November 5, 2020

Lucky Penguins

Well this has been a long time coming but I have a confession to make and to some it may be a bit of a shock but I have known since I was a small child, this hidden fact. I knew since I went to the ‘Thirties Exhibition’ at the Hayward Gallery when I was about 14.

Lucky Penguins author FeinFinch

The Penguin Pool at London Zoo

Well this has been a long time coming but I have a confession to make and to some it may be a bit of a shock but I have known since I was a small child, this hidden fact. I knew since I went to the ‘Thirties Exhibition’ at the Hayward Gallery when I was about 14. I have to admit it I am a modernist a constructivist, and I am proud of it. I love brutalist architecture too. I love it and I can't stop the feelings I have. Better in than out I suppose.

I see the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, as a thing of beauty, now Grade One listed, and I yearn for the uncluttered and perfect. No retreating into a world of the past. No Poundbury for me! No living in a fantastical world of the past like Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Portmerion. McGoohan was right to use the village as a backdrop to his nightmare vision that was The Prisoner. Our land should move stridently towards the modern not retreat into a Thomas Hardy inspired world where hayricks and consumption were part and parcel of everyday life. Instead we should take our cue from buildings like Lubetkin and Tecton’s Finsbury Health Centre, and one of my favourites of Lubetkin’s Bevan House, which I think is an understated masterpiece, just look at the staircase inside! A concrete fetishists wet dream. Look at the curves on that.

Picture of staircase at Bevan Court

Most teenage kids in my day had a poster of a Lamborghini Countach on their wall, or that dreadful picture of the female tennis player scratching her bottom, but I had a picture of Berthold Lubetkin on mine. Ask my mum! Berthold Lubetkin was to me an architect of genius okay the penguins might not have liked their pool but they were probably never consulted about the plans, and sometimes that was the problem, the lack of consultation. Architecture for architecture’s sake. But it is beautiful in my eyes. Sod the penguins...[1]

Modernist detractors like ‘Charlie Boy’ (Prince Charles) can go and live in the past because he lives ‘actually’ in the past, the buildings and the stuff inside them is from another age, like him. Okay some modernist, brutalist and constructivist architecture is absolute rubbish, partly because it was bodged. Hurried by the need to replace the slums and bombed out areas of London and other metropolitan areas. So I have to concede that.

In fairness I could never be a true constructivist because I am too cluttered, not of the correct mindset, and I think that you have to get the architecture’s message that less is more? It is a way of life too. It is a state of mind.

Now we live in the past, we live in the ‘Fake’, everybody strives to own a brick built boring box. The insipid. ‘Brick England’. Remember the song ‘Little Boxes’ written by Malvina Reynolds, and if my memory serves me well was sung by Pete Seeger as a cover version? Well I remember singing that song at my junior school. Had a teacher called Vera Leftwards. Possibly - think about the name - oh just got it, good. That song has its detractors and its fans, but it is a good summation of what we are becoming both architecturally and socially. Anodyne and boring, scared to reach for the stars. Reach for them for someone's sake! Don't be sausages squeezed out of the sausage maker. Sod off vulgarian role models and celebrity! Culture is not a four letter word in the English language at least. Don't forget the misattributed words of a monster Herman Goring who is alleged to have said 'whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my gun’.[2] Prove that statement to be an awful one. Don't be afraid to be different. Architecture like Lubetkin’s dared to be different. Some architects still dare to be different. Keep going! For arts sake!

Where did it all go wrong? When our current head of state Elizabeth the Second took over as ‘supreme leader of both Church and State’ we were told that we were moving into a new 'Elizabethan Age’ and things were going to change, I weep, as I down another vodka (that's what socialists drink) sitting here thinking what happened? Where did it go wrong?

I am a serious geek too, everyone knows that, and I read an absolutely fascinating book (in my mind) called 'An Atomic Empire: A Technical History of the Rise and Fall of British Atomic Energy’ written by C.N Hill. It is a real geeks book, but it makes a point that is relevant to my argument. We were told that, with the opening of the first atomic power station at Calder Hall, we would be provided with energy too cheap to meter. Really? It was there to help us build the Hydrogen bomb. I am using this use of technological prowess as a way to show that good can be subverted to do bad things. We all believed what we were told in the post war era and in the 1930’s, and the idea of ‘for the many not the few’, the idea of a socialist inspired society was essentially subverted. We sleep walked like drugged sheep into the ‘state’ that we are in. Calder Hall’s architecture was modernist incidentally...

Next time you are in London go and have a look at one of the last, bits of the Festival of Britain surviving, forget the silly Skylon, to me gone and forgotten. However the Royal Festival Hall, built by the London County Council in 1951, is something else. The architects were Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin it is modernist and was the first post war building to be Grade One listed, and so it should be. The original interior was inspired by the interior design of the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto and the Swedish designer Gunnar Asplund. I was told by an architect that it was Herbert Morrison's pet project. I am glad that it will be preserved for posterity.

I am also a fan of the graphic designer Abram Games. Look at his poster 'join the ATS'. I wish I owned that poster. Sadly I don't but I can look at it and admire it. What I did own was an original poster of the Festival of Britain which Games designed in 1950/1951, and a ceramic tile he designed for the Victoria Line. Sadly both stolen from me by thieves of exquisite taste. His artwork was 'modern’ and by being ‘modern’ inspiring. Not generic. Original. Sadly for Games, he was one of the first in England to see pictures of the atrocities carried out at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, whilst he worked for the War Office in 1945. Awful for anyone to see but especially for Games as he was Jewish. Games worked in Israel in the 1950s for a while and one of his best artworks I think was his poster for the United Nations called ‘Freedom from Hunger’. He strived for something. A good graphic designer I think.

One last building I will mention is the RIBA building in Portland Place, London. It was built in 1934 and designed by the architect George Grey Wornum, it is Grade Two listed and is worth a look at when the virus is defeated.

To be honest I think there are some spectacular contemporary architects and architecture. I probably am living in the past like 'Charlie Boy’ but we strived to ‘dare’. To make a world truly made for ‘the many not the few’?

Now I am off to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, like some of our leaders are doing. Whatever you do don't be bored with lockdown be inspired not boring...

Penguins of the world unite...

My liver was harmed in the making of this post...

As an aside have a look at the website of the Manchester Modernist Society. Worth a gander.

  1. Not really I like penguins but I could never eat a whole one.. And I didn't have a picture of Lubetkin's on my wall it was Lenin. ↩︎

  2. the statement is derived from those in the play Schlageter by Hanns Johst: "Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!" Whenever I hear of culture... I release the safety-catch of my Browning! (Act 1, Scene 1) The play was first performed in April 1933 for Hitler's birthday. Reported as a misattribution in Paul F. Boller, Jr., and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions (1989), p. 36. ↩︎

Manchester Modernist Society — the modernist society