On Buildings and Banality

This is Staines Town Hall.  I’m fascinated by the paradox that accompanies historic buildings like this, and which can be even more acutely perceived in Cathedrals and Roman remains.  The paradox is that the beauty of the building and the care of the architects and the builders is usually starkly at odds with the prevailing living conditions of the age.  One might expect societies whose residents had short life-spans, punctuated by disease, war and famine and in which few had access to basic utilities or any kind of welfare protection to deprioritise the construction of attractive buildings in favour of a more utilitarian approach.  But the opposite seems to be true.  Put another way, Harry Lime famously says in The Third Man:

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!

Why is it that in countless examples all over the world, societies living in comparative squalor and poverty managed to out-design and out-construct those living in relative peace and comparative affluence? 

In the example of cathedrals or castles there is a clear motivation for this phenomenon – the castle is grand because its owner had money to express deliberately his grandeur in architectural form.  The cathedral is awe-inspiring because it was built in recognition of God.  But for buildings like the one above – a town hall in Staines (a town often looked down on now for its classlessness), what was the impetus?  Was it simply the driving force of civic idealism that determined that a building designed for community administration and events needed a clock tower and such a complex and well proportioned frontage?  The same could be said of libraries, railway stations and even water towers – was it simply that in the past we attributed greater value to these kind of buildings being attractive as well as functional?

Whatever it was, we no longer have it.  We have concluded that function trumps form and that the best – nay the only – way to build a new railway station is to do in a way which either removes aesthetics entirely from the equation or else relegates it far below cost and efficiency.  Just a shed from which trains come and go, no matter how it looks, inside or out.  And a town hall – if we built one at all now – would tend to be uglier, have a shorter life span, and (in a further irony) use less sustainable materials than its older equivalent.  Why, when presented with stability and good health did we then set about making our buildings as cheap and unmemorable as we could manage?  Just at the time when beauty and good taste might press itself to the front, as hardship and suffering receded, we decided instead that they were needless trinkets. 

So is everything now banal?  Have we simply demystified the place of worship, the civic centre and the library to the point where they no longer support higher ideals, but rather are built to serve a practical function and not-a-penny-more? 

If we have, I’m not convinced our heart is in it.  To the frustration of some architects and town planners, humanity has been slow to embrace brutalism, functionalism or pragmatism – and never slower than when selecting our own homes.  Staines Town Hall has now been converted into flats, like so many heritage buildings.  These flats will be popular, expensive and desirable.  Those living inside will take pride in the ornate façade, marvel at the solid construction and low maintenance of the walls and windows, and welcome the fact that the building ages gracefully rather than requiring constant washing, wiping down and repainting to remain presentable, unlike its glass and composite equivalents.  We compete to live in these kind of buildings, to borrow a little dignity and solidity from a bygone age. 

By doing so we show that we still appreciate beauty and specifically the styles of architectural beauty associated with centuries past.  Our elites still live in thatched cottages and low-beamed tudor piles, or else classically proportioned Georgian town houses.  Our parliamentarians wander an estate brimming with architectural trinketry and are horrified at the suggestion that they might temporarily move to a conference centre.  Those with money are drawn to the old and quaint far more readily than to the functional and modern.  It is still generally understood that architects, judges and diplomats need to conduct their business in surroundings which confer a sense of occasion.

If Churchill was right that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, I’m not sure we’re shaping up too well.  For surely if we live and work in boring humdrum, functional spaces, our thoughts and imaginations will respond accordingly.  If our buildings support only our physical needs rather than our imaginations then we will become stale and unreflective.  And if we deny ordinary people the right to spend time in schools, churches, libraries, theatres and town halls which contain nothing of the transcendental; if we accept that beauty and ornament are unnecessary luxuries which have no place in public buildings, we are denying them the mental architecture to reach for any higher ideal.

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