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An unfortunate characteristic of many older people is looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Psychologists have tried to explain this phenomenon. Some say it is because people experience emotions from the past more strongly than those from the present. Others argue that when judging the present people do it in relation to past experience, and that judgements made in the past (about the quality of films or the wholesomeness of food, for example) are inevitably made on the basis of more limited experience (you were younger). Therefore, the argument goes, that which is judged is likely to have seemed better (and still seem so) compared with the present-day equivalent which is judged against much more experience of films or food. Then there are those who say that current judgements are made in the context of stresses, annoyances and difficulties that are air-brushed out of our memory of the past, so today inevitably compares badly with thirty or forty years ago. When I sense the approach of, "the past was always better, today is rubbish", frame of mind, I make a conscious effort to crush it because it's simply not so. Some things were better in the past, but many were worse.
From that you'll gather I'm someone who relishes the present and looks forward to the future. And I suppose that's why I don't like to see retro styles in architecture. Take today's photograph of a Thames-side building that I've become very familiar with in recent years. The landward side looks like it could have been the work of Walter Gropius, Eric Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff or any other architect influenced by the Bauhaus and the International Style of the 1920s and 1930s. The handling of the white walls, the black painted, wrap-around windows, the pilotis, the narrow stairwell windows, the glazed balconies, the lettering, the recessed entry and the use of glass bricks all illustrate the architect's knowledge and understanding of that which is emulated. However, the structure rests not on reinforced concrete but a steel frame and this building doesn't date from 1930 but from 1990. It is by the architectural firm of Troughton McAslan and Tim Brennan. Learned and interesting though the building is (and in a style that I like), I nonetheless have to ask why this retro look was chosen for a building in 1990? Why wasn't it built in a style of the time, or why didn't it use the vocabulary of the International Style in a new and original way, much as some Victorian and Edwardian architects used the vocabulary of Gothic and the Renaissance.
Looking back and copying a style seems to me to be a sterile exercise. It is commonplace in the speculative housing that disfigures our land, receives "official" blessing from Prince Charles through his Poundbury fantasy and his meddling in planning matters, and remains an attraction for architects such as Quinlan Terry.
photograph and text © Tony Boughen
Mode: Aperture Priority
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