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Sunday20 August 2017

Television / Exhibition

The Brits Who Built The Modern World

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The Brits Who Built The Modern World, 1950-2012

February 13 — May 27

RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London

 

BBC Four series: The Brits Who Built The Modern World
9pm Thursday, Feb 13

New TV series and RIBA exhibition chart the rise of British architecture’s ‘famous five’

Why did Michael Hopkins bunk off school? What project made Richard Rogers cry? How did Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell drift apart?

Answers to these questions and many more are found in The Brits Who Built The Modern World, 1950-2012, a new three- part BBC series and associated RIBA exhibition on the big five of British architecture: Norman Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, Grimshaw and Farrell.

“What this series does which is different is look at the ‘famous five’ as a group — and in the wider context of their times.

They’re extraordinary as individuals, but even more so I think as a generation,” says director and series producer Peter Sweasey of Oxford Film and Television.

“I think the wider audience will be particularly surprised by just how radical, and controversial, these pillars of the establishment once were”, he said.

To many architects, however, the story of the big five is largely familiar ground, albeit told in the programme with clarity, insight, and fascinating archive material. But it’s a compelling story worth telling again and to a broader audience – how five men (although Patty Hopkins does get some credit) led “the most successful generation of architects Britain has ever produced”.

And having once been the radicals, how they then, now enobled, became part of the establishment.

Through these five, the programme tells the story of post-war modernism, high-tech, post-modernism and post-post-modernism in the UK, and their great success working abroad — a theme taken up in the RIBA exhibition. High-tech is the focus, from its birth in 1967 at Team 4’s Reliance Controls Factory through to Pompidou, Lloyd’s, Sainsbury Centre, Schlumberger, Camden Sainsbury’s up to the Millennium Dome and beyond.

The programme is at its best when interviewing the architects themselves and in particular their collaborators.

Rogers talks about his “suicidal’ schooldays coping with anti-Italian sentiment and dyslexia; Norman Foster speaks about growing up in a working class environment where reading books was considered “suspect”. Both architects talk warmly of their time working together, and like Farrell, the transformative impact of visiting America.

Section through the Pompidou Centre

Source: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners

Section through the Pompidou Centre

The Pompidou story in particular is fascinating: how Rogers and Renzo Piano entered the competition — Rogers reluctantly — and unexpectedly beat 680 other competitors with their radical concept. This was followed by the utter terror of having to find a way to actually design it properly and then build it amid great local hostility, before ultimately, triumphing. Piano reveals that they pretended not to understand French, which helped.

The fluctuating fortunes of the five are traced through the decades as they held onto their High Tech principles to different degrees as public opinion changed in the 1980s away from embracing the modern and towards conservationism and Prince Charles-promoted neo-classicism.

Farrell’s journey to post-modernism, is one of the more interesting strands, while Grimshaw, with his desire to produce architecture that “lifts the spirits” is portrayed as the one who held most true to high-tech. Hopkins’ work at Lord’s cricket ground showed that it was possible to build (partially) anew in the most traditional of settings.

There is all rather too much to pack into the TV series.

RIBA’s exhibition, in its new Carmody Groarke-designed ground floor gallery, sensibly focuses on one aspect, how Britain’s top architects transformed global architecture. “The core message is how that generation exploded what architecture could be,” says RIBA curator Mike Althorpe, adding that the general public probably have no idea quite how influential British architecture is globally.

A further exhibition in Gallery 1 shows new work abroad by 17 British practices.

The television series is part of the Nation Builders season, which also includes Jonathan Meades on the “concrete poetry” of brutalism, and a profile of critic Ian Nairn.

 

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