ADS1: REPETITION: Georgian Brutalism

Tutors: Douglas Murphy & Andrea Zanderigo

By the time this academic year is over, Britain may well look very different. The UK is due to leave the European Union on 19 March 2019, cutting its ties and sailing off into the Atlantic. Economically, cracks are already appearing in the built environment – property prices are beginning to fall, developers are getting restless and it is not unthinkable that a collapse comparable to, or even worse than, the Great Recession of 2008 is about to be set off.

The decade since the Great Recession has seen the popular emergence of a new architectural seriousness that draws heavily on both stylistic and urban precedents. The ordered, thin-brick skinned terraces of the ‘New London Vernacular’ have seemingly become a dogma in the development of the capital city, pleasing planners, clients, buyers, the public and critics alike. But is this the architecture of a sophisticated generation of designers comfortable with their place in history? Or is it the architecture of austerity nostalgia, of the housing crisis, rough sleeping and food banks, the long-running British talent for aesthetic hypocrisy?

L: John Nash, Park Crescent, 1806-21, R: Alison & Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, 1968-72
L: John Nash, Park Crescent, 1806-21, R: Alison & Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, 1968-72

According to its promoters, the New London Vernacular is ostensibly derived from Georgian architecture. Both the executives who volume-build developer dross and the high-end architectural re-interpreters of this past argue that the public loves the order and decorum of these facades, together with the uniformity and nobility of the environment it creates. It is unassuming and aspirational at the same time. Everyone seems to love this stage-set world – from Jane Jacobs fans with recipes for thriving street-life, to right-wing extremists who want to cleanse the city of all public housing.

But is this really what the Georgian is about? Or can we look back with more disenchanted eyes at: its parochial classicism; its relationships of buildings, streets and enclosed nature; its typological diversity; and the obsession with order that occasionally bursts forth into madness? What is there to be learnt from considering the busy abstraction of John Nash’s stucco against the worship of earthen bricks? Or from the dour repetitions and psychedelic interiors, obsession with order and pursuit of pleasure?

L: John Nash, Carlton House Terrace, 1827–32; R: James Stirling, Southgate, 1967–77
L: John Nash, Carlton House Terrace, 1827–32; R: James Stirling, Southgate, 1967–77

The century that created Georgian architecture was the period in which England became the first industrialised country in the world, when architecture first emerged as a profession and large-scale speculative development became a major force in creating city form. It was a period when London grew rich on trade, empire and slavery, setting the scene for the Victorian explosions of the late-nineteenth century. Intellectually, the clockwork precision of the Enlightenment ran alongside the ruin-worship of Romanticism, the field of political economy was born, and the American and French revolutions inspired and horrified in equal measure.

When discussing their design of Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, Peter and Alison Smithson suggested they were merely repeating the urban form of Gray’s Inn Fields. ADS1 will take the Smithsons at their word in order to shed light on the strangeness of Georgian architecture through the comparison with a superficially distant, but strangely similar, architectural period – the post-war modernism now widely known as Brutalism. Both periods saw rapid social and economic change, with the production of vast quantities of dwellings. Both transformed city form and offered a vision of political order. Both displayed great optimism, while being in thrall to melancholy vision. And both sought new forms of repetition as a compositional technique. But where Georgian grew toward the long Victorian period, the Brutalist period was subject to a vicious reaction by the public and still continues to provoke anger to this day. We will consider the architectural value of this condemnation.

Methodologically, in 2018–19 ADS1 will continue to aim for an architecture where material form and political content are intrinsically united in the project. We believe the social, political and economic realities of a culture can be read through their buildings and that a materialist approach to design is the strongest. We believe that a powerful way to look into the future is to study the past in molecular detail – close-readings of architectural history are a vehicle through which to achieve this. We believe the core problems of the present can be discerned in the differing solutions of the past.

Everything that is made in the studio is a form of construction – from sketches to models, photographs to furniture. We will work at large-scale throughout the year, creating stand-alone artefacts that embody the research and argumentation of the project. We will begin with a period of creative analysis in which we will develop a collective ‘library’ of forms and ideas, which relate to the theme of the studio. Using this library as a point of departure and source of inspiration, the students will use careful drawing, model making, tectonic experiment and political speculation to develop new visions of the city. The outcome will be architecturally and conceptually sophisticated projects that have been worked out in consummate detail.


Tutors

Douglas Murphy is one of the foremost voices in architecture in the UK. Author of Nincompoopolis, Last Futures, and The Architecture of Failure, and a regular contributor to publications such as The Guardian and the Architectural Review, his work combines architectural practice, writing and broadcasting, and academia. He has been a tutor at the RCA since 2016.

Andrea Zanderigo is a partner at Baukuh. He studied architecture at IUAV in Venice, where he graduated with honours. In 2002–04 he was teaching assistant at IUAV for Stefano Boeri and a Visiting Professor at PUSA in Aleppo (Syria) from 2006–7. Since 2009 he has taught continuously along with Kersten Geers at various universities, including Mendrisio Accademia, TU Graz, Columbia University and EPFL. In 2010 Zanderigo founded the magazine San Rocco with a group of architects, graphic designers and photographers.