Beautiful buildings – by presidential order

Trump signed an executive order before he left office insisting all new federal government buildings must be considered “beautiful” and ideally be designed in the classical or traditional style.

The American institute of architects have denounced the order, although it didn’t go as far as banning modernist architecture, as was suggested when the order was in draft form. 

Apart from stating that communities should be free to choose the architecture that works for them, it points out that the order makes government employees the judges of “taste”. 

Universal Connections

Town Centre Park [Universal Connections]

The bunker-like partner to the Dollan baths, a stone throw away from the town centre, next to the skate park, this is a grade C listed youth centre designed by Alexander Buchanan Campbell, who designed the baths too.

It’s hard to see much of interest beyond the impressive concrete parapet, but the summary from Historic Scotland describes it as an important example of post-war architecture, with a plan of interlocking geometric shapes (a semi-circular kitchen, a rectangular gym hall and a triangular ramp runway), and distinctive detailing, such as the shuttered concrete window and door lintels. 

Universal Connections

Modern Buildings in Britain – A Gazetteer

Owen Hatherley’s new book, he’s a critic from Sheffield – liked his comment about modernism being for most people “ordinary places” such as youth centres, libraries, swimming pools etc.

The book’s photographer, Chris Matthews, also makes the point that Britain has “mood swings with modernity, whether that has been flamboyant, nostalgic, technocratic, ironic or self destructive”.

Cumbernauld town centre in 1960s

Cumbernauld centre sold

CUMBERNAULD’S town centre is to be demolished and replaced, according to North Lanarkshire Council’s plans, after agreeing a deal in principle to purchase the centre from its private owners.

The Herald cites Owen Hatherley’s comments about Cumbernauld in his new book, “Modern Buildings in Britain – A Gazetteer”,  where he calls it a “terrible mistake”. The vision was for the town centre to be a long spine of “buildings as constantly growing and morphing organisms,” but what actually happened was “shopping mall developers who didn’t care much for Copcutt’s sculptural Brutalism… inserted various kinds of tat into it before they decided to eat away at the original building, until all that was left was a tatty and gaunt fragment”.

Cumbernauld town centre in 1960s
[from the Big Issue]

This seems a very difficult time to plan a massive regeneration, given the uncertainty about the future of the British High Street.

South Lanarkshire council building, Hamilton

Lanark County Buildings

Not East Kilbride, but A listed buildings also in South Lanarkshire, not too far away – indeed, it is South Lanarkshire’s council headquarters. Lanark County buildings is the original, confusing name, given that it is located in Hamilton!

In the Sunday Herald 2021 list of 20 favourite modern Scottish buildings, the 17 storey tower in the International style is straight out of New York. The architect was David Gordon Bannerman, who worked for the county (and who curiously does not appear to have designed anything similar, just a couple of schools which have mostly been replaced, with the exception of Caldervale high from 1970).

The use of glass, concrete and steel, the regularity of detail and lack of ornamentation, the simple form are typical of the style.

Apart from the tower, there is also a large formal plaza with a central pond running the width of the plot, and the linked cylindrical Council chambers building (“podium”) contrasts nicely.

Susan O’Connor argues in The Architecture of Public Service (Twentieth Century Society, 2018) that such formal areas were part of the aesthetic of Le Corbusier and others who established this style, and its purpose was ceremonial. There are no benches after all, and the entrance to the building is actually over a bridge above the garden, not through it. These kinds of gardens are just as much about status as the redundant columns and fancy staircases of 19th century town halls, such as that in Glasgow. OK, they don’t insist on sticking the formal rooms up on the top floors in the old way, but there is still a fancy banqueting hall with a black timber block ceiling interspersed with recessed golden mosaic coffering, and full length tweed curtains, matching carpet and wallpaper, plus contrasting cedar panelling.

In many other places, such plazas have been cleared to make way for car parking, for example the Arts Tower in Sheffield…

Slate is used on external surfaces, a reminder of Lanarkshire’s mining history. There are county crests on walls and etched into glazed doors, which make the building a bit more local, and a little less International.

And like other civic buildings of the time, clerks and managers are not banished to dark, back corridors – they can now enjoy views from picture windows high above the surrounding landscape, a more democratic approach mirrored in better staff facilities eg canteens.

South Lanarkshire council building, Hamilton
Norwich Goldsmith Street council housing

Housing developers need to start designing for life – Big Issue

“For too long developers have been throwing up high-density homes that look more to profit than people. But the secret to better building isn’t rocket science” says TV architect Laura Jane Clark in the Big Issue.

“The vertical city was an idea by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, where he combined homes with shops, salons, nurseries, play spaces and even a fantastic swimming pool on the roof. Yet when this model was adopted to create high-density housing in our cities in the 1960s and ’70s, in order to cut costs the communal elements were removed, including the shopping and the hairdressers, the entertainment and, of course, the rooftop swimming pool.”

Cites Norwich Council estate Goldsmith Street as an example of a modern success story. And Cumbernauld as an example of a pedestrian heaven, that didn’t work out.

Norwich Goldsmith Street council housing

“Joined-up thinking with developers, architects, landscape architects, town planners and builders is the way ahead, ensuring future residents are foremost in the design, with each member of the team asking themselves “would I like to live here?”” Doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it?

The Modernist Society

Based in Manchester, they have ventured to East Kilbride in the past though.

Collection of short films about buildings mostly in Manchester and Liverpool on Vimeo. One of my personal favourites featured, the Arts Tower at Sheffield University.