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The rise of the short-lived building and the long-lived architect

Catherine Slessor
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As buildings’ lifespans get shorter, the Rubble Club grows in number, writes AR former editor Catherine Slessor

Earlier this year at the AJ120 Awards, a delightful quirk of table planning saw me sitting next to Owen Luder, the bow-tied bête noire of Brutalism. After some nerve-steadying libations, I felt emboldened enough to ask him: ‘What’s it like to see your buildings knocked down?’

It’s a taboo topic, as the architectural press tends to be predictably preoccupied with the catwalk moment of completion, when buildings emerge pouting and ready for their close-up. After the flashbulbs have popped, there is rarely any discussion of their lives, in the form of revisits (the Architectural Review latterly attempted some), or their deaths, unless it’s a failed tower block being photogenically extinguished to the applause of baying onlookers.

Buildings are inherently impermanent and most will succumb to quiet euthanasia as they wear out. Less common is more calculated or visceral forms of destruction. A new book on the fantastically detailed bomb damage maps produced by the London County Council architects’ department documents the loss of nearly 117,000 buildings in the capital during the war, a toll that was accompanied by 30,000 people.

In the usual run of things, architects aren’t around to see their creations wilfully destroyed, yet as buildings’ lifespans get shorter, the overlap between a short-lived building and a long-lived architect (Luder recently turned 87) is getting more pronounced. The Rubble Club, established by the late Isi Metzstein for architects who have experienced the ignominy of witnessing one of their buildings knocked down prematurely, is growing.

Luder is famously sanguine about seeing two of his Brutalist masterpieces sacrificed to the bulldozers. After an exhaustive campaign to save it, the genuinely ‘iconic’ Get Carter Car Park in Gateshead was finally torn down in 2010, while Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre was put to the sword in 2004. ‘A pile of rotting grey concrete is not the image we want for Portsmouth,’ said Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of the city council. Unlike Tricorn, the GCCP has cemented its place in architectural folk history, thanks to Michael Caine abruptly defenestrating a local villain from its board-marked parapet. In a delicious vignette that still speaks volumes about public perceptions of architecture, the defenestrated villain was the client of two oleaginous architects (one actually sporting a cravat). ‘I have an awful feeling we’re not going to get our fees on this job,’ murmurs one to the other in the aftermath of Caine’s carnage.

The GCCP was replaced by a Tesco and some lumpen student housing, a scheme sufficiently unprepossessing enough to be nominated for Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup. In Luder’s estimation this was worse than the demolition and adds insult to injury, though experience has taught him to keep the matter of seeing your work blown up firmly in perspective. ‘Losing a wife and a son is real anguish,’ he said. ‘This is just sad.’ Despite Brutalism now attracting an evangelistic following, he knows that needs and fashions change and the old must make way for the new. But he also reckons that politicians often shamelessly court public opinion when an apparently ‘unpopular’ building is up for demolition. And he points out that, in terms of wider issues of energy use and sustainability, tearing things down is much more profligate than re-using them. ‘It’s always better to see a building as it can be, rather than as it is,’ he said.

So far, in a career of extraordinary typological diversity (few people can claim to have designed a coal mine), the only building of Luder’s to be listed is, ironically, the South London Theatre, a converted Victorian fire station. It’s the ones that got away for which he will really be remembered.


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