The importance of being Erno – Eric Coombes questions the reputation of a Brutalist architect

Sometimes material appears in a “serious” newspaper which—even in our  current cultural condition—is at an astonishingly low intellectual level to come from the prominent “authority” who wrote it. Disagreeable though it is, perhaps one should occasionally draw attention to such material, and subject it to closer inspection. Those who can bear to do so, should read Stephen Bayley’s article in the Daily Telegraph about Ernö Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House (now renamed Metro Central Heights), which can be found online at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/architecture/10171321/Look-away-Prince-Charles-Goldfingers-Tower-is-wonderful.html

The quotation from it on p.43 of the 404 Not Found Sept/Oct issue fails to convey the scale of the self-important imbecility displayed in the article as a whole.  It begins with a baffling non-sequitur. Having invoked the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi” (roughly, a spiritual quality conferred by the patina of aging), he continues

“To be aware of wabi-sabi is to be aware of the language, even the poetry, that mute buildings and dumb things speak.  Until recently, few people thought fine Zen thoughts while passing through the grimly urban and diesel toxic Elephant and Castle in south London. Now we all can. Indeed, will.”

“Until recently”! By virtue of what power, on what recent occasion, have casual passers-by suddenly been granted this momentous epiphany, which they not only “can” but “will” experience? Is it the power of Bayley’s own eloquence in the article itself? If not, it must be the event of the building’s being listed by English Heritage, which was also the occasion of Bayley’s article; for no other reason is given to expect the rapid transformations of human experience which would justify this astonishing claim. Must we, then, according to Bayley, attribute to English Heritage powers we had not dreamt of its having, powers of a supernatural or, at least, sacerdotal character? Or is English Heritage held in such popular esteem by all those thousands of people moving through that “grimly urban and … toxic” environment every day (some slight relief here in observing Bayley’s immersion in fantasy to be less than total) that the wisdom of its pronouncements fills their minds, and is received so eagerly and uncritically as to transfigure and regulate their perceptions?

Bayley’s claims are supported by nothing whatsoever but the assumed authority of the workings, or rather lurchings, of his own mind. The entire article consists of mere assertion and egregiously transparent non-sequiturs. What exactly, for instance, is the argument supposed to be in the following?

… his Trellick Tower in Notting Hill and its twin sister Balfron Tower in Poplar (already listed) are hatefully remembered icons of infamy for those who lazily condemn all modern architecture as heartless and inhumane. Yet a thoughtful appraisal reveals as rich a variety of historical sources in their design as you would find in Vanbrugh: the bravura Futurism of Antonio Sant’Elia, the bold shape-making of Auguste Perret and the structural theories of Le Corbusier, for example.

Whether or not Bayley has correctly identified them, and whether or not the richness of their “variety” is comparable with what we find in Vanbrugh, why should the discovery of “historical sources” for Goldfinger’s designs have the slightest tendency to establish that the buildings are not “heartless and inhumane”? Is a lack of “historical sources” a necessary condition for a building to possess these regrettable attributes? Would it be impertinent to ask Bayley where he finds grounds for that principle, other than at some chance place where his mind was brought by its randomly veering motions, and came briefly to rest? Not to overstate the point, the principle is not self-evidently true. Since the absence of “historical sources” is unknown in architecture, or even in “architecture”, it entails the intriguing conclusion, which is not—shall we say?—intuitively convincing, that there can be no such thing as a heartless or inhumane building.

Bayley claims that the listing of Alexander Fleming House “recognises several important things. For example: the fragility of prejudice, the permanence of concrete (which if we are honest, weathers very beautifully) [sic] and the way the solemn gravity [“overbearing joylessness” would come closer here] of great [sic] architecture transcends the spiky little fits and pricks of temporary taste.” Here again we have pure unsupported assertion.  But of what exactly? What does it mean to “recognize” the permanence of concrete?  Was that permanence in doubt, and would such a doubt be allayed by listing the building, any more than listing it would oblige concrete to “weather very beautifully”? How on earth does the listing “recognize” the “fragility of prejudice”? In what sense can prejudice (as the word is now commonly used) be fragile, rather than merely wrong? If this means anything at all, it means that the adverse judgement of the building is wrong, and must be dismissed as prejudice. What is here implicitly alleged to be prejudice is, in fact, the judgement of most people who are aware of the building, including those who have had the misfortune to work in it; and, far from being “fragile”, that judgement appears to remain remarkably robust and stable.

It is, in any case, unclear, to put it mildly, how far praise of this kind is consistent with the statement that “Alexander Fleming House is confrontational, exactly as its architect intended it to be.  But it was designed as a manifesto, an idealistic statement.” Surely this means that, whether through the beauty of its weathered concrete or in any other implausibly supposed way, it was never intended to please those forced to endure its presence in our capital city—still less to engender the “mystical” experience of “Wabi-sabi”. And this raises a crucial question, never answered or even recognized by the likes of Bayley, who, by carefully ignoring it, aggravate the impotent rage of so many people, when they contemplate the state of our cities and towns: by what moral authority are the Goldfingers, or any of the ego-maniacs practising as “architects” today, licensed to transform huge areas beyond recognition, with enormous oppressive buildings?  Who decreed that the public should be permanently confronted with manifestos that they have never asked to see, but should be forced, repeatedly, to read?

Are these manifestos au fond religious or quasi-religious?  This thought could lead us, finally, to notice one curious passage, which is extraneous to the main topic, but may nevertheless be significant.  Having emphasized that Goldfinger was “not plagued by any lack of personal confidence”, Bayley adds that “[h]is personal sense of self-worth was practically enhanced by marrying the heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell soup fortune.” Now the wealth of a spouse is not usually regarded as a matter for regret; but this seems to imply not merely that Goldfinger, like most of us, preferred to have more money rather than less, but that he regarded wealth as constitutive of virtue—that he worshipped at the altar of Mammon. This most corrosive of all idolatries, is now a dominant cult (perhaps to an unprecedented extent), which spreads its poisonous doctrines widely, finding many followers among


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the powerful in all walks of life, including those in government at every level. They worship with dementedly implacable conviction, apparently believing that everything, including personal merit, can and must be assessed in monetary terms. Nowhere do we see this more plainly and forcefully symbolized than in those gigantic temples of Mammon which loom threateningly over once agreeable streets, their repulsive ugliness embodying the ugliness of what they signify. Here, then, Bayley touches, no doubt inadvertently, on an important point, which is caught in a brief flash of indirect illumination. The spoliation of our towns and cities is imposed by the brute power of large property companies, against which local communities are almost defenceless, which have the planning system blatantly stacked in their favour, and which corrupt government, both central and local. Almost limitless, their financial resources are used, one might say, to satisfy both the greed and the vanity of the architects they employ, as if those vices were clearly distinguishable. But the contemporary world of big business, where predatory property developers are in league with big architectural practices (and ruthless lawyers), must cultivate an atmosphere in which merit is identified with the possession of wealth, or the ability to gain it. This is what Bayley suggests, presumably unintentionally,

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about Goldfinger.  In the church of Mammon, refined distinctions of morality are otiose: the virtues of greed, vanity, arrogance and ruthlessness become inextricable, as they coalesce in the righteousness of ego-mania and megalomania. Our cities and towns have become arenas for the display of zeal in the service of Mammon.

Even I was surprised to find such drivel, written by a well-known figure, published in a supposedly “serious” newspaper.  I would challenge anyone to find, in the entire article by this alleged critic, anything that could be considered criticism. There is no attempt to discuss Goldfinger’s building in a way that might help the reader to see it as Bayley thinks it should be seen. All is assertion and non-sequitur.

Postscript

I was not quite sure how to take The Jackdaw’s own remark about the listing of Alexander Fleming House under News on p.34 (Sept/Oct issue): “Like it or not it is among the great buildings of the New Brutal style and deserves to be preserved.” Is that “great” as in “great painting”, “great poem” or “great mind”? Or “great” as in “great crime”, “great fool” or “great mistake”, where “great” means something like “notable example of its kind”, irrespective of whether that kind is itself good, desirable or admirable? The building is certainly great in the latter sense, and buildings are now, apparently, listed merely on the grounds of their exemplifying some episode of cultural or social history which is of interest and which they record.    One wonders how far the principle might be taken.  Already a zebra crossing has been listed because of its association with the Beatles.  Is a city a museum? Do we regret, for example, that no one had the foresight to insist on parts of the East End of London remaining in conditions which would have continued to foster squalor, disease and infant mortality? Those conditions are undoubtedly a matter of historical interest; but documentary and visual records of them are surely enough. Far from wanting to wipe New Brutalism, or any other manifestation of architectural insolence and crassness from the record, I think it should be fully recorded, if only as a warning. But I fail to understand why that should entail its continuing to deface our towns and to blight the lives of those forced to endure its oppressive presence.

Eric Coombes

The Jackdaw, 2014