Civic architecture: forget the Victorians, enbrace the new
'Get it right and we will have a legacy of civic buildings to match the Victorian Age.' This was Lord Falconer's clarion call to Whitehall ministers who gathered at the Treasury building on Monday to discuss the government's Better Public Building Initiative. But is this such a valid goal? Britain's collection of Victorian public buildings owes much of its popularity to its allpervasiveness and evident gravitas. Victorian town halls, churches, hospitals and schools up and down the country are both recognisable and familiar, affording a degree of nostalgic comfort to locals and visitors alike.
Implicit in Lord Falconer's cry is the assumption that we should aspire to a public architecture which future generations will be able to identify as being of a specific architectural provenance.
It is possible for a 'civic aesthetic'to represent a culture which is rather less draconian than Victorian society.
Finland, for example, derives much of its charm and apparent 'modernity' from the proliferation of public buildings that, while not necessarily by the master himself, are distinctly 'Aaltoesque' in conception. But it is difficult to see how the dominance of a particular 'civic aesthetic'could be deemed acceptable in a society such as ours. The view that the increasing 'sameness' of British high streets is intrinsically bad and that diversity should be encouraged is universally held. In any case, in architectural circles at least, any overt stylistic affiliation at all tends to be viewed with disdain. Even the most readily identifiable architects feel obliged to insist (absurdly) that each of their projects is an outcome of location and brief with no predetermined aesthetic agenda at all.
The winning entries for the IPPR's Designs on Democracy competition, along with Penoyre & Prasad's refurbishment ofWolverhampton's Civic Hall, both shown in this issue, demonstrate the wide variety of approaches to designing civic architecture. The current burst of enthusiasm for innovative civic architecture provides an important opportunity to celebrate the richness and diversity of contemporary British architecture. Government support is both overdue and welcome. But let's leave the Victorians out of it.