Monday, 1 June 2009

Admit it! We can't afford excellent buildings

Freddie Cohen confuses me. He talks the talk about wanting architectural excellence for Jersey, but, when it comes down to it, he both approves glass and concrete monstrosities for landmark sites and turns down the chance to get a Quinlan Terry neo-classical masterpiece on another one.

To be honest, Jersey does not have a very deep tradition of fine architecture to draw on, anyway. Victoria College, St Thomas’s Church, a few 1,1,(k) mansions and that is about it. I am not saying that there is not a good deal of historical interest in our other principal buildings, but they lack the combination of artistic magnificence and engineering excellence that makes great architecture great.

Walking around central London on holiday last week, I was able to look up and around at the splendour of so many of the buildings there, and appreciate it in a way I could never spare the attention to, when I used to drive around there years ago. In particular, many of the big Nineteenth Century buildings make the more recent stuff rising around them look somewhat shoddy.

Of course, 19th Century building styles reflected both a wealth that is now sadly behind us, and a degree of social inequality that is sadly threatening to creep back. The packed rows of cramped two-up-two-down terraced cottages in London’s back streets are no better than those in St Helier, and for the same reason; they were built to rent to the people who did not matter. However, when it came to building for the collective public, rather than its individual members, a different ethos used to prevail. The Natural History Museum, The Houses of Parliament, The War Office, even the main theatres have a harmonious fractal quality of well proportioned structures composed of neat and pleasing sub-units down to fine detailing. These are deliberately impressive structures glorying in the abilities to both afford and build them, and successfully meant to serve the following generations for centuries to come. Even the old County Hall, from the lean years following the First Wold War, was built both sturdily and with a visual presence. Although it has outlived its original purpose, the excellence of its structure continues to provide premises to a variety of tourist enterprises; hotels, exhibitions, shows and restaurants.

In the bankrupt turmoil of the Twenty-first Century, the labour-intensive beauty of Gothic architecture is an indefensible extravagance for public buildings. With money tight, down-to-a-price has to be the general principle, not up-to-a-standard, although, for buildings whose purpose is likely to endure for centuries, such as schools, it may be a false economy not to build similarly enduring structures, using proven classic techniques and materials.

If excellence cannot be on the menu, however, perhaps we should have no empty boasting about the supposed quality of our built environment. A sober admission, that times are hard and this is all that we can have, would be more appropriate.

Back with a Plug

I have been taking a few days away from Jersey for a family break in London. Although my wife and I have both spent enough time there to get sick of the place in bygone years, our children had never seen it. We all found that a few days taking a tourist’s eye view of the place was very agreeable indeed. I also found that coming back from a few days in radically different surroundings has given me a fresh perspective on my usual ones, which I can mine for blog material.

Firstly, though, a recommendation: If you want a comfortable, friendly hotel in easy reach of all the major attractions, the Premier Inn in the North-East corner of the old County Hall delivers on its promises of a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast, and moreover is better than some at putting staff with personal charm into customer contact roles.