Where’s the spark?

Words:
Hugh Pearman

There’s offence in the relentlessly inoffensive

May I share a problem with you? A problem I have as an editor? It’s – come closer, let me whisper in your ear – Generic Space. It is the curse that goes on giving. But I’m wondering if I am wrong to hate it as I do. Perhaps this is about me. I need help and understanding.

Generic Space is not necessarily bad architecture. On the contrary, it is perfectly OK, even quite good. It wins awards. It is impeccably modern, in a slightly mid-century way, but with a bit of added richness in ­materials and texture. It is very much the thing for urban dentistry, where you are inserting an implant into a street. Replacing an earlier implant, for such is the nature of cities. 

Generic Space is usually speculative – described as ‘mixed use’ which means mostly offices with a skirt of retail. So far, so conventional – commercial areas have always done this. But Generic Space has developed.  There may well be planning gain in the form of streetscape improvements or ‘affordable’ apartments, probably built elsewhere, as a quid pro quo for what is always a much greater square footage of offices than was previously on the site. Again, this seems reasonable enough. Cities must develop in a balanced way. 

Generic Space has now colonised the roofscape – an aspect of densification usually generated by the need to step back as more floors are crammed on. So what used to be a forgotten place of water tanks and lift motor rooms and ductwork and cleaning-cradle hoists is now routinely organised into roof terraces with cafés, even clubs with pools.

No. 1 Poultry. Not in the least bit generic
No. 1 Poultry. Not in the least bit generic Credit: Janet Hall, RIBA Collections

Why do I sigh heavily when a hopeful architect sends me images of an obviously intelligently-designed new building

These too are good places to be. Where the Hotel Cipriani in Venice led – its rooftop dining terrace always being one of the focal points for the more fortunate visitors to the Venice Biennale – surely humbler buildings can follow? Roof gardens and terraces have a long history: a history revived in the 1990s by Stirling and Wilford in their Number One Poultry building, now listed. Nobody ever admits it, but the mix of uses in that utterly individualistic building has actually become the template for Generic Commercial Space. 

So why do I sigh heavily when a hopeful architect sends me images of an obviously intelligently-designed new building with all these ingredients, logically organised and delivered with quiet assurance?   I think it is because there is seldom much actively to object to. It is inoffensive. It does not scare the design review panel or the planners. It ­acknowledges context. It is better than the unfashionable thing that was there before. 

At this point a klaxon goes off in my head. IS IT THOUGH? Better, I mean? Better than the postwar implant it is usurping? The great merit of some of those, from the 1950s to the 1980s, was that they showed a touch of individuality, a bit of pizazz or even just – especially from the 1950s – understated subtlety. 

All buildings give away their date. Nothing is ‘timeless’.  But am I wrong in thinking that there used to be greater variety of approaches? That things were less generic? Of course we should all be encouraging the ‘good ordinary’ as that is what defines our towns and cities. Everything can’t be a landmark.  I just want to be surprised a bit more. Is that too much to ask?