Is junkitecture our future?

Last updated 12:00 03/05/2014

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British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey says that "huge impersonal forces" are turning many cities into boring places. What are the implications for Christchurch? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

How often does this happen? A small town takes on a corporate heavyweight that it sees as threatening its way of life. The legal battles drag on for years, costing thousands or even millions, and keeping armies of lawyers busy. The outcomes are usually predictable.

The British market town of Hadleigh in Suffolk recently went through one such battle. The supermarket giant Tesco wanted to set up in town. Locals weren't as keen but too bad.

After more than 20 fraught years, there was a conclusion last December. And it was an unexpected one: Tesco has given up.

It may have helped that British architecture critic and writer Jonathan Glancey lives in Hadleigh and was able to draw some wider attention to the issue. But still, as he explains by phone from Suffolk, when it came to the local council there was just one vote in it.

In 2010, Glancey made an online film for the Guardian titled Outrage Revisited. A road trip behind the wheel of a Morris Minor began in London and ended in Hadleigh, where the Tesco drama was discussed.

It was to illustrate a greater point. Glancey was influenced by British architecture critic Ian Nairn who wrote Outrage in the 1950s. Nairn was especially outraged by the dismal sameness of the British urban landscape, coining the word "subtopia" to describe the ugly non-places he saw on the edges of towns and cities.

Glancey found that things have only got worse since.

"I was trying to see what happens to any place when these huge impersonal forces come and - bam! - hit us for six," he says. "It's all of us, whether you're living in Christchurch or a small English town. Globalisation is real. You can't escape it."

As a journalist, he has found there are times when you can look at the world with a healthy, detached scepticism "and there are times when you get overwhelmed by the reality and you think, I can't be sceptical, I can't be detached. I've got to get involved, I've got to argue. The danger is you end up ranting, which you mustn't do."

Glancey's heart sinks at the thought that he is about to get on a plane and fly 23 hours to places that look almost the same. Globalisation's dreary landscape of giant shopping malls, retail strips, supermarkets and distribution centres is being reproduced everywhere.

Outrage Revisited is also reminiscent of an excellent British film from the 1990s. In Robinson in Space, film-maker Patrick Keiller went on a road trip out of London, expecting to find cities ruined by manufacturing decline. Instead he found a new, hidden economy supporting retail, service and distribution.

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Glancey knows that Keiller film.

"The economy is based on consumerism, property and financing," he says. "What's interesting is how detached people are from where these things happen.

"The giant distribution depots could be on Mars. They have nothing to do with the fabric of England or the countryside or geography or cultural history. Apart from lorry drivers and the guys working in warehouses, nobody sees them. And yet they are some of the biggest buildings in the country.

"Isn't that strange? Generations ago, the biggest buildings in a country were cathedrals or temples. Great mosques, great monasteries and palaces. Later on, huge factories, but people knew the factories, they saw them. Or great railway buildings, great dock buildings.

"The service economy hides itself and is creating this new breed of non-architecture. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas calls it 'junkitecture'. Companies like to say they are building sustainably and reasonably and blah blah blah and yet they are putting up big, cheap buildings."

***

For 15 years, from 1997 to 2012, Glancey was the erudite and fearless architecture and design editor for the Guardian. That sounds like a long stretch but as he said when he left, "15 years is not a long time in architecture. It is the slowest as well as the most political of the arts."

Before that, he was with The Independent. Now he is a freelance critic. His books include New British Architecture, The Story of Architecture and Modern World Architecture. There have also been two books on British planes, the Harrier and the Spitfire.

He is about to visit New Zealand for the first time, to cities that threaten to look the same as cities back home. In Auckland and Wellington, he will give talks about great modern buildings. In Christchurch, his talk has the appealing title Building the new Jerusalem, Building the new Shanghais.

In short, it asks how cities can maintain an identity in the face of globalisation and the commercial forces that turn everywhere into "subtopia".

Ahead of his visit to Christchurch, Glancey has been thinking in general terms about rebuilding. Broadly speaking, there are two extremes. After World War II, Warsaw and St Petersburg painstakingly rebuilt, to the point where you can wander through St Petersburg and think, "is this all 18th century, 19th century? No, some of it's 1950s, 1960s, 1970s."

They wanted their old cities back, so they rebuilt them.

On the other hand, there are "more ruthlessly commercial cities". Glancey remembers all the idealism that accompanied plans to rebuild the southern tip of Manhattan after 9/11.

"They were talking about amazing buildings that were going to represent American virtues and there were going to be great artworks. Well, there are some artworks but basically New York has got back to business. A lot of the buildings are fairly mainstream and even the Freedom Tower isn't as magic as it was going to be, but that is what New York does. New York is a big money-making machine."

Similarly, in London after the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren drew up a bold new city plan and nobody wanted it.

"It wouldn't have worked because the city of London has always been about making money. The bankers and the merchants rebuilt their city pretty much as it was, except out of brick and stone instead of timber."

At this point, Christchurch readers might be thinking about our central city "blueprint", with its strict prescriptions of precincts and anchor projects. The recent squabble over the "cultural precinct" shows what happens when a plan collides with messy reality.

Glancey addressed cities in Modern World Architecture. He wrote that "the problem of the city is one that refuses to go away: when it thrives it expands and threatens to veer out of control. A healthy city from the point of view of finance and jobs is often chaotic."

In a Guardian column he wrote, "Grand plans grow best over time, as serendipity and common sense soften hard edges".

Does this make it counter- productive to overplan a city? Glancey will answer that question with another question: "Where would you prefer to live, Canberra or Sydney? What about Rio de Janiero or Brasilia?

"You would go to Brasilia, you would wander around the centre, almost shell-shocked by the futuristic look and the amazing buildings by Oscar Niemeyer set around lakes. And then you would realise that it's a bureaucratic, political forum and nothing else. The real life is in the shanty towns all around, which you can't see."

***

Modern cities like ours are never complete. They are works in progress.

This gets to the heart of the question about how much of a city like Christchurch should be preserved or rebuilt or whether it is better to build anew.

Cities are made up of layers. While "there is an archaeological argument that says we need to preserve layers of our city", a counter argument says that disasters can be a chance to "really think about what all that memory means".

Imagine if Venice was hit by a tsunami tomorrow. Everyone would be frantic to rebuild it. But modern cities in New Zealand and Australia, that "started out as modest versions of what was being done in Europe and the US", can be improved.

Glancey is aware that there was such optimism in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquakes, before the central city rebuild turned into bureaucratic stagnation.

"When you have young cities, sometimes you can say that these terrible events push them on. That's not meant to be unkind in any way. Sometimes it can be very difficult to move old cities forward."

He will even venture into the fraught territory of the Christ Church Cathedral debate and suggest that we "could do something like Coventry Cathedral and build a new cathedral in and around the ruins. It could be very beautiful."

Of course, he has not yet seen Christchurch and knows that he has to engage with the city at street level.

His views will be fascinating, not least because the first architectural style he fell for, as a teenager, was the Gothic revival of the 19 century. That was the same stuff that shaped early Christchurch.

Even the title of his talk in Christchurch, with its contrast between a new Jerusalem and Shanghai, evokes Augustus Pugin, the British architect who was one of the fathers of the Gothic revival. Pugin contrasted a "revived vision of Catholic Medieval England" with what was, in his own time, "the pagan classical world of the 19th century".

Such grand rhetorical gestures are important.

"There's no point being wishy- washy," Glancey says.

"I don't like it when people give talks about cities or regeneration and just use all the weasel words. Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability ..."

It's better to avoid predictable blandness and tackle the meatier questions.

"What is the meaning of a city? What is the meaning of these buildings, what do they represent? Do you really want this? Are you sure?

"Are you being led by property development or something else?

"These are big questions but one can raise them. What and who are you building for? What is the Christchurch-ness of Christchurch? What is the Paris-ness of Paris? And does it matter? Some people will say, who cares, life moves on. But as human beings, we don't just live in the present, we have memories and they matter to us.

"And besides, if everything was the same, it would be bloody boring."

***

Any mention of a new Jerusalem, with its religious connotations, makes you think of utopianism. Can we build a perfect city or an ideal city? Do architects still have such ambitions?

If you listen to the words of the mid-20th century modernists - and locally that would mean Sir Miles Warren and Peter Beaven - you might be struck by how preoccupied they were with the public good and public space. It was close to socialism.

Glancey believes that hasn't gone away.

"I think at heart most architects are idealists. I think they have been caught up in this giant global machine in which they serve. Architects can only build what people say they want.

"But there have been periods when architects can propose this, whether it was Pugin in the 19th century who was very similar to the modernists with the same sense of almost messianic, idealistic purpose.

"I think they should.

"It's sad when they lose that idealism. You want them to be the cathedral-builders of our times.

"You don't want them to just be part of a mass production process of shopping malls and office blocks and supermarkets."

Glancey's book Modern World Architecture is subtitled "classic buildings of our time". Architecture is often viewed as isolated great buildings, designed by competing architects, removed from their context.

The book is really a greatest hits collection in which one astonishing building can put a city like Sydney or Bilbao, Spain, on the architectural map. In Sydney's case, the Opera House. In Bilbao's case, the Guggenheim Museum.

But Glancey is sceptical about whether this is something that Christchurch should deliberately go after.

"You can't sit down with a committee and say, let's build a really big iconic building for Christchurch. Do we have a reason to have one of these and do we really have something to express?

"If Christchurch suddenly decides it wants to specialise in growing flowers you might create the most beautiful new glasshouse on the edge of the city, or if Christchurch specialises in real high- tech industry, celebrate that.

"If you think of the big, flamboyant buildings of the 19th century, the great railway stations and hotels, they came out of a drive to do something. There was an exuberance."

They came out of bursts of commerce, not a civic government trying to create a monument to itself. The equivalent in the past couple of decades would be airports, Glancey says.

Since the architect Norman Foster began designing them in the 1990s, airports have become extravagant and attractive buildings, like 19th century railway stations.

Glancey has noticed that Shigeru Ban's Transitional Cathedral is the closest thing to an iconic building in post-quake Christchurch.

People are writing about it all over the world. But while Glancey appreciates its meaning, he doesn't sound wildly enthusiastic.

"They like the idea of it," he says. "Maybe they like the idea of it more than the actual building. But at least it was in some way wanted. People wanted their place of worship, and to have a sense of belonging. It is a problem if you try to build without that purpose.

"Things can go wrong and you end up with crazy buildings. It's unfair to pick on China and Dubai but they built a lot of big, show-off buildings and you wonder why.

"Do they really believe in these things or is it just prestige and vanity?"

Maybe we have had the opposite problem. Ahead of his New Zealand visit, Glancey has been looking at films and photos of our amazing natural setting and wondering whether we are creating buildings that are equally beautiful.

"It doesn't have to mean flamboyant buildings. Every now and then it is good to have one, but you can build modestly and beautifully. It would be thrilling to build there."

Building the New Jerusalem, Building the New Shanghais, CPIT, May 13. More information at chchwritersfest.co.nz.

- The Press

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