Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

I recently shared a platform at the Yale Centre for British Art with Ed Jones and Robert Maxwell. We were there representing architects in a conference about architectural history. Specifically, our brief was to address how architects use history. Between us, I think we managed to offend everyone in the room. Why? Because as Robert Maxwell confided to me, academic history is a deep and narrow subject, while architecture is very wide and incredibly shallow.

Any architect brave enough to mention the impression of history or the gravity of tradition upon their work is likely to alienate pretty much everyone. Historians because they will be appalled by such amateurish ignorance, architects because of their blind attachment to an idea of ‘contemporary-ness’. Mention history and you will find yourself summoning the spectres of Architectural bogey-men such as Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry.

According to Reyner Banham, Modernism owed it all to the Futurists. And it’s that ‘Theory and Design in the First Machine Age’ historical trajectory that is used as the background to High Tech architecture. Its incredible success has hijacked Banhams legacy: the gadgets, the engineering, the thrill of the machine and the child-like glee of bolted together infrastructure – all of this is used to explain the historical inevitability and universal contemporary relevance of High Tech.

But there is an alternative story to British architecture. One where the relationship between the past, the present and the future is far more complex. It’s an idea of modern architecture that is distinct from continental Modernism. One where the role of history and tradition is significant in the creation of the future. It means that progressive – and sometimes radically utopian – architecture comes wrapped up in historical reference.

It’s what we see in the proto-modernism of the Arts and Crafts, in the intentional Luddite nature of medieval revivalism in the face of the industrial revolution. William Morris proto-socialist social progressivism and fit-for-purpose simplicity. Perhaps this back-to-the-future view is best seen in Morris’ novel, ‘The News from Nowhere’ whose scenario reads like a Sci-Fi B-movie: a future London filled with people in bright, homemade clothes, the Houses of Parliament turned into a dung heap, Kensington Gardens a forest where children are sent to educate themselves.

Nostalgia is the language which disguises the essentially rationalist/futurist vision of the Garden Cities. Ebenezer Howards infrastructural and economic blueprint was interpreted by architects such as Unwin and Parker into something whose references were far from contemporary – in fact, these references were little more than collages of the architects most recent holiday sketchbooks. But the references serve an important architectural service. They extend the Howards equation of the Garden City: (City – disease + poverty + crime)) + (Country – (unemployment + isolation)) into a terrain of pleasure.

The relationship of nostalgia to technology and infrastructure continues as the suburbs roll out of the cities along railway lines – escaping from the post industrial city. Its important to remember that the suburban expansion was bright fresh and new. It was utopian and bristling with new technology.

Perhaps it is this relationship that Archigram – children of the suburban pioneers -accelerate and amplify. Ron Herrons ‘Tuned Suburbs’ might well be surreal and hip, but they are also made in tribute to the suburbs utopian pleasure principle.

Archigrams pastoral-futurism is seeped in nostalgia. Technology is used to return us to a more innocent state. It’s perhaps the sentiment at the heart of David Greenes Rok and Log Plugs and in Cooks ‘Hedgerow City’ – high tech pieces of naturalistic landscape – what one might describe as a techno-picturesque.

Are Archigrams concerns of history and technology the same tendencies that find architectural fulfilment in Jim Stirlings Staatsgalerie? Are they linked – via Banham, the Independent Group and Denise Scott Brown to American Pop and Postmodernism? The questions being asked in these projects are about history in relation to the full machinations of contemporary culture. The importance of this is that it directly addresses issues of identity and attempts to examine the effects of technology and globalisation upon culture. To this end, nostalgia is a powerful tool: it can be used as a battering ram, a protective shield, a means of delivery and a way of communicating.

This trajectory through modern British architecture avoids the cul-de-sacs of pastiche, of simple historical re-creation. History is used not as an accurate model, but as cultural reference. By doing this, it places the architect with a wider social and political landscape and sites architecture within broader culture. In fact, rather than providing a protected harbour against the raging sea of contemporary-ness, it challenges the exclusive dialogue within the profession. It also involves tremendous leaps in imagination: of remaking the past as well as the future. Far from being safe, it is unsettling, challenging and sometimes radical.

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