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Television discovers the Famous Five – and not before time

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The Five have succeeded despite unparalleled hostility to contemporary architecture by the heir to the throne, writes Paul Finch

Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, Farrell, Grimshaw - the dominant architects in the UK for five decades - are the subject of a forthcoming BBC TV programme (working title: Britain’s Masters of Modern Architecture), which will assess their work in its social and cultural context. Not before time.

And this week an excellent Royal Academy exhibition marks Richard Rogers’ 80th birthday and reminds us of the 1986 Foster Rogers Stirling show celebrating the international status of the trio, whose relationship established itself when they were together in Yale in 1960, Foster and Rogers as graduate students, Stirling as teacher. Intervening years have seen the consolidation of their reputations, with Stirling’s untimely death leaving a question mark over what might have emerged.

The other three architects featured in the programme may not quite have reached the same level of fame, but they can certainly be spoken of in the same breath, all working across the globe on serious projects. The Famous Five have all been knighted and two ennobled, producing, among other things, an OM, a CH, and, in Nicholas Grimshaw, a president of the Royal Academy. This is a group I think unprecedented in British architectural history. The Arts & Crafts architects were formidable, but they scarcely attracted the same international attention. We may have become rather blasé about the Five, forgetting what things were like before them.

Famous five

All have become exemplars of the general practice, capable of addressing any building type. They have produced some of the biggest schemes ever achieved (Foster’s airports in Hong Kong and Beijing and Farrell’s Chinese tower, the tallest ever by a UK architect). But the range of work is more significant than size, from the Pompidou Centre to the London Velodrome.

Despite the differences that have marked their work, particularly that of Farrell in his Postmodern phase (to some extent an outsider as a result, despite Stirling’s Po-Mo precedent), what identifies them as a group is the dread phrase ‘high-tech’. Like all good architects, they dislike this easy categorisation. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, in much of their early work, they were all heavily influenced by the potentially creative relationship between architecture and engineering, exemplified by Paxton’s Crystal Palace, railway stations, factories, docks, and so on. The drive towards environmental engineering has overshadowed the structural aesthetic and functional justification championed by the Famous Five in earlier years. Individual concerns and interests, for example the blending of old and contemporary in the work of Michael Hopkins, the move into product manufacture (Grimshaw) and the exploration of place (Farrell) have brought about a huge diversification in their work.

Rogers’ concerns have centred on the city, its architecture and its politics and, not surprisingly, he emerged as the only active political figure in the group, making a major contribution to the London Plan prepared by Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London. ‘All architecture is politics,’ says Rogers. (As if to prove the point, Livingstone’s successor, Boris Johnson, has just announced that he is dropping his own estuary airport plans in favour of the more significant estuary proposal by … Norman Foster).

Visiting the RA this week, one inevitably thought about the life and times of the Famous Five as a whole. They have succeeded despite a context of unparalleled hostility to contemporary architecture by the heir to the throne, perhaps because their work is united by a fundamental belief in the beneficial possibilities of great architecture and design. I am looking forward to that BBC programme.

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