If Poundbury, Charles III’s neo-Georgian town in Dorset, is an antithesis to something, then the Southbank Centre is the thesis. Every project of preservation, heritage or vernacular in the postwar era has taken it for its symbolic enemy. Southbank Centre is the war chief to all other modernist constructions in England. It was the first great statement of that style, and it’s the most prominently placed. It arrived with a bang in 1951, killing off many of Charles’ “much loved friend[s]”, or else, as with Waterloo Station or Somerset House, demoting them to second fiddle. Now sated, it lies brazenly on its side, curling around the Albert Embankment like a dragon.
The chief, too, because it’s the purest expression of postwar Modernism’s cultural program. This was the paternalist and sub-Fabian impulse towards a democratisation of the arts, which would be achieved in part through new venues like the Southbank. The generation that spearheaded this project (think, perhaps, of people like Kingsley Amis and Harold Wilson) still believed in some kind of cultural canon, though one that they were convinced was now exhausted and discredited. These things no longer really moved them, but it was thought that this stuff should probably be brought to the masses anyhow. There was an autumnal quality to their efforts; it was, as Flaubert put it, “practising virtue without believing in it”. It was the Modernism of the plate glass universities; the Open University; council housing blocks named after Shelley; the mandatory Schoenberg concert; the mandatory lecture on the Putney debates.
There was, then, always something wan about this project, which made it vulnerable to counterattack. The first great defeat was sustained in 1967, when St. Pancras Station was spared the wrecking ball. This marked the beginning of what became known as the heritage sector, which by the 1980s had developed ambitions not just to preserve vernacular buildings but to construct new ones. But in Britain, the backlash against modernism quickly transmuted into something else entirely. Brutalism wasn’t criticised as a style, but as an ethos. The real problem with Brutalism, it was said, was that it was hostile and imposing; it was not ‘human-scaled’. It did not lend itself to typical patterns of community life, nor did it exist in harmony with nature. In English architecture, the divide soon became: monumental modernism; cosy traditionalism.
It was a fateful concession. This wasn’t just a criticism of Brutalism, but of imposing construction writ large, which could be uniformly denounced as inhuman. The consequences of this were profound. For one, it caused architectural traditionalists to despair of the cities, where buildings tend to be big. Classical and Palladian styles could now only be deployed in the countryside, where life was walkable. It’s why traditionalists like Charles III have devoted their energies to building towns in the middle of nowhere rather than, say, knocking over Euston station and rebuilding its famous arch. As a result, there has never been a reconstruction of English city centres in the classical or vernacular styles, something that’s now a commonplace in continental Europe.
And it was always a hallucinated difference. Did Vanbrugh build to a friendly and human scale? For its own part, Brutalist architecture never set out to repel anyone. Its ethos was warmly communitarian. Part of the reason why post-war modernist housing could be so alienating was that it was deliberately built to engender shared and communal life at the expense of privacy. There was little place to escape. George Orwell could write that the symbol of English domestic living was the small fenced-off garden, but for tens of millions of people this was now beyond reach. Much of Brutalist housing succeeded only in recreating what had been so obnoxious about village life before enclosure. It’s not a surprise, then, that the modernist housing estate was the setting to a whole genre of English kitchen sink TV dramas, where nosy neighbours would never leave you alone.
Further, English traditionalism’s awe for the human-scaled has caused it to oppose any alternative vision of city life. A perfect example can be found in Canary Wharf, which was built in the Postmodern style – itself a reaction against Brutalism. The original slate of buildings there, with their borrowed Doric features and colonnades, achieve a classicism more profound than anything you’ll find in Poundbury. Nevertheless, Canary Wharf was lazily dismissed as yet another example of inhuman modern architecture. Taken on a tour of one of the new Docklands towers, the then-Prince of Wales asked: “Why does it need to be quite so high?”
In 2023, those who manage the Southbank Centre in all likelihood affect a disdain for Poundbury and the broader project that it represents. They have no right to. Visit the Southbank Centre today and you’ll find that they accepted all its premises long ago. Southbank Centre is now set up as a permanent carnival and village market, which always seems to be under construction. The site is littered with freestanding objects of all shapes and sizes: shipping containers, fairground rides, raised wooden porches, food trucks, heaps of scrap rebar. Oriflamme banners breathlessly announce coming attractions. Sculptures, such as the nest of jagged bamboo, are haphazardly dumped onto the ground. There always seems to be some kind of frantic set-piece activity going on: an outdoor dance class; a mini-concert; a graduation. The whole place seems to want to distract you.
But from what? The buildings. What the manic food court atmosphere shows is that the Southbank Centre has acquiesced to all of Charles III’s criticisms. It reflects a bad conscience within the Modernist tradition: that it went too far in its hostile remodelling of England’s cities, and can now only find atonement in humanising itself for the common man. This is to be achieved by turning all these buildings into walkable and human-scaled communal and leisure spaces. It is also to be achieved by blunting, adulterating and rounding out the buildings themselves. What were clean and austere facades have now been trimmed with bumblebee yellow paint, and pockmarked with restaurants. Glass pavilions have been built on the roof, and a glass annex – with yet more shops and restaurants – has been added to the side. Benches are everywhere, which are wavy, silly and deliberately counterposed against the centre’s buildings.
English architecture has now reached a consensus. That is: that there can be no escape from the madding crowd. Every public place is now to be transformed into a walkable, human-scaled sitting area-cum-playground. This is, again, an anti-monumental and anti-urban proposition. These buildings, these places, need to be humanised: the streets of the Square Mile have to be choked off by picnic sitting areas, and the old county hall has to be given over to the tender mercies of Shrek Adventure.
The great exception to this lies a few miles from the Southbank at the Barbican Estate. The Barbican has nobly resisted the food trucks and the bouncy castles. It’s another famous example of modernism, but its spirit belongs to the middle ages. It faces inward, like an Oxbridge college or a monastery. Like these places, there are plenty of cloisters, narrow passages, hidey-holes and secluded gardens. There are places to escape to. The Barbican’s design speaks to the Gothic origins of our freedoms: which in its truest sense is not so much the freedom to do certain things, but rather freedom from society’s ruling ideas. The Barbican Estate is built in the hope that there might be some place where we can find refuge from public opinion. If English architecture is to build places and cities worth living in again, then it must be willing to tell people to go away.