Not many people, of course, think of themselves as “pro-ugly”, but if a Martian visited most 20th- or 21st-century British towns, he would conclude that we were. What else would explain our shopping malls and car parks, our desolate pedestrianised spaces and our mean little houses?
Almost everyone lives in a building, works in a building for a large part of their life, and sees buildings every day. Of all art forms, they are the most present to us. We are much happier if they are beautiful and commodious. Yet we mostly act as if architecture were nothing to do with us, except as an occasional source of complaint.
Gavin Stamp is one of our most passionate and knowledgeable voices arguing against this fatalism. He is an architectural historian with a keen sense of how what we build can capture or obliterate what is good about our culture. He sees how the public realm can exalt or degrade the life of each citizen.
It is a puzzle to me that Stamp is not better known. He is eloquent, funny and eccentric. He is as familiar with the streets of our cities as a taxi driver with The Knowledge, and brilliant at connecting sublime ideas with the ordinary aspects of our daily lives. In this book, he offers a discussion of the Routemaster bus which manages, without strain, to include the thoughts of Le Corbusier, Pope Pius IX’s railway carriage “with its balcony and roof supported on twisted columns” and Marine Court in St Leonards-on-Sea – an entire block of flats built in the shape of the Queen Mary liner. “I have yet to experience a hi-tech building which is as efficient, as ergonomically sensitive and as elegant as the interior of that architectural masterpiece on wheels, the Routemaster bus,” he concludes.
Perhaps Stamp’s problem is that he resists categorisation, and so the telly can’t get him on to mouth platitudes. Although once the proto-Young Fogey, he cannot be relied on to bash the Modern Movement in architecture. Indeed, some of his fiercest attacks (and he is often fierce) are on people whom he sees as slavish, unthinking classicists – the country-house architect Quinlan Terry is a bête noire. Principled though he is, he is open to the idea that all sorts of surprising buildings can turn out, over time, to be good; his book contains several admissions of past error.
Indeed, Stamp is perceptive about how styles and doctrines subtly change themselves. Of Modernism, he writes that it was “once shoddy but altruistic”, and has now “morphed into the vulgar style of arrogant capitalism”. That is right.
Anyway, faced with any architectural style, ideology or tradition, his approach is Anti-Ugly (a phrase which he takes from a radical movement which demonstrated against ugly buildings in the late Fifties). He does not like the fashion for blowing up buildings, even dreadful high-rise blocks of flats, because he feels sorry for the buildings. It is easy to demolish, he says. “It is getting something better that is the problem.”