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From formalism to a functionalist tradition

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'New Urban Environments: British Architecture and its European Context' has opened in Tokyo as part of Festival UK '98. It looks at major public, cultural and transport schemes in Britain alongside their European counterparts. Ninety projects by 40 practices are included. The projects are all illustrated and described in New Urban Environments (Prestel. 189pp. £39.95). Robert Maxwell introduces the book and the show:

'This exhibition is not intended to be a mere summary of current British architecture, since not all the protagonists are British. Rather a collection of buildings that corresponds closely to current British attitudes towards architectural design. The dominant quality of these buildings is a sense of empirical reality. British culture has had the bias for centuries, since William of Occam wielded his axe, or at least since Sir Isaac Newton weighed against the continental taste for making hypotheses. Hypotheses might have intellectual interest, but their fate was to succumb to facts.

To this cultural prejudice of the British we can add a modern chapter: modern architecture of the twentieth century was not invented in Britain, in spite of the huge contribution made by C R Mackintosh, but by European continentals, such as J P Oud and Le Corbusier. However, functionalism as a creed was exactly to British taste. By appealing to function as a basis for form, one could evade responsibility for the artistic outcome, and claim to be justified by the facts.

Functionalism was adopted wholeheartedly by British architects from the 1950s onwards, and the attitude that it embodies was most succinctly expressed by the critic Reyner Banham. His programmatic use of the term, maintained through voluminous writings over nearly 50 years, became the basis for contemporary architecture in Britain.

In terms declared by Banham, promise and performance were were not synonymous, although of equal importance for good design. A failed performance could be rectified in a subsequent design, while a failed promise was perfidious, and morally reprehensible. In some way, a failed promise suggested a susceptibility towards appearance in place of actuality, or a preference of form over content.

True functionalism was premised on rejecting formalism, concentrating on result, and escaping from style altogether. Following Banham's precepts, emphasising what looks good, but only if 'it works', British design has retained a strong empiricist base, and as a result the ability to reconcile appearance and actuality may be regarded as a British strength.

One is tempted to conclude that what really motivates the British is the tradition of the gifted amateur . . . British architects view technology not as a central institution in encompassing the rule, but from outside, from its margins, as a practical way of avoiding social rules and hence of evading normal outcomes. In this way it becomes a form of play. Through this it may be said that the British have indeed invented the High-Tech style.

It is the conviction of having direct access to 'the facts' that empowers British architecture today. One result of this approach is the tendency to see the individual building as a crafted machine, well detailed and smoothly articulated, but held somewhat in isolation from its immediate environment.

Modern architecture grew in the atmosphere of the machine aesthetic, and so tended to produce a succession of well-crafted objects, surrounded by inarticulate space. Historically this approach has been credible in terms of individual buildings, but less successful when we consider the aggregate effect of buildings set within the city. There has been little recognition of the space between buildings, and still less of the metaphysical space that lies between individual building design and the design, or management, of whole sectors of the city.

One of the most powerful influences in allowing modern architecture to adapt to its place in the city, rather than expecting the city to make way for total design, has been the work of Norman Foster. If his designs occupy a large place in this exhibition, it is because he has been prominent in leading architecture back to the city from its easier and less demanding placement in what the Americans have romanticised as 'Edge City'.

Foster has not rejected the opportunity to adapt existing buildings to new conditions (as with the British Museum and the Reichstag); he has also shown how site limitations can become a source of architectural form. His masterplan for King's Cross is exemplary in this respect - the triangular site becoming the instigation for a wonderful space made up of elegant triangular structures.'

The book is distributed by Biblios, tel: 01403 710851. The exhibition is curated by Peter Murray of Wordsearch and MaryAnne Stevens of the Royal Academy.

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