Why pay attention to the miserabilist tendency dominating the London architecture debate?
I read with near disbelief the review by Rowan Moore of the New Ideas for Housing exhibition staged by New London Architecture with support from the Greater London Authority. Rather than welcoming an outpouring of ideas, not just design proposals, The Observer’s architecture guru ignored the strength in depth of welcome fresh thinking.
Instead he chose to smear at least one of the 10 winning entries by implying none-too-subtly that it had been chosen because the designer is an NLA ‘supporter’, and said that because NLA has commercial sponsorship there is something ‘queasy’ about it. Under the circumstances, one can understand why NLA chairman Peter Murray invited Moore to leave the exhibition launch party.
Since the latter feels queasy about the place, it is surprising he found himself able to attend the event – but perhaps it was to confirm his miserabilist prejudices about the danger of ideas.
Nothing seems to find favour in the world of Less is Moore
It was exactly the same in relation to the Garden Bridge, which he airily dismissed; nothing seems to find favour in the world of Less is Moore unless it is wispily personal or evidence of Big Politics doing what he considers to be right.
Of course, he was not always like this – in fact for much of his time as director of the Architecture Foundation he was a proposer of all sorts of positive initiatives.
Things seemed to change after the AF competition to build a new headquarters in Southwark however. He seemed to be obsessed with ensuring that Zaha Hadid Architects won: the timescale was extended, as was the budget, leaving the other competitors at a huge disadvantage.
Predictably the whole thing ended in tears, and, apart from leaving the AF with no permanent home and gallery, it discredited the entire idea of architectural competitions. If the AF could not organise one, how could it preach to other people about the virtues of this procurement route? There was scant coverage of this shambles in the London Evening Standard. This may have been because Moore was its architectural correspondent.
He subsequently complained about conflicts of interest of others in architecture (including me as chair of CABE), possibly because he himself proved so lamentable in dealing with his own situation. Conflicts of interest are inevitable at some level – what’s important is how you manage them.
In Moore’s world there is always something behind the scenes of which he does not approve. In the case of the Garden Bridge it is the ‘shock horror’ fact that the chief instigator of the project knows the mayor. The bulk of the cost will come from the private sector. Some public money will be used without The Observer’s prior approval. You want to oppose towers planned for London? Let’s have a campaign fronted by The Observer (last year run in partnership with the AJ).
The problem with the campaign was, and is, the fact it encompasses people who hate towers and those who design them for a living. It was an NLA exhibition about towers, incidentally, that prompted the Skyline Campaign to which Moore so thoroughly lent his support. What has changed subsequently? Did he feel queasy but struggled on because it appeared that the show was anti-commercial?
Whatever its shortcomings (I don’t see many), the current NLA exhibition shows examples of invention, imagination and delight – all too rare in the world of housing. The problem with members of the miserabilist tendency is that all they ever do is moan. They can’t, or won’t, undertake anything themselves, and seem to hate those people who can and do.
Rowan Moore is a decent man who has fallen into the negativity trap. I hope he manages to climb out of it.