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Great ruins such as Brighton’s West Pier and Battersea Power Station deserve a future

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Does our obsession with the past and period architecture obscure our view of the future?

The Brighton Festival was in full swing last week when I joined Sunand Prasad and Ros Kerslake (head of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust) for a public discussion, chaired by David Dimbleby, entitled ‘The Cult of the Ruin’. The publicity for the event posed a simple question: ‘Does our obsession with the past and period architecture obscure our view of the future?’

This provided the opportunity to tell a favourite story about Albert Speer. When he was finally released from Spandau he visited the 1936 Berlin Olympic stadium he had designed, by then in a rather parlous state. It’s lucky the Führer isn’t here,’ Speer rather chillingly told a TV documentary-maker. ‘This was supposed to last for a thousand years.’

Speer had promoted a ‘culture ruin theory’ that Hitler liked, which held that buildings should be designed in a way that would make them great ruins, and therefore a reminder of a great civilisation, in a long-distant future when civilisation had moved on. This required not just an eye for the picturesque, but an approach to construction based on used of heavy-duty masonry rather than steel and concrete, which would deteriorate too quickly and make an ugly ruin.

The attractions of the ruin were certainly not confined to Speer and Hitler, of course. Louis Kahn once remarked that a building was at its best in two conditions: under construction and as a ruin. In this he was partly in tune with the greatest illustrator of architectural ruin Britain has yet produced: Joseph Gandy. His drawing of Soane’s design for the Bank of England as a magnificent ruin has been a powerful influence since it was finally exhibited, after years of being locked away.

One of the great competition drawings of recent years was Richard Portchmouth’s version of James Stirling’s 1980s National Gallery competition entry as Neo-classical ruin, though of course it was never built. At least Soane’s Bank of England made it as a building, though demolition (compulsory ruin) was, alas, its sorry fate. What brilliant architects they both were, both obsessed with history as creative stimulant rather
than a straightjacket of design instruction.

At worst, that is what an obsession with the past produces: a world in which cultural stasis is both desirable and enforceable. I don’t think any of the panel felt this was the case in Britain today. Poundbury, of course, got a mention, but even if the architecture is not your personal cup of tea (it certainly isn’t mine), there is no doubting the genuine, radical critique if offered of conventional house builders’ out-of-town offerings.

And Leon Krier’s assault on Modernism as a wasteful and temporary condition has a certain resonance when you think about all those office buildings, or hopeless residential towers, demolished after 25 years, rather than being allowed to grow old gracefully, something Modernist buildings tend to do rather badly.

Two great contemporary UK ruins, the noble remaining structure of Brighton’s West Pier, and Battersea Power Station, may still have a future, the former as a result of receipts from Marks Barfield’s planned tower attraction opposite, and the latter because it is too valuable to lose (let’s hear it for Chelsea!). Even the past has a future because that is the nature of things.

As Christopher Woodward commented in his marvellous book In Ruins (Chatto, 2001), when we contemplate the remnants of the past, we are contemplating our own future. Moreover, because ruins are by definition incomplete, as we view them ‘each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination’. The future is all.

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