Shed old certainties and face the future
Terminal Architecture by Martin Pawley. Reaktion Books, 1998. 223pp. £12.95
Apocalyptic is the word the publishers have chosen to describe this roller-coaster read of a book, and quite right too. Every book Martin Pawley has written, and virtually every article, has been in some way apocalyptic. Pawley reminds me of Seth, the preacher in Cold Comfort Farm, haranguing the congregation in the storm-lashed Chapel of the Quivering Brethren. 'You're all doomed,' barked Seth from the pulpit. Imagine the congregation to be architects and the preacher Pawley. 'You're all doomed.'
Why? Because as Pawley sees it, what passes for conventional or art-historical architecture has finally had its day. Too many architects have become pawns in a game that, in the final analysis, gives us little real pleasure or satisfaction and is ultimately decadent and meaningless. There exists, claims Pawley, a conspiracy (more or less) of architects, planners, art historians, heritage bodies and deluded clients for whom architecture, to be proper, has to be dressed up in the garb of style. This is all baloney. The authentic architecture of our age is the very stuff many of us say is wrong-headed, even banal: distribution depots, out-of-town warehouses, any form of building that acts as a simple container to meet real needs (and especially the 50 or more redundant concrete aircraft hangars near Pawley's Oxfordshire retreat). Pawley calls this 'terminal architecture'.
We do not need the tired and now false wisdom of art history to prettify what have become machines for making life work in the age of the internet, mass communication and the virtual image. 'What is required,' says Pawley, 'is a system of logic that can be followed by different people at different times and in different places to achieve the goal of simplicity and efficiency that transcends architecture, revealing it as a functional enclosure technology and not an occult wisdom to be wondered at.'
Pawley believes there was a time, in the nineteenth century, when there did exist for a short period an honest and efficient functional architecture. It was unselfconscious and largely built by engineers. In our own century he feels betrayed by Modernists who, having espoused what was meant to be a revolutionary cause, quickly caved in to the bourgeois certainties of style. 'By the end of the 1980s the last surviving Modernists, like a tribe of native Americans, sued for peace. Through a formation of a Quisling organisation docomomo, they agreed to surrender their Modern heritage and endorse its absorption into the art-historical classification as style, which it never was . . . thus was the grand artistic mutiny of Modernism finally brought to heel.' Phew.
Pawley, the apocalyptic horseman, charges valiantly into the valley of heritage, art history, architectural fakery and Post-Modernism. But what would he have architects of the apocalypse build? Big sheds, that's what. Anonymous containers that, having served our needs, can be recycled.
This may sound puritanical as well as iconoclastic, yet Pawley will win many readers' votes when he compares the grandiloquent British Library to its anonymous 'big shed' satellite in Boston Spa. The former, steeped in the spirit of the art-historical approach to architecture is big, expensive, and was slow to build. In comparison, the 'undistinguished' shed at Boston - a 24ha book depository - handles 93 per cent of all requests to the library by means of a mass-photocopying and electronic data transmission service supplying 22,000 customers a day. It is the mongrel tail that wags the pedigree dog and thus, for Pawley, the better of the two buildings.
Even better is the Cadbury's Easter Egg depository at Minworth, near Birmingham. This large, pressurised, condensation-free, chilled and computerised store cares for 30 million chocolate eggs in conditions, Pawley claims, far more efficient than those provided for the care of books in the British Library. It cost £24 million (for a total floor area half that of the library) and is 'so efficient . . . that it has replaced 13 smaller warehouses and requires a staff of only 16, working shifts, to keep it in operation 24 hours a day.' The comparison between the British Library and the Cadbury's Easter Egg depository might seem outlandish, but if Pawley is right, here we have proof that as a society blinded by the art-historical approach to architecture we value chocolate more than we do books.
This brilliant and beautifully written book concludes with a plea for 'terminal architecture', the architecture of efficient sheds, of anonymous junction boxes. As for the quivering, fawning, cowardly architectural profession, it has a chance to redeem itself before the apocalypse by following in Pawley's footsteps. In the next century, when heritage and art history are finally 'spiked', Pawley might just live long enough to see the emergence of 'a paperless profession that will travel light, relying on brainpower instead of voodoo symbolism and the tribal taboo of the past.' The book is ended. Go forth to spread the good news.