Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Trouble in Utopia

Last night, between 11 pm and midnight, I watched the TV programme unfold. It was eerie to hear the words of the late Robert Hughes, remembering them as if he had spoken the day before and not three decades earlier. The shock that was new then still resonates today. Since, I have read much and written much more about the International Style and the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, the Villa Savoie and the Unite d’Habitation. Maybe I have read the wrong books, but I have never since read a word about the architectural embarrassment that was La Defense. Little did I understand then of Hughes’s courage in airing the subject. The sight of those candy-coloured towers and the plight of those people staring out at the dismal concrete spaces in between, are still as moving now as they were then. If I remember, the dog whimpered and ran under the table. My late father covered his head with his hands and muttered an imprecation. Uncharacteristically, I silently thanked the Above (for the first and only time) for my having grown up in a “normal” suburban house. That sentiment didn’t last, but I have never forgotten the lesson learned; the difference between “stunning architecture” and basic, good housing. Since then, I have written much on the consequences of planners neglecting to turn space into place. I have lampooned the notion of building-as-lifestyle, the theme park, and the danger of erecting a habitation to express ideas rather than serve human needs. You can take man from the organic, but you can’t take the organic from the man. All this could not help the residents of La Defense, of course. I have every respect for Robert Hughes but as The Shock of the New drew to a close, then as now I felt regret that he didn’t talk to, didn’t talk onscreen to at least one of the humans caught in that modernist nightmare.

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