[THIS WEEK] Architecture that is built for and used by the people deserves praise, writes James Pallister
Last week writer, psychogeographer, gaunt hard-man masquerading as a man of letters and fan of exceedingly long words, Will Self was invited by the RA to discuss his favourite London building. Self chose a public meeting place as his top pick. A public meeting place for buses, that is: Stockwell Bus Garage, a large agora-like space in which buses could meet, convene and discuss bus affairs of state, absurdly dwarfed below the benign weight of its vaulted concrete ceiling. It wasn’t over the top, he said, to compare it to the Pantheon. It showed the joy of what architecture can do when it unites the rectilinear with the curvilinear.
Self portrayed a very generous building, one whose form – of small entrances that lead into an enormous space – plays with compression and release and whose design give a very generous space to people who are hemmed in to a tight spot, the bus driver’s cab, all day. It was, Self argued, a reified analogue of the post-war settlement, a concrete-and-glass Beveridge Report. Designed for people who drive buses,
rather than people who play plastic pianos to serve the maws of maman, it’s a relic of a society now gone – one that cared about its workers.
But most of all, Self chose the garage because it was there. And after more than 19 years of walking past it every day he had come to grow fond of it, curious about it, and ultimately to love it.
Pscyhogeography has come a long way since its inception among the cranks and weirdos schooled in 1970s Situtionism. Now it’s good clean fun for an earnest and well-heeled crowd in a Piccadilly lecture hall, which hangs on Self’s every word. His message has some good advice for urban design too.
The familiar, the competent and the mundane are too often underrated in architecture. As Self put it: ‘Signature buildings are just that to me, signatures, I want to hear more about the text.’ Hear hear.