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Gavin Stamp: ‘The superstar system has a malign effect on British architecture’

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We republish Gavin Stamp’s opposition to the motion ‘British architecture can only get better’, written in 1995 for the AJ Centenary Debate

British architecture can only get better. This implies that British architecture could not get worse. Now that I deny, which is why I am able to oppose this motion with a degree of sincerity. It has been worse, and could be again. For all the awfulness of developers’ Post-Modern of illiterate Classicism and of the posturing High-Tech which irrelevantly litters our cities, things have certainly got better since the 1960s when the general run of architects seemed incapable of turning anything other than a right-angled corner and most clients asked for and got the cheap and nasty. Relativism and revisionism is always necessary, but history still has its peaks and troughs.

There were, of course, good buildings of the 1960s, but most represent an utter, irredeemable bathos from which we are still suffering. The questioning of the crude assumptions of the Modern Movement which began in the 1970s was very necessary and made British architecture better. 

But this cleverly ambiguous motion allows several interpretations. If I oppose it, do I believe that British architecture can only get worse, that it is now at a peak of excellence, sophistication and inspiring beauty? No, I do not. British architecture could get better. What is stopping it? Many things: the recession, meanness, this utterly loathsome government, the myopia of the Prince of Wales, competitive tendering, Lord Palumbo, ignorance and incompetence, Blueprint, all could be cited.

But there is one thing which is, I believe, having a malign effect on the state of British architecture: the superstar system which operates, and which the press, television and the RIBA all encourage. The status of knighted architects has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished – that is the motion I originally suggested for this debate.

In the 1930s, Robert Byron, that fearless and superb critic, used the term ‘knighted architect’ as a pejorative term. Perhaps he was unfair. At least in those days knighted architects took their responsibilities seriously; they taught and trained younger architects, they interested themselves in the RIBA and performed as distinguished presidents. Today, however, most (not all) of our knighted – and as yet un-knighted – superstars seem to be out for themselves, doing little for the profession but posturing, behaving like spoilt pop stars, making money and grabbing every possible job for themselves. Perhaps it would not be so bad if their work deserved all the extravagant praise, but all we get are crude technological solutions packaged in pseudery. Nor is it just the High-Tech superstars of whom I am thinking, for there is also the absurd hero of our New Classicists, whose every doodle is showered with praise despite the fact that his command of the language is so pathetic.

Of course architects need role models. Most architects always copy, whether designs of the past or of the present – that, after all, is why organs like the AJ exist. I just wish the stars were designers who produced work which was intelligent, well made, genuinely popular and offering solutions to the pedestrian problems that concern most practitioners. But now, I fear, things can only get worse thanks to the ludicrous Cardiff Bay Opera House fiasco, as we now have another posturing and irrelevant superstar whose malign influence over the more gullible in the profession can only be encouraged by the combination of celebrity status with the fatuous cult of the misunderstood avant-garde genius.

There is an aspect of all this which, in this centenary celebration of Paul Finch’s distinguished organ, is of great importance. This is the blackmail and censorship exercised by our knighted superstars. As all editors know, certain famous architects often threaten to withhold the necessary drawings and photographs of a new masterpiece for publication unless a suitably adulatory text is provided by a hack they in their pockets. This is a deplorable state of affairs which, I am sorry to say, some editors abet when the bluff of these arrogant knights should be called. They need the oxygen of publicity, after all, otherwise they would fade away. 

So, what I think is that British architecture cannot get better until the cult of the architect superstar is challenged. We need more, and tougher, criticism.

This essay appeared in the 9 March 1995 AJ, the year in which the AJ celebrated its centenary

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Roche

    RIP Gavin Stamp - a tough critic, and a fixed moral compass. The culture of architecture is enriched by intelligent debate of which there is precious little today, and Gavin Stamp's legacy is as critical today, as was this position in 1995.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04 Architects

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