Jonathan Meades hates architects ‘who think they can solve everything’ and says hell is a John Pawson home. But really, he’s on your side. Rory Olcayto meets him
‘One of the things you can do is, get a condom, fill it up with Dove, tie it up and just chuck it down into the charcuterie area.’ Jonathan Meades is talking about malls. ‘Or go up to a security guy with a lanyard round your neck and say you’ve got an R54J in Boots the chemist and see what happens.’
We’re talking about malls because on the back cover of Meade’s new book Museum Without Walls, there is a list of things presumably discussed inside and ‘shopping malls’ are among them. But also because we meet in Café Anglaise in Whiteleys shopping centre, and I assume this means that Meades is making a point about places; ‘the greatest of free shows’, as he calls them. But no, it’s not a topic he cares to dwell on and even the pranks he suggested are borrowed from another book. ‘I’ve tried to make malls an area that grabbed my attention, but it hasn’t worked,’ he says. ‘I did write about Bluewater once. I don’t know if it’s in there, I didn’t edit it. My wife did.’
There’s no mention of Bluewater – or any other mall – in the book’s 446 pages either, but Mrs Meades clearly faced some tough editorial decisions in pulling it together: the 54 essays and six film scripts represent just 10 per cent of Meades’ writings on the built environment over the past three decades. Some, The Dismal Profession, On the Brandwagon, Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism, offer witty, depressing accounts of a spineless, dimwitted architectural culture. Others, such as the rudely provocative Fuck E**lish *erit*ge and The Curse of Bilbao are self-explanatory.
Others still are useful correctives, especially the ones about specific people and places. Birmingham is ‘excessively sylvan, lavishly green’. Tunbridge Wells is ‘an unexpected, undervalued pleasure’. Meades’ hero Ian Nairn was ‘not dogmatic, though often pedantic’, his villain, Reyner Banham ‘arty yet artless’. Zaha Hadid, who he profiled for Intelligent Life, the Economist’s quarterly, is ‘funny, and fun’. Publisher Unbound says the book ‘dissolves the barriers between high and low culture, good and bad taste, deep seriousness and black comedy’. Meades calls it ‘heavy entertainment’.
Architects will find much of it hard to take. In the first few pages Meades gives the profession and the entire culture that surrounds it, including the architectural press – he once worked for the AJ – an aggressive shakedown. ‘This most public of endeavours is practiced by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish,’ he writes. He makes fun of a fondness for pseudo-science, fumes at ‘photography that is mendacious’ while ‘appointing architects to conceive places rather than just sticking to buildings is like… getting Hamas to babysit a kibbutz.’ During our conversation, he says British architects are especially bad at making places. ‘In Britain, it seems to veer between the user-hostile stuff of the sixties and Poundbury. And the derivatives of Poundbury.’ Yet he also praises Richard Rogers in those same first few pages, for his Bordeaux Law Courts, which despite being ‘so achingly iconic it hurts’, is ‘a remarkable work… it fulfills its responsibility to the street’. (They’re obviously friendly: in one chapter he mentions a drive westwards across London with the architect and his wife after a dinner party in Dartmouth Park).
In person, Meades is friendly, very funny, and a superb host. He is emphatically not the intimidating Meades he ‘plays’ on TV. His admiration too, for figures such as Nairn, is charming. Meades is a ‘fan’. But there is a sense of despair when it comes to talking buildings – or rather, the architects who design them. Rogers aside, I wonder, does he feels contempt for architects? ‘There is contempt for the idea a lot of architects have that architecture can solve everything,’ he says. ‘That arrogance and the vanity and pomposity of a certain sort of architect.’ And because their work is so public, architects should project a degree of humility too. ‘They are going to impose this thing on millions of people they don’t know, who are not their clients, who are not the initial users of the building. But it’s not discussed because it’s something architects don’t want to have to think about.’
How architects think is the real problem. Architects, says Meades, belong to a non-literary, non-verbal culture. ‘They don’t understand the discourse the dialectic, of criticism.’ And if criticism comes from outwith the profession, it’s invalid anyway. Their bent towards ‘aesthetic totalitarianism’ and their unquestioning admiration of buildings like St Catherine’s College, Oxford by Arne Jacobsen, who designed ‘every piece of furniture and every piece of cutlery’ is another problem. ‘I have a dislike of buildings where the architect has done absolutely everything,’ he says. ‘People need to be able to make their own mess. Can you imagine being in a John Pawson home? Hell might be like that.’
Charles Voysey was even worse. As Meades tells it, ‘Voysey was very, very short and his houses are made for short people. There was something bizarre about him. He couldn’t empathise with people six feet tall.’
He also has little time for the utilitarian ‘excuses’ architects give to justify their work other than by aesthetic means. ‘Architects who are true to themselves and truthful in general, will say, “I just wanted it to look like that”.’ This reminds me of a Will Alsop lecture I attended at Strathclyde University in my student days and the audience gasping when Alsop said his Hotel du Departement was blue because he liked the colour. He offered no utilitarian or philosophical reasons, I tell Meades. ‘I love that building,’ he says. ‘It’s the greatest thing built in Marseilles, after the place where I live, Corbusier’s Unité. Alsop was extremely audacious in chromatic terms, because there aren’t any blue buildings in Marseilles, there’s the blue sea but it’s basically a putty-coloured town. It’s a wonderful thing. And it’s popular. Zaha’s building [The CMA CGM tower] is not, I would say, a success. The colours are wrong. Totally.’
During a takedown of Steven Holl’s ‘hideous museum of design in Helsinki, which should really be the museum of cock-ups’, and which Meades saw the week before during a trip to the Finnish capital, I mention that the American architect has raised hackles over his design opposite the Glasgow School of Art. His response is quite unexpected. ‘I think Mackintosh is hideously overrated. When you think of all the other great architects in and around Glasgow at that time, Gillespie, McLaren, Salmon. These people were just as good as Mackintosh but Mackintosh has been somehow sainted.’ Like the Smithsons, fingered as charlatans in Museum without Walls, ‘Mackintosh belongs more to the history of mythmaking than the history of architecture.’ For Meades, ‘self-publicists will always triumph, whatever field it is.’
Take it on the chin, architects. Meades is actually on your side. He just wants you to stick to what you do best: making buildings. Places are beyond you. And cutlery is too. And remember, it’s only soap in those condoms he’s chucking in your direction.