The Brits who built the modern world with new materials
THE Brits Who Built The Modern World Season is a major programme of exhibitions and events organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA].
Through drawings, watercolours, photographs and models it tells the fascinating story of why and how British architecture developed globally from 1750 to the present.
Using the RIBA’s unique collections and material from architectural practices, this exhibition tells a global story of British architecture between 1950 and 2012 in particular.
It is inspired by the BBC4 documentary series, which has focused on the five principal architects who were responsible for the High Tech movement in the Seventies: Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins, Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell.
Each of the three BBC episodes gave an insight into how their youthful dreams of building a better world turned architecture into one of Britain’s strongest cultural exports. It also featured exclusive interviews with the five men and their collaborators.
The series revealed the dramatic stories behind some of their most iconic creations, in Britain and across the world. Among them: the Pompidou Centre, Lloyd’s of London, “the Gherkin”, Beijing Airport, MI6’s headquarters and the London Olympic Velodrome.
This group of architects rejected neoclassicism, modernism and Brutalism, in favour of lightweight, industrial materials, adaptable spaces and visible structural components. The Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Lloyds Building in London are the most dramatic examples of their work.
This was a style of architecture which divided opinion and led to Prince Charles, in May 1984, describing a scheme by Peter Ahrends for a towering extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.
This was seen as a movement of its time. Informed by left-wing radical politics mixed with punk attitude, the High Tech architects set out to shake up the existing order of things and suggest a new way of building.
Yet this is nothing new, since each period of history has resulted in major changes in styles of architecture. In fact, it is an organic response to materials and technology that has informed change.
As with each period of history, there are both good and bad examples. This mix of buildings from different eras make a rich tapestry, evident in cities such as York.
Key to designing new buildings into such settings, is understanding context and being respectful in terms of scale and material palette. It is not necessary for buildings to be pastiche copies of the past. Radical buildings have shocked, but over time they have become part of the townscape, bringing life and vitality. The Centre Pompidou, is one of the boldest and most remarkable examples of this approach. The building and, most importantly, the public space it helped create, has become one of the top five attractions in Paris.
Initially a cause of controversy, the new centre was an instant success. This is a graphic example of how bold, innovative architecture can make a positive impact.
British architecture in the 21st Century has an almost unrivalled reputation around the world for daring innovation, creativity and flair. From Beijing to New York and Doha to Mumbai, British architects and expertise are playing a major role in redefining the world’s cities and creating extraordinary buildings. It is great to see, that this body of work has now been recognized in this exhibition,
Ric Blenkharn is co-founder of Bramhall Blenkharn Architects, Malton, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Brits Who Built the Modern World: 1950 – 2012 exhibition runs until May 27 at The Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place London.