Architects have a great ally in the lucid and imaginative Jonathan Meades, says Douglas Murphy
Architects should really consider themselves lucky that Jonathan Meades is so fascinated by the products of their endeavour. It’s easy to forget how incongruous it is that this filmmaker, novelist, journalist and erstwhile restaurant critic – who trained as an actor at RADA – should be so quite enamoured with buildings, with the places that are made by them, and with the people who created them, but it is an entirely positive thing that he is.
Meades is, of course, most widely known for numerous films for the BBC, which are stylistically recognisable for his perpetually besuited, Ray-Banned presence, his deadpan, dry-as-a-moth-sandwich delivery, their sight-gags and their slapstick humour. In them, Meades traipses around Britain (and more recently Europe), delivering al fresco lectures on architecture, history and anything he feels like, that are endlessly inventive and never tiring. In a TV world now full of patronising ‘join me on a journey’ documentaries, all pathos and pandering observation, his creativity and refusal to condescend is a precious thing.
Shockingly, the BBC has so far only seen fit to release a three DVD set of his films, and although the more inquisitive viewer can find ways to watch nearly all of them, this is not a happy state of affairs. Thankfully, we now have ‘Museum Without Walls’, a substantial collection of Meades’ writings ranging from around 1990 up to the present. Released via an innovative ‘crowdsourcing’ model, whereby subscribers each put up a small part of the cost of publication, it contains articles, lectures, scripts and other texts, loosely grouped into chapters with themes such as memory and place, biography, the relationship between power and building, and so on.
Meades’ prose is, like his vocal delivery, confident and aphoristic. Essays are mostly short and never outstay their welcome; they frequently end without fuss or fanfare. He takes great pleasure in bouncing between registers, frequently penetrating more hifalutin passages with nob gags and hilarious similes; it is clear this is writing crafted with pleasure and care. Certain themes pop up again and again; his despair at the paucity of suburban imagination, the line (borrowed from Nabokov) that one should appreciate a work not in the head, or heart, but at the base of the spine, or his contention that at any one time only one per cent of architects are goats, the rest sheep. Meades is a fan of Vanbrugh, of corrugated iron, delirious Victoriana and ‘sod you’ brutalism. He enjoys the aesthetic juxtaposition of the natural and the industrial, in sheds, wind farms, and sluice gates. He is no fan whatsoever of obsequiousness, deference, playing it safe and aesthetic cowardice: ‘The greatest offence in the creation of place is to attempt to avoid giving offence.’
Particular highlights are his biographies of Rodney Gordon, the commercial brutalist who lived to see most of his incredible work destroyed, and of Ian Nairn, whose lugubrious work in writing and on television prefigures his own.
Meades’ writings on ‘The Brandwagon’ – his term for the vulgar, myopic and vacuous regeneration industry and its part in what he brilliantly calls ‘the souffle economy’ – are excoriating and vital, while his frequent journeys into nostalgia are gentle without ever being mawkish. Meades takes no prisoners; while he is often brilliantly scathing on the intersections of power, vanity and design, and his witty atheism is infinitely preferable to that of Dawkins or Hitchens, this reader has no time for the tired moans about ‘political correctness’, and one piece in particular (on traffic) gives the unpleasant feeling that it was ghost-written by Jeremy Clarkson. But this is far too harsh; to agree with everything is to experience this writing in the wrong way.
It must be said that reading the scripts included in this collection is a pale substitute for watching the films themselves, and it would have been helpful to have more information on where each of the texts was originally published; they are listed only by date. But this is really all there is to complain about a collection from one of the best writers on architecture this island has produced, someone who has done so much to give us the sense – to pilfer the name of his first series – of being ‘Abroad in Britain’.
Douglas Murphy is an architecture critic whose The Architecture of Failure is published by Zero books
MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS