From an early interest in industrial archaeology to a career that began at the same time as high-tech, Hugh Pearman reflects on his 44-year career in architectural journalism and muses on what’s next for the profession. You’ll find glimpses of who he is too
At the start of our conversation Hugh is at pains to point out that this profile was not his idea. He had hoped to write a final column then slope off quietly into retirement.
After 14 years as editor of RIBA Journal, however, he wasn’t getting away with that. Hugh Pearman is the longest-serving post-war editor and has stewarded the magazine through good and turbulent times. At the very least he was going to have to be interviewed for a ‘where architecture’s at and going’ article. This is why he has agreed, it’s an excuse to look at architecture over a 44-year career. It’s also an opportunity for people who haven’t met him to get a flavour of who he is. There’s something of the passing down wisdom dynamic too. And what I realise from my first question is that he’s never been interviewed about himself before. Call this a RIBAJ exclusive.
Let’s be clear, this is no normal set-up. Hugh believes in the office. Yet in nine months I’ve seen him once, at the outdoor lunch where he announced his retirement. Although if coronavirus hadn’t happened, he’d have left six months earlier. We are speaking on Teams from our homeworking spaces that are geographically only 3km apart – of course he already had the perfect Zoom background. He is in his study, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling Vitsoe shelving, packed silly with architecture books. One shelf somewhere is signed by Dieter Rams himself. If Hugh spins his camera around, the desk is piled with paper, only space for his keyboard and hands to do ‘the one thing I was ever good at: write’.
Until recently Hugh attributed his interest in architecture to being a student in Durham in the 1970s, where he studied English language and literature. His college was a 1963 neoclassical Francis Johnson building in the historic centre. Round the corner was the cathedral and Arup’s Kingsgate ‘the best bridge ever’. Beyond was the tiered brutalist Dunelm House student union and new colleges stepping up the hill with buildings by Basil Spence and Sheppard Robson. ‘It was an exercise in how old and new could coexist, you could see what was going on.’
He now realises his interest took shape earlier. As a teenager, he would get a ride to London from Tunbridge Wells, where he grew up, to walk waterways, scrambling through fences, discovering decaying Georgian infrastructure and the early industrial archaeology of Eric de Mare’s photographs. It wasn’t architecture but ‘lifestyle’, introduced to him by family friends who travelled the canals shooting Super 8 movies in the 1960s. He watched them with fascination and read books like Narrow Boat about living a ‘drop-out’ life on the canals by LTC Rolt, founder of the Inland Waterways Association which Hugh duly joined.
‘Towpaths weren’t open in those days. They were run down, only just about commercial,’ he says. ‘Apart from the odd boat, no one would be there.’ This played into 1960s/70s alternative movements that dovetailed folk rock music, taking to the road in Gypsy caravans and the nobility of manual labour, especially farming. He toyed with becoming a lockkeeper, worked on a farm and even shampooed a Charolais bull.
Visiting Newcastle from Durham, however, he saw there were still tramp steamers and heaps of coal on the wharfs. He learned about snobbery, class, town and gown, private school and army cadet kids (see his state grammar review). He also learned about getting together with mates and doing stuff, like co-founding an arts fusion magazine called Vent in which high and low culture were treated as equally valuable. They sold it around colleges door-to-door for 10p and it later proved useful in getting his first job – a traineeship on a travel agent magazine at publisher Morgan Grampian in Woolwich. south-east London. When it finished, he could apply for a job on any of its other titles.
‘I was warned not to work for Building Design as it didn’t have any money, which was true, but I was interested in architecture; things were starting to happen and change.’ On the way back from Durham one year he had stopped at UEA to see Lasdun’s ziggurats. At one end was a big shed under construction, linked to Lasdun’s by an umbilical bridge. It looked like a sports hall but turned out to be Norman Foster’s breakout Sainsbury Centre.
‘There was not a direct transition between concrete modernism and high tech,’ Hugh explains. ‘Not many people were writing about architecture outside the trade press. There was Colin Amery in the FT, Nicholas Taylor here and there and Ian Nairn ensconced at the Sunday Times as a travel writer, which was not his best work but by that time he was basically pickled.’
Architecture was in a process of total re-evaluation. It had been rocked by post-war council estate failures, particularly by the partial collapse of Ronan Point.
‘Architects were exploring a number of avenues. Some were looking at historic buildings to see if they could apply those lessons – the Asda tithe barn look which then BD editor Peter Murray splashed “the apotheosis of vernacular fakery” – and could be argued found its way into the British Library,’ Hugh says. ‘Then postmodernism was starting up, although that was more Italian at first. To me the interesting stuff was high tech because it was prefabricated. Foster and Rogers hated wet trades, instead they wanted clipped-together architecture that could be changed, extended, extruded, even if the early buildings became enshrined as temples. By the time Prince Charles came along in 1984 you had another strand: straight historicism.’
Changes were afoot in journalism too. At BD they’d been using technology that had hardly changed since 1900 – manual typewriters, typesetters. In 1982, Hugh went to work at BDP where they had early computerised communication. In the middle of his four years there, he began to write for the Guardian and the Observer, mostly about technology and a future where we would work from home/wherever we wanted. By 1986 he was doing freelance shifts at the Sunday Times, following Deyan Sudjic. It was the tail-end of the Wapping Dispute – the stand-off between News International and printworkers after production was shifted to east London and computers were introduced so journalists could input copy directly. After a year, he was offered a contract. He became architecture correspondent for the next 30 years.
‘It’s unfashionable to say, but the Wapping Dispute probably saved the newspaper industry for 25 years. It was an ugly moment, but there had to be a convulsion. Murdoch was simply the man that did it.’
In architecture the news was the National Gallery extension – a key moment for Prince Charles and his courtiers, who didn’t trust British architects. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi ‘were like innocents coming into a hurricane’. Will Alsop came a bit later. Alsop & Störmer’s ‘Le Grand Bleu’ in Marseille showed other British architecture was possible: ‘It wasn’t high tech or postmodern, it was a layer cake of things, like an exploded diagram in dark blue.’
Hugh wishes this had won the second Stirling Prize – which, incidentally, he helped launch out of the competition he ran at the Sunday Times with the Royal Fine Art Commission. The title ‘Stirling’ came to him in the shower after watching the Turner Prize on TV. Jim Stirling had died four years before, but it was a controversial choice because buildings like his Cambridge History Faculty Library had become known for going wrong.
‘It was notable that the projects Stirling built in Germany like the Stuttgart Neue Staatsgalerie didn’t fall apart. It doesn’t tell you about Stirling, but it does tell you about British construction.’
Hugh still thinks that when architects like Mecanoo, OMA or BIG build here the results ‘look a bit disappointing and aren’t quite so good’. That’s why he is not keen on Brexit: ‘Isolationism is never good for culture, let alone for the fact architecture is interconnected. Britain is a net exporter of architecture; freedom of movement has been a driver of the pan-European interchange of ideas.’
Since 2000, Hugh’s ‘best building’ is David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap’s Neues Museum in Berlin that subscribes to the British SPAB method of showing the marks of time, which was new to Germany then (think Dresden Frauenkirche). It took him back to the old/new approach in Durham, everything shoehorned together, talking to each other, ‘although people have perhaps over-zealously applied that glass box to Regency thing.’
There are signs, however, that architects are now alluding more to history in their designs. Caruso St John’s Tate Britain and Witherford Watson Mann’s new building dropped into Astley Castle are two examples. He thinks it’s time for the next international movement – the last was deconstructivism in the 1990s that led to Zaha and Gehry – but he has no idea which way architecture will go. He argues for stylistic biodiversity, although he sees binary thinking that good stuff is old-looking and bad stuff is new-looking is back, led by people behind Create Streets and Building Beautiful and based on Roger Scruton’s ideology that ‘beauty’, meaning Trad, will overcome Nimbyism.
‘It’s a fig leaf – part of a deeply conservative movement to get developers who fund Tory Party coffers to build all over everywhere,’ Hugh says. ‘It’s also part of retrenchment and drawing back; that we’re OK here with our sausage sandwiches.’
We must build though, and that’s why he was pleased to see Mikhail Riches’s Goldsmith Street win the Stirling Prize and witness the rise of Peter Barber, who models projects on tight Victorian streets. For a RIBAJ column, Hugh measured the street he lives on to work out the magic formula himself.
‘To say there is one thing called modernism is bonkers,’ he says. ‘That hasn’t been true since the mid-1950s and Team 10. When you look at practices like Squire & Partners and Stanton Williams, they are applying neoclassical ways of looking at buildings to modern perspectives.’
He thinks traditionalist practices like Adam Architecture, the Terrys, Ben Pentreath and Stanhope Gate should issue a joint statement to counter the terrible stuff on wackier websites and forums where neoclassical architecture is being linked with antisemitism and white supremacism.
Beyond style, architects must find a way back into leading the process, a lack made bleakly clear by the Grenfell fire, which he believes was part of a culture of D&B contracts and value engineering. These combine with scrimping and regulatory failure into many small acts that are at the root of much bad architecture. You need buildings with budgets of a workable size. The thinking also finds its way into places like Nine Elms in Vauxhall.
‘Architecture is not building buy-to-leave apartments for sale on the international market that nobody lives in.’ Covid may lead to them – or it could push things further in the same direction. The other issue is about making everything climate change aware – ‘It isn’t just about zero emissions, but loss of terrestrial biodiversity.’
At RIBAJ, Hugh made a point of allowing writers their own voice, of launching competitions to create a dialogue with readers and getting around the country to unearth practices and make the magazine representative. Now there are books to write and he is returning to the canals to keep an eye on waterside planning proposals as a volunteer consultant for the Inland Waterways Association which he joined all those years ago.
One final question though. Who would he get to design his Paragraph 79 home in Derbyshire, where he spends a lot of time? ‘Evans Vettori, Paul Testa, Gagarin Studio – not a London firm. But make this clear too: I haven’t got the money.’