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Housing minister promotes Classicism from the Deep South


The UK’s new housing minister has held up a Neoclassical federal courthouse building in the US state of Alabama as an example of what this country should aspire to build

In a tweet that sparked outrage among architects, minister Kit Malthouse unfavourably compared a modern glazed scheme by Robin Partington & Partners (now Apt) on Oxford Street with the temple-like Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse by the Chicago practice HBRA Architects.

The tweet, which has had more than 300 ‘likes’ on Twitter, prompted Manchester-based architect Ian McHugh to predict the onset of a new era of ‘style wars’, while RIBA president Ben Derbyshire questioned whether the government imagined that a Neoclassical future ‘was a better future’.

Duncan Blackmore of developer Arrant Land responded that he was sickened by what he called a ‘shamelessly reductive anti-progress pandering to right-wing populist nostalgia’, while Invisible Studio’s Piers Taylor accused Malthouse of having ‘no idea’ what he was talking about.

Last week, Malthouse – who replaced Dominic Raab as housing minister in July ­­– cited the Philip Larkin poem An Arundel Tomb in concluding a speech about beauty in the House of Commons.

Malthouse said: ‘At the end of the poem, he ends with that very famous line “all that will remain of us is love” (sic).

‘And in 200 years’ time, 300 years’ time, what will the generations look at and see as a symbol of our love for them, projected forward in time?

‘Well, all that will remain of us is those things that we build today. And you and I are joined in our ambition to ornament their lives and create the beauty that will enhance their existence for centuries to come, as ours has been enhanced by the generations that came before us.’

Partington’s £120 million Park House mixed-use scheme for Land Securities involved contractor Mace and engineer AKT II and won several awards after its completion in 2013.

HBRA’s Alabama courthouse is a $48 million (£37 million) scheme built in 2012 and was part of the US General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence programme.

It features a portico modelled on the Greek Temple of Zeus at Nemea and, according to its architect, ‘establishes a dignified presence for the Federal Government and provides a civic resource of a scale and architectural aspect reflecting the unique identity of the city of Tuscaloosa.’

HBRA and Partington’s rebranded practice Apt have both been approached for comment.


Readers' comments (16)

  • Well, a not unexpected muddle of thinking by a non-expert but a disappointing level of thought for a government minister. Presumably, civil servants and colleagues are giving him enough rope to hang himself with or are too busy with Brexit to notice or care?

    Firstly, one is a primarily commercial structure likely to be rebuilt or remodelled to meet other needs within another generation. The other a government institution intended and budgeted to last 200 years or more.

    Secondly, the Greek tradition was raised from the dead during the mid-C18th Enlightenment as a challenge to the baroque tastes of absolute monarchy. At first, resisted for its plain and ugly repetition to what we think today as 'organic medieval accretions' it took a generation of learning to acquire its taste by conflating it with enlightened thinking before being accepted. Independent America adopted it with vigour as you would expect, Europe later with its revolutions. It's still a matter of learned tastes at the end of the day.

    Perhaps we're seeing the first steps of the Ministry of Taste with specialist advisors Roger Scruton et al? Like multiculturalism, you can't pretend it doesn't exist or try and crush it out of immigrants. Indeed as the worst of right-wing thinking fears alternative ideas infect our somewhat deluded sense fo purity and we tend to be the better for it. Some are no doubt confused and concerned, it's for those in a position of responsibility to have an outlook that can appreciate a plural world, where and how design can best be applied. Not make ill-founded comparisons to judge what is "degenerate art and architecture".

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  • Well put Andrew. Not much to add...

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  • I completely agree with him, more buildings should be built in the classical style, or other decorative styles. The modern obsession with drab steel and glass boxes is woefully unimaginative and displays a total lack of ambition. As he says, such buildings will not last the test of time.

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  • Is anything he said actually untrue? The glass fronted shop will indeed not last as long as the courthouse but both buildings were undoubtedly designed for different purposes and different shelf lives and there perhaps is the ministers error.

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  • Alabama is probably the most racist state in America, and it looks as though the courthouse is designed to perpetuate that position.
    Let's hope the building lasts no more than 10 years, even then it's 10 years too many.

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  • Is it morally wrong to enjoy decoration? What kind of Orwellian nightmare are we living in?

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  • This is meant to be about design quality, not a debate about which style is the most 'beautiful'. There's space for traditional and contemporary architecture, as long as the new buildings and places are of high-quality design and with the necessary supporting infrastructure.

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  • Tell me this is a 1 April, misguided, joke! Architecture is not about styles. It is about light and space and joy, not stylistic bullshit ...
    We do need to educate people like this man.

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  • You are wrong Cesary. There is NOTHING to add. Leave it to the intellectuals like Scrotumn and Malthouse. They will save us?

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  • When you do show costs for comparison please provide further parameters to help benchmark otherwise leave it out. The ministers comparison is clearly shallow and poorly chosen or just sadly populist. It ignores purpose and reduces discourse about what may be needed to a mere romantic notion of country life and weekend farming.

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