by David Hamilton (August 2011)
If you travel around England you get a sense of how nihilism is expressed in contemporary architecture; history and identity are expressed in historic architecture. The lack of transcendent belief and values, the modern nihilism, informs contemporary architecture. Almost every English town or city I have been in has been ruined or half ruined by the local authorities. American tourists repeatedly ask:”What are you doing to your culture?” “Nothing”, I reply,”it is being imposed on us by local authorities.” They are deculturing communities and causing disaffection amongst young people. How can young people identify with the rebuilt, repellent city centres? The buildings push people out.
It was a tragic mistake to give local councils the power to compulsory purchase and demolish property and this power must be removed. Most cities are now largely owned by the local councils who have taken properties off private owners.
Towns and Cities are being turned into jumbles of buildings without harmony or balance; the buildings being erected are the centre of the architects concern and no interest is shown to what is around it. They have no relation to their neighbours. They present a physical projection of the loss of community in the country as a whole. Historic towns by contrast present character within the balance and harmony of their variety of styles.
We are being dissociated from our communities in towns and cities by architecture that jars with and offends our inborn need for the familiar and to to belong. Architecture is physical history and informs our sense of identity: who we are and where we belong. Contemporary architecture dissociates people and makes them feel out of place in their home towns and cities, our Urbiscapes.
I once gazed along Bromley High Street at the rows of Victorian shop fronts. A view of balance and harmony but for one that jarred with the rest. A repellent square-shaped 1960's building was wedged between two shops. It was probably built to replace bomb damage, but no effort had been made to blend it in with surrounding buildings. Modern buildings are repellent because they dissuade people from approaching or identifying with them and this dissociates the community.
I have mentioned Sheffield previously. The local people are warm and friendly but their city is ceasing to be theirs and is being re-created by local councillors who act as agents for the developers, city planners, and property developers. The city is so incoherent and disjointed it should be renamed “Jumble City”. The people who pursue these “universal” styles overlook the history in old buildings and their importance for the identity of local people. (1)
I marvel at local authorities causing the despoliation of our town and city scapes or Urbiscapes. I recall a conversation I had with a planner in which I lamented how what were once tidy and aesthetically appealing towns had become cold and repelled people instead of welcoming them. He replied that towns exist for purely commercial reasons. They do not believe in or care for local communities. But the exigencies of commerce alone can not explain why the urban fabric was once a coherent whole with communities but now repel local people. You can still glimpse patches of what were once harmonious wholes in York or Chester, Bath, Shrewsbury, Bristol, Ludlow, Tewkesbury,and a few other historic towns. One shakes one's head at the way local authorities are destroying their communities and architects are no longer capable of erecting buildings of warmth and welcoming beauty. They need to develop their creations out of traditions and blend them into the character of the surrounding milieu.
They are nihilists and not informed by a feeling for the sacred or a wish to improve communal life. Silly statues in every town and city erected on the advice of consultants.
Architects are part of the ruling elite with politicians, local authorities at a high enough level, developers, business leaders, members of unelected regional quangos, academics, media moguls and personalities, pop stars etc. When they reach this level, they look down on on local people as unsophisticated and scorn their needs. They mix with others of their own kind and are detached from the community. They are in the service of Global capitalism and the prevailing ideology and impose their will on the public but ignore public opinion or the electorate and leave us with a mess.
They build shopping malls or change local buildings into their corporate style and when they move on leave a city reduced in local history and needing more developments.
There have been some foolish demolitions in Stratford upon Avon and amongst the historic gems are some repulsive concrete blocks, although it is not quite as bad as Gloucester. The town is world-famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare and needs to look like it did when he was alive but often the wrong values obtrude and like Liverpool they start spoiling what they should conserve. A great success in Stratford is the way national retail chains had to conform to the existing building rather than ruin them by sticking on their usual shop fronts. This is exemplary: it is an example of how our towns and cities can be conserved.
The appalling neglect of the quaint and interesting Hackins Hey a quaint by-way in Liverpool with small shops dating from the 18th century which to planners and councillors was only history so it was allowed to deteriorate and no one takes responsibility. The destruction of Liverpool's Overhead Railway was disgraceful. To show their hopeless lack of grasp of what they are doing to Liverpool there is a carriage and some track in the hideous building on the waterfront – The Museum of Liverpool.(2) The worrying thing is that orthodox architects like these buildings.
The new development at Salford Quays has been created out of a disused quay on the Manchester Ship canal. It is very popular and very successful. They have attracted the major broadcasting companies head offices to their “Media City” and they have a gallery to the famous painter L.S. Lowry. They already had Old Trafford the ground of world-famous football team Manchester United.
My contention is that with a style of architecture that grew out of our traditions it would look even more impressive. The individual buildings often make use of fine geometrical shapes and the Lowry Gallery has semi circles. In themselves these geometric shapes are attractive but they bear no relation to the inspiration for the building nor its function. With modern buildings you get individual buildings out of relation to their neighbours. The main block of the Lowry Gallery on Salford Quays look as if it is falling down. A projection of our collapsing civilisation.
The Chips Building in New Islington or Ancoats, Manchester will take some beating for nihilism and spreading dejection and gloom. It has to be deliberate, to create a mind-dulling, depressing cityscape. (3)
Architects are self-centred and feel no responsibilty to the community as a whole but see themselves as celebs. The previous low point in both was the early 60s when ugly concrete monstrosities disfigured many towns and cities, but as we see with these examples it is even worse now. The 60s efforts were plain unrelieved concrete but the trend now seems to be to add to the ugliness by making them asymetrical, lopsided, tumbling down monstrosities. They often do them in bright colours to look garish and cheap.
If you compare these with the great British style of Tudor, in which buildings often hung over the street, you see the difference between character and muddle. The Shambles in York, for example, Corve Street in Ludlow and Park Street in Bristol which is from 1761 and was Bristol's first example of uniformly stepped hillside terracing. They all show harmony and balance which gives them not only beauty but character and grandeur, splendour and impressiveness, of appearance and style. At the top of the street there is a dramatic view of the Wills Memorial Building. These show harmony and essential balance in the streets. There are differences between individual buildings but because these differences are within a harmonious whole they create character not disunity and muddle. This balance has been maintained over the centuries.We find harmony and balance until architectural anarchy took over. (4)
A classic example of council chicanery is from 1982. The Leader of the Kensington & Chelsea Council, ordered the wreckers to demolish Kensington's Italianate town hall at 3 a.m. on a Sunday Morning because the building was due to be formally listed Grade 2 later that day. He died early but that not bring back the town hall with its beautiful internal plasterwork. Though it could be rebuilt.(5)
I talked to a man in a pub recently and he posed the question:”Apart from London where else could you take a beautiful woman?” The answer was “York”. He made an excellent point. York is an outstandingly beautiful and interesting historic town. It has a medieval town wall you can walk along and a fabulous Minster.
York has a long-term future, but the myopic city fathers in Liverpool have gone in for short-term capital gain and thus dispossessed future generations of their birthright. They have followed a tendency to obliterate famous landmarks as with the obscuring of the Three Graces, which was a World Heritage Site, with ordinary, unexceptional skyscrapers. As is usual with British skyscrapers they are insignificant compared to American ones. I took a photograph of this now ordinary waterfront from the Ferry across the Mersey in a raging storm but it shows clearly how it has been ruined by non-descript buildings. A comparison with Chicago from Lake Michigan says it all.
There is a hideous building, also known as the Museum of Liverpool, which has been constructed right next to the Three Graces. Apparently, the plan for that awful building only got through the council by one vote. The view that Liverpool ’s World Heritage site has been “ruined” by the developments at the Pier Head is not one shared by UNESCO who agreed with the developments nearby and spoil the world famous view of the waterfont.
Inspectors from UNESCO and ICOMOS (International Commission on Monuments and Sites) visited Liverpool in October 2007 to, inter alia:
Review the state of conservation of the World Heritage site.
Review the overall situation of property with regard to the state of conservation “in its widest urban context, its integrity and authenticity” and how current construction projects in its neighbourhood may affect the site.
Discuss how the new Museum building project next to the Three Graces and any construction plans affect the site.
- Discuss with relevant authorities, local institutions and organisations the protection of the historic urban landscape and its visual integrity.
They reported to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand the following year who confirmed that the outstanding universal value of Liverpool ’s World Heritage site was not under threat from recent developments. I suggest you look at the photograph then ask ourself what is wrong with these people?
Liverpool's waterfont is a muddle. If they can do this to a World Heritage Site and not even know what they have done, then nothing is safe from these unrepresentative elites.
Skyscrapers are an American icon and if I went to New York or Chicago would be very impressed by them; but England has a different tradition and a different scale. Strangely the first steel structured building was built in Shrewsbury.
In 1796 Shrewsbury entrepreneurs Thomas and Benjamin Benyon and John Marshall of Leeds purchased the rights to the newly invented flax-spinning machine. Ditherington Flax Mill was built in Shrewsbury were skilled workers were looking for work, excellent transport links with the canal and roads and a market for it’s products such as carpet weaving in Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.
The mill was designed by Charles Bage and was the first iron-framed building. When they ceased production of flax because of competition from mills in Leeds the mill was sold to William Jones Maisters (Ltd) who adapted it as a Maltings factory in 1897 whence it takes its usual name. (6)
I have written before about the serrated flats that are being built throughout the country. I wish to make no accusations but I was told by a man who works on these type of apartments in a different town that they are cheaply constructed and if properly examined would not pass health and safety regulations. Their flimsy walls are of Studboard and not substantial. They look hideous from the start and will soon be unwanted slums.
Most of these buildings have shoddy cladding which will likely only have an expected life of ten or so years. One luxury designer apartment development at Piccadilly Basin, Manchester already has problems with leaking rooves.
The coldness of modern cities is depressing, causes unhappiness and a sense of loss and dissociates people who lose touch with their roots and environments, whereas the use of traditional buildings maintains the town’s core identity and gives local people a definite sense of history, identity, belonging, and well-being.
A justification offered is that they generate income but since when did buildings have to be ugly and dissociate local people and undermine the whole urbiscape to generate money? Re-building the beautiful buildings that have been demolished would also generate income.
The World Heritage Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) is a document which provides detailed guidance for new development, regeneration and conservation in the Heritage Site (WHS) and the surrounding area. You can see it in full at
The UNESCO guidelines - a circular was issued in 2009 which gives information about them. This is at
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