).
This was not entirely the triumph of British high-tech, since Stirling could reasonably have been described as the first major British post-modernist, in the wake of the 1979 Venice Biennale that triggered the movement.
One might say that the end of the decade was the 1991 Biennale where Stirling triumphantly opened his bookshop in the Giardini, and was the toast of the event. In between, he and (as ever) Michael Wilford had completed the Clore wing for the Tate Gallery, which resulted in a huge increase in visitors.
As for post-modernism, its most prolific British exponent was Terry Farrell, whose Clifton Nurseries temporary pavilion and adapted industrial shed for TV-am won a certain acclaim. His commercial office buildings and the house he designed in Notting Hill with and for Charles Jencks enraged the modernist tendency in the British architectural establishment.
Nicholas Grimshaw (following his split with Farrell, which saw both start new practices in 1980) flew the flag for hi-tech with two very different projects: the Sainsbury supermarket plus housing in Camden Town, and the winning competition entry in 1988 for the Waterloo Euroterminal.
Model of office life
Integrated architecture and engineering was a feature of the major commercial development at Liverpool Street Station by Arup Associates in the mid-1980s. The Broadgate development improved transport, created public space, and offered up a model of office life not previously seen in London.
A more conventional but impressive office building, the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, had been completed by Denys Lasdun in 1980.
An unexpected commission was the Mound Stand at Lord’s cricket ground by Michael Hopkins & Partners, commissioned by a conservative institution with an inspired building committee. This was in a line of architectural thinking that saw the Schlumberger research building completed outside Cambridge at the start of the decade; a heavier version of the same approach was created in Newport by Richard Rogers for Inmos — the indeterminate workspace as pavilion.
Controversy surrounded a series of buildings and projects in 1980s London. The Prince of Wales’ public attack on the proposed Mies tower in the City of London was the forerunner of a failed attempt to create a 20th century landmark and square in the heart of the financial district; its replacement by James Stirling prompted more trouble which continued into the next decade. Norman Foster’s competition-winner for the BBC in Langham Place was scrapped, disastrously, in favour of design-and-build in White City.
In Trafalgar Square, a competition that attracted hundreds of entries, resulted in a replacement Grand Building development rather like the original, while diagonally opposite another competition-winning design, ABK’s National Gallery extension, bit the dust after an inquiry no doubt influenced by another Princely attack.
More encouraging was the work of a new force on the architectural scene: Will Alsop. His cheap and cheerful Cardiff Bay visitor centre pulled in the crowds, and at the end of the decade he had defeated Norman Foster in a shoot-out to design a new regional government building in Marseille, the “Grand Bleu”.
The key change Foster and Rogers (and to a lesser extent Stirling) brought about during the eighties was to effect a crossover from cultural architecture into the world of commerce, thus breaking down an unhealthy barrier in British architectural culture (while annoying Prince Charles). They had to wait until the next decade for honours, however, all receiving knighthoods in the first three years of the 1990s.
Prince Charles’s 1984 Mansion House speech puts architecture in the spotlight
It was a glorious early summer evening, and the hundreds gathered to celebrate the RIBA’s 150th anniversary, and the awarding of the Royal Gold medal to Charles Correa, can scarcely have anticipated what was to follow.
The speeches were in Fountain Court. Prince Charles began what sounded like a polite and routine speech; then the trouble started with a reference to the “welcome reaction to the modern movement”. There was praise for community architecture, and a name check for Rod Hackney (an RIBA vice-president) and Edward Cullinan (“a man after my own heart”).
So why couldn’t the community approach be applied to Mansion House Square, instead of “yet another glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London?”
That dealt with Mies. Then ABK’s proposed National Gallery extension was given the treatment: “a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren… a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.
The Prince wanted to know why the building didn’t have curves. Since it was in fact a drum, this suggested he had confused ABK’s design with another competition entrant by Richard Rogers. Oh well.
Reactions were immediate: I talked to a visibly shaken Peter Palumbo, client for the Mansion House Square project. Environment secretary Patrick Jenkin came over to tell him the speech would have no effect on the planning process (it did, of course).
The best comment of the evening came from Charles Correa, presented with his Gold Medal (and a garland sent by the Aga Khan):
“Well, sir, you have certainly given us something to talk about over dinner.”
BD had commissioned a painting and limited print edition of Hampton Court, by Brendan Neiland, to mark the occasion. He and I joined a line-up of architects in an ante-room after dinner.
We presented the Prince with Print No 1; he spent 10 minutes with us talking about painting and architecture. Charming, of course.
The Prince’s Hampton Court speech was the opening shot in a generally unproductive relationship with the profession which continues to this day. But it has kept architecture in the headlines.
Paul Finch was editor of BD from 1983-1994 and went on to edit Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review. Chairman of Cabe.