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Will Wiles

Is it possible to link prime ministers and architecture?

Recently I was looking at cushions in a furniture store’s catalogue. Stop judging me, we all need an escape. Anyway, these cushions. Two were decorated with ‘iconic landmarks’. There was nothing very surprising about the choices. For New York, there was the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State, the Chrysler, the Flatiron; London had Nelson’s Column, Big Ben, the Shard, the Gherkin, London Eye and One Canada Square.

Nothing very surprising – until you consider that all but one of the New York landmarks were completed before the Second World War; of the London landmarks, all but two were completed after 1990. I know this isn’t terribly scientific, but it’s impossible to deny that London has done a great deal of landmark-building in the past 25 years; and it’s startling that, in the subcultural, subconscious churn of such things as cushion-covers, the image of its skyline could be seen as being more modern than that of Manhattan.

To switch from cushions to stuffed shirts: the (ongoing, at the time of writing) Labour leadership election has involved a great deal of discussion of the legacy of Tony Blair, not least from the man himself. Fairly soon we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his rise to power in 1997, and the 10th of his descent in 2007. Or you will celebrate one and not the other, depending on taste, but that’s your business. In any case, that decade involved a phenomenal amount of new building, in the capital and beyond. So is it possible to talk about a Blair legacy in architecture and design?

Richard Rogers’ Channel 4 headquarters held my attention so totally that I tripped on its shallow stone steps and twisted my ankle

Certainly, there was a perceptible thaw in 1997. It’s easy to forget what a bleak time the early to mid-1990s were in terms of architecture and design. The age of the groundscraping out-of-town shopping centre with the pitched roof and sprinkling of dovecotes, when even concrete motorway bridges needed some Charles-pleasing brick cladding and Palladian details. Really, we should be cataloguing and preserving some of this stuff now, as A Warning From History, with detailed explanatory plaques in case anyone takes it as a kind of James Wines-style gag: ‘This building is not a joke. They really meant it.’

If you were a teenage architecture enthusiast, as I was, it was depressing. I remember being taken, without enthusiasm, by my cousin to see a new building in Hammersmith. A new building? Why even bother? But I’m glad I did: it was Ralph Erskine’s Ark, and it was magical. The exceptions to the general rule of pastiche were rare enough to be mesmerising. Richard Rogers’ Channel 4 headquarters, for instance, held my attention so totally that I tripped on its shallow stone steps and twisted my ankle. I still can’t look at John Outram’s Docklands pump house without feeling the same sense of desperate frustration I felt back then: yes, very nice, but really, all this fuss? Is there nothing else?

The long recession was largely responsible, of course, but Charles and his enablers in the dullard Major government didn’t help. The change in the air in 1997 really was perceptible, even if it was caused by property and finance breathing a sigh of relief that the new tenants in Numbers 10 and 11 were not going to harsh their buzz too much. Blair’s building boom profited from pre-existing conditions as much as Thatcher’s government harvested the fruits of North Sea Oil. The lottery, and the mind-focusing Millennium; the growing economy; low interest rates; and, of course, the private finance initiative, which was all trialled and ready to go: perhaps it’s not what Blair’s government did as much as what it didn’t do. It didn’t regulate the City, it did little to halt the slide in social housebuilding, it did nothing to rein in consumer credit. Perhaps it’s ludicrous to consider prime ministers as architectural patrons. They are far too interested in the short term.  

Will Wiles is a journalist and author