Sam Cam’s Smythson – rather than the Smithsons culture – is David's rather slim architectural legacy
It feels like an age, but cast your mind back to spring 2010. David Cameron was making his first pitch to the British people. There were posters: that preternaturally smooth, pinkish complexion, and an earnest promise. We can’t go on like this, he said. And in the background – what? It’s hazy, hard to make out, a glass wall in perspective, hints of green. A public-private atrium, maybe. ‘AHMM education or Penoyre & Prasad healthcare,’ architect Sam Jacob speculated in Icon magazine. If it was the first glimmering of sight after coming out of a coma, you’d be reassured – mostly. Clean and safe, with the faint possibility that you are running up an enormous bill.
My dad had a parlour game, similar to the old ‘ten famous Belgians’, but less insular and more left-wing. In eleven long years, what did Margaret Thatcher do for arts and culture? Channel 4 was about the best she could do. Now we have another version: what’s the architectural legacy of David Cameron? Beyond, of course, an instinctively Europhile profession left reeling by the avoidable calamity of Brexit. Like that backdrop, however, it’s hazy.
There was plenty of building in the Cameron years – it’s just surprisingly hard to associate any of it with the man himself. The politicians who most wanted to be seen building things were Osbo and Bojo. George Osborne never seemed happier than when he was staring at rebar on the sites of large infrastructure projects; Boris Johnson’s weakness for grand projets was even more pronounced, often aided and abetted by the Treasury. And the Cameron years had architectural bit-players both fair and foul. Michael Gove’s early decision that schools didn’t need architects or ‘curvy bits’ sticks in the memory. Less philistine was Ed Vaizey’s long stint as minister of state for culture – he at least looked interested, and saved a few modern gems (Preston Bus Station), even if others slipped through his fingers (Robin Hood Gardens). Cabe has faded away, like the Cheshire Cat, only its build-what-you-want smile remaining.
Cameron was always more about the furnishings than the envelope, which, after all, is probably inherited
The Olympics? A Blair-Brown legacy, down to the acid-trip branding – although Boris was able to get his oar(bit) in. Airport expansion? We’ll get back to you. HS2? Let me check. Garden cities? Good lord, is that the time … Building, of course, is a slow process and there are projects in the pipeline that might give a distinct Cameronian legacy: the final flowering of the City of London’s skyscraper ‘cluster’ for instance, with an unlovely extruded slab or two among the more careful shapemaking of the preceding decade. The lumpsome later phases of King’s Cross and the Olympic park. These are London projects, you might have noticed. There might be an interesting Free School or two, who knows?
Cameron was always more about the furnishings than the envelope, which, after all, is probably inherited. Perhaps it’s Samantha’s influence, keeping things Smythson rather than Alison and Peter Smithson. But it might be an expression of the inner contradiction that time and again hampered his premiership. One sensed he was quite at ease with high-speed railways, contemporary design and the creative economy. But his hypertension-suffering Daily Mail-reading supporter base wanted hairshirt economics, nothing above the middlebrow and double-windsor neckties.
The 19th-century town house stuffed with iPads and OKA Direct shelves was, then, not a bad symbol for Cameron, a man caught between two worlds. If there was a personal aesthetic at work, it remains elusive – though it could still be found in places. The quintessential Camscape can be found at the nearest branch of Oliver Bonas, the brand most expressive of the 2010s elite. Bonas culture weaves easily between ultra-pale modernism and gilt-edged tradition, with a touch of funky pastels in the Jo Malone-scented air. On Twitter I suggested that the V&A should buy up its nearest branch in its entirety, so as to preserve this perfect expression of an age for generations to come. I was only half joking.
Will Wiles is a journalist and author.
One architectural proposal did surface during the Cameron years: a memorial library devoted to Margaret Thatcher. But architectural possibilities were limited: as I recall, an existing building was to be converted. It’s an overlooked possibility, but I think a right-to-buy semi in, say, Becontree should have been selected. Still a relatively young man, perhaps David Cameron would prefer a new-build legacy project for himself.