Building a better Britain: Why it’s time for a return to architectural idealism

London's Balfron Tower: for all its brutalism, now a sought-after address. Image: AFP/Getty.

The image of British architecture tends to be dominated by the older famous names who build all over the world: Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and “Cheesegrater” in the City, Norman Foster of Gherkin and British Museum fame, Zaha Hadid with her galleries, museums and London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

But from the 1940s to the 1970s, the profession was very different. Then more than half of all architects worked, largely anonymously, in the public sector, above all on housing and schools. Architecture was politicised: the task in hand post-war was to build a better Britain, and state funds, from Labour and Tory governments alike, were made available to do so.

Then, “commercial” architects like Richard Seifert of Centre Point fame were openly sneered at by their socially-minded colleagues. Now, British architecture is an almost completely private consultancy business and Centre Point is a listed building, now being restored.

But also valued and listed today are the best examples of the social, better-society architecture built by the public sector in the post-war years. Once everyone had got over the “crumbling no-go concrete council estates” reaction of the 1980s, and demolished or fixed the bad ones, it turned out that there was a lot of good stuff as well.

The latest book of post war listed buildings published by Heritage England – officially the best buildings in the land – is stuffed with council housing. Take Balfron Tower in Poplar, a mid-1960s Brutalist masterpiece by Hungarian émigré architect Erno Goldfinger. This is controversially being renovated for private sale, with the existing tenants kicked out.


Such good publicly-funded architecture has been market-tested and (in big cities such as London, Manchester and Sheffield) found to be good. Social cleansing then duly takes place as capital moves in, the estates are tarted up and rebranded, and those in need of social or affordable housing are pushed to the urban edges.

The Brutalist style – so associated with council estates, though in actuality it spanned all building types including Oxbridge colleges and the (of course listed) National Theatre – is now regarded with wonder by a new generation. It’s chic, raw concrete. When I chaired a debate on the style earlier this year, I expected maybe a dozen people to turn up: instead the place was packed out and everyone seemed to be in their 20s and 30s.

 To this generation, it’s social and architectural history. It is almost as if there was a vanished race of giants that built such wonders – and that is true. The giants in question were the unsung architects of the local authority architects’ departments. Photographs of the time bear out the male tweed-and-pipes stereotype, but also recorded the arrival of a new postwar breed of equally committed women architects.

That world of a shared architectural endeavour has of course vanished, along with nearly all the public architecture offices, but it is mourned. In my job I deal with architects all the time and they have a new hunger for the chance to improve society. Understandably: that’s what their very long and expensive training equips them to do.

Architects are in the utopia business. There’s unease about being seen to be associated with, say, the forests of half-empty luxury apartment towers for overseas investors that infect London, or being the lackeys of developers wanting to fillet historic areas like Spitalfields.

So I’m going to test this. I’ve launched a thoroughly journalistic award in the architecture magazine I edit, the RIBA Journal. “The MacEwen Award: Architecture for the Common Good” is named after a splendid pair of Hampstead ex-Communists. Malcolm MacEwen was the political correspondent for the Daily Worker who – after the CP schism of 1956 – helped found the New Left Review and then moved into campaigning architectural journalism. His wife Anni was the prominent postwar architect-planner who first sounded a warning against slicing up cities to build motor roads.

We’re going to award places that offer the most benefit to the most people, across society. Richard Rogers, whose firm has just built a new type of affordable social housing for the YMCA in Croydon, supports it.

Can the new generation of architects get their social mojo back? I sincerely hope so.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at RIBAJ.com.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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