Ugly as it is in many respects, Stirling’s strange, obsessively detailed Number One Poultry nevertheless deserves a listing, says Owen Hatherley
I don’t like Number One Poultry. I don’t like its stockbroker bumptiousness, its combination of urban rectitude (look how it follows the streetline) and historical ram-raid whimsy. I find the pink and chocolate pattern faintly gross.
I find it impossible to look at it without thinking of (or seeing) brace-wearing traders braying at each other. I don’t like the fact that it sits on a spot reserved for the last design ever completed by Mies van der Rohe. So it would be hypocritical of me to be sympathetic to the Twentieth Century Society’s attempt to list Stirling’s building. But I am, so let me try and justify myself.
One of modern architecture’s founding documents is the statement, in Sant’Elia’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, that ‘every generation must build its own city’. This manifesto was written in a country with the greatest number of Unesco world heritage sites on the planet. And that’s no accident – for Sant’Elia and his fellow Futurists, the weight of history and the overwhelming presence of a bygone society that was exceptionally advanced, albeit several centuries earlier, was felt as oppressive.
That’s an oppression you can still feel in places given an obsessional level of heritage protection, such as Bath or Edinburgh New Town, where the present can only exist if it doffs its cap and wraps call centres and office blocks in the appropriate sandstone.
Modernism is different to other architectures in this respect. Not because it damaged historic centres more than any other architecture – London’s Modernists did nothing as brutal as what inter-war Classicists did to Regent Street or the Bank of England – but because of the notion that the city should not be managed solely by precedent.
So, if you take the precepts of Modernism to be valid today (and I do) then you ought to be unsentimental about a building as egregious in so many respects as Number One Poultry. Also, the notion that every building by a ‘great architect’ is of value is a peculiar one.
It was seen particularly acutely when Stephen Bayley, agitating for the listing of Robin Hood Gardens, pointed out dismissively that Park Hill in Sheffield, merely the work of the Smithsons’ provincial epigones, had been listed. However, as anyone with eyes could attest, Park Hill is a masterful achievement, Robin Hood Gardens its neurotic sibling, Ivy League monographs or not. Stirling left a strange scattering of buildings, some interesting, some outright awful (the Wissenschaftszentrum in Berlin would be loaded with ridicule were it by, say, Terry Farrell), with a couple of towering works like Leicester thrown in. Some of the most praised of Stirling’s buildings, in Preston and Runcorn, were demolished some time ago without much ado; tellingly, both were council housing schemes rather than City offices. Meanwhile, the fact that Poultry is there now at all rests on the fact that this rule was discarded, in that the Mappin & Webb building, an early and not particularly interesting work by the talented twilight-of-empire Classicist John Belcher, was demolished for Poultry, to howls of protest.
So, then, why should Number One Poultry be listed? I can think of a few reasons. It is not a careless building, overbearing as it is. As a spatial sequence, it is strange, cerebral and imaginative, with the movement under the colonnades down to the central blue-tiled space being both the most memorable and the most threatened aspect. It is a building that was thought about, clearly obsessively, in a city that has tended to throw gestures around at random. It is cared about passionately by a minority of exceptionally perverse people. Because of this, it might just deserve protection. But I’ll still be averting my eyes when walking past it.