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Opinion - The 1970s

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Opinion The ’70s were dull times for UK architecture, but creativity was flourishing overseas, writes Peter Davey

One of the aspects of the ’70s that last week’s contributors mentioned little was the sheer boredom of the decade (See the Critics, AJ 22.11.07). Most of us who entered the profession in the ’60s had been inspired by the heroic period of the Modern Movement, heroes like Corb and Mies were still alive you could meet them. But by the early ’70s, idealism had largely burned out, and we were overwhelmed by a wave of bureaucracy and big business. Archigram, the Whole Earth Catalog and their continental cousins, all once seen as hopeful, seemed to have lost their way in a trackless morass of cheap print and paper.

Many young architects were involved in system building. System-built housing, schools and health buildings of the ’70s are ludicrously inefficient by modern environmental standards, often leaky, massively underspecified, and now usually tired and dilapidated. The oil crisis ensured that everything had to be built as cheaply as possible, yet governments still retained the vestiges of post-war commitment to creating a good society and much was still being built as fast as possible. System building trapped young architects. They had little opportunity to show creativity because detailing and much else were laid down by the systems. And, before the advent of computers, you could be stuck for months, if not years, on tiling layouts or door and window schedules for increasingly dull buildings. In Britain, the economy and architecture seemed to be set on an ever steeper downward spiral.

Yet, mostly from overseas, there were some signs that hope needn’t be abandoned. Whenthe Pompidou Centre opened in 1977, Archigram appeared to have had real results at last in a huge flexible chunk of the middle of traditional Paris. Another interpretation of flexibility was Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer in Appeldoorn, the Netherlands, where a large office volume was full of small intimate places, plants, birdsong and laughter. For me, the most moving building of the decade was far from flexible. Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in the cultural desert between Fort Worth and Dallas in Texas is a moving poem in mass and light, comparable in nobility to anything in the whole history of architecture. That such a building could emerge at such a time and place was a sign that architecture was alive. Kahn’s work, and the increasingly assured and powerful late- ’70s output of younger architects like Stirling (some of the time), Foster, Cullinan, Rogers, MacCormac and Hopkins showed that architecture need not be boring. The ’70s had not killed architecture.

Nowadays when architectural values are threatened by PFI, PPP and the rest, we should remember that the ’70s showed that architecture can survive even in the least propitious circumstances.

Peter Davey is former editor of the Architectural Review

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