We may not share the Romans' taste for socialising and doing business on the lavatory but, according to Piers Gough in the first programme of his new TV series, The Shock of the Old, we are very much like them in most other respects - including our building forms and techniques. 'It just took a 1600 year detour to realise we quite like being Roman after all, ' he concludes after his survey of the major Roman architectural achievements. 'It's ironic that today's experience of Roman building is the rubble and ruin of their decline and fall, ' he suggests, because 'we only have to get on with our own lives today to appreciate what it was like'.
Gough's series seems likely to be an inspiring antidote to British society's troubled yearnings for the past, manifested in planning policy across the country, for it takes the view that 'modern buildings may shock us today . . .
but architectural ideas and building techniques can be equally startling when we strip away the history'.
He sets out to show how much of what we consider today to be essentially modern - and therefore objectionable - has its precedents in earlier eras and is in fact not new at all. Throughout history, buildings have frequently played the exciting role of manifesting 'new ideas about society, its view of itself '.
'The Romans, ' says Gough, 'got a lot of it right the first time.' He describes the military gateway they built to mark their arrival at Richborough as 'a vast 3D logo . . .
Britain's first skyscraper', and the complex around it, including amphitheatre, shopping and leisure facilities, as a precedent for the giant leisure centres of today. The road leading from it to London, Watling Street, was 'the M1 of its day, an ancient superhighway', and the fact that 'we reverted to meandering mud tracks after they left' seems inexplicable.
The Romans built their new towns on grid layouts, a natural extension of the straight road, just like the postwar new towns such as Milton Keynes. And it was the Romans who invented the concept of the luxurious suburban bungalow, as seen at Bignor Villa, fully equipped with creature comforts, and richly decorated with mosaics chosen out of pattern books 'in much the same way as we swatch-jockey today'. The Romans invented bricks, glass, pantiles and concrete, and built bath complexes across the country which establish the model for present-day health clubs and leisure centres, such as FaulknerBrowns' Doncaster Dome. Indeed, there is little in contemporary society which would surprise them.
Gough manifests an infectious enthusiasm for the Romans, who understood that 'having time to do things outside work is the mark of civilisation and a pre-requisite for art and architecture', but who also succeeded, within their highly political agenda, in creating the kind of architecture of pleasure which Gough loves.
'Romans@britannia.co.uk' goes out on Channel 4 on 20 August at 20.00. It is the first in the six-part series The Shock of the Old: Piers Gough's Guide to British Buildings
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