Hwhen the British political class was reaching its peak? Margaret Thatcher was an early adopter, visiting the construction sites of Battersea Power Station and Canary Wharf helmeted like Britannia, sending messages about building the future and getting the job done. Tony Blair and David Cameron enthusiastically piled on high-visibility jackets, goggles and boots in line with advances in health and safety rules and Boris Johnson enjoyed parading around in the stuff like a less-toned Village People David Hodo. The fetish has reached the point where there is a Twitter account, @PPEinPPE, about people with degrees in philosophy, politics and economics who wear personal protective equipment.
Last week, Liz Truss managed to play the role of Bob the builder in the middle of a party conference, which may be a first, but so much what she touches turns to slag, the look may finally have lost its luster. Then again, the Thatcher-blessed project in Battersea failed spectacularly and the original developers at Canary Wharf went colossally bankrupt, so maybe it’s a fitting outfit for someone who wants to crush the country.
The heritage movement has come a long way since it was about Victorian antique dealers opposing the redevelopment of medieval church furnishings. We have grown accustomed to the idea of towers, parking lots and signal boxes being acclaimed and protected as outstanding examples of their kind. Today, the Twentieth Century Society, which campaigns for recognition of the best buildings from 1914, is interested in the wave of leisure centers that swept the country from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Appealing to nostalgia for ‘flumes, warts, palm trees, the smell of chlorine, the sound of laughter’, the charity wants statutory protection for ‘burgeoning engineering and pop imagery’ playful” structures that are now threatened by budget cuts, the consequences of Covid and a global shortage of chlorine made worse by the war in Ukraine.
The company wants to ensure the survival of gems such as the country’s first Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest and the Concordia Leisure Center in Cramlington, which brought a touch of the tropics to Northumberland. Sometimes the list of modern buildings can be caricatured as one of those culture wars of the pundits against the people – “call it concrete monstrous heritage?” But saving those pleasure palaces has got to be something almost anyone can support.
Next Thursday, the Royal Institute of British Architects will announce the winner of the Stirling Prize, the award for the most “significant” building of the year.
It’s fair to say that it will be a less dramatic event than it was when glittering airports, skyscrapers and museums of modern art, designed by such great beasts as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, were vying for the honor on national television. This year’s list, which includes a community center, housing, schools and a speculative office building, is more cautious and considered, concluding a long march of at least part of the architectural profession away from the excesses of the 2000s. .
Which is welcome, and there are certainly a worthy winner or two in the running, but the overall tone has turned a little beige. Is it too much to ask for more buildings providing a public service and bringing a little energy and wonder to users and passers-by? Here, contemporary architects might have something to learn from these recreation centers championed by the Twentieth Century Society. The Coventry Sports Centre, an abstract metal elephant riding down the road, favorably compared by some locals to the city’s cathedral, would give any of this year’s entries a hard time.