It looks like a fortress and has gun-slits for windows. Is Cambridge's new court a symptom of terror-blighted Britain? By Jonathan Glancey
Monday April 12, 2004
With more than 130,000 troops and 22,000 boats amassed at Boulogne, Napoleon's invasion of England had seemed a real possibility. In response, Pitt's government rushed ahead with the construction of a chain of defensive towers stationed along the south and east coasts. Work on these solid brick circular gun emplacements began in 1805 and was completed, at great cost and to much derision, three years later. As the fortunes of war would have it, almost as soon as the first of millions of yellow London stock bricks was laid, Nelson trounced the French navy at Trafalgar and, by 1808, Napoleon's Grande ArmÃ©e had other wars to fight. The invasion of England was off.
Many of these 74 Martello towers remain, converted into harmless homes or tourist attractions. Yet what they stood for - the protection of the realm in time of international crisis - has echoed down through the design of buildings to the present day.
Here, for example, is the brand new Cambridge Crown Court. It opens later this spring, and looks, for all the world, like a Martello tower brought up to date. Commissioned little more than a year ago, this PFI-funded project, designed by Austin-Smith:Lord, would surely have won the applause of Pitt and the army's engineers. With what look to be solid brick walls, a circular plan and gun-slits for windows, the Crown Court is a creation very much of our times.
Here is a building that speaks of our collective paranoia in an age of real or feared attack. In terror-blighted 2004, it stands as a bulwark against the forces of destruction and disorder. Approaching along the circuit of roads the courthouse crowns, you cannot see the tall glazed entrance lobby and big windows, which face away from where parked cars and vans might spell explosive trouble.
Can we detect, in this fort-like building, a new generation of British architecture, informed by questions of public safety? It is true to say that concern for security is a factor in encouraging the move away from central London by government departments and agencies. If you discount guided missiles or hijacked airliners, out-of-town headquarters situated in US-style business parks or university-style campuses may be safer than those in city centres.
It is fascinating to see these concerns translated into architectural styles: unselfconsciously, as in the Cambridge Crown Court; and flamboyantly, like the mock castles built at the time of the Napoleonic wars, or the concrete bunkers built during the cold war.
During times of war, real or feared, new forms of forts and castles have been built. Late Georgian and Regency England was a time of gimcrack castle building. Most of these pseudo-fortifications were nothing more than decorative fancies, stock brick and stucco villas dressed in ersatz military garb. Toy-like turrets, pastry-cutter castellations, fake drawbridges and useless arrow slits were part and parcel of their design. Such castles looked back to the mythical age of medieval chivalry and were the less-than-solid foundations of the impending Gothic revival that was to change the facade of British architecture in the 19th century. But they were also an architectural shadow of a Britain at war and fearful of invasion.
At the height of the cold war, buildings such as the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank were designed like nuclear bunkers, although above rather than below ground. This muscular concrete style, labelled brutalism by the critic Reyner Banham, was partly rooted in a number of architects' experience of the second world war, and partly in the culture of fear nurtured by the cold war. Architects and architectural students landing in Normandy from D-Day onwards have spoken of their fascination with the design of the concrete forts and gun emplacements, built by the Todt organisation and overseen by field marshal Rommel, that lined the coast of north-west France. These structures were brutally functional, and yet they had a certain sense of style, several recalling the work of the brilliant German expressionist architect, Erich Mendelsohn.
Back in Britain, they became part of the story of brutalism in an age that saw the Soviet Union translated from allies to aggressors. In certain lights, the Hayward Gallery appears to be the architectural apogee of cold war bunker culture, and yet it is, and always was, just a harmless art gallery. On a practical level, its thick concrete walls were intended to shut out the noise and vibration not of Soviet ICBMs, but of the Fairey Rotodynes (helicopter-airliner hybrids) that were to have thwop-thwopped their way to the continent from a rooftop airport at Waterloo. On an imaginative level, however, the Hayward's fortress-like bulk was a response to paranoid cold war culture.
More recently, the brutally ugly and hugely expensive Portcullis House, home to MPs across the street from the Palace of Westminster, has been built as what looks to be a symbol of parliamentary detachment from everyday life, of increasingly secretive government, and as a bastion against terrorist attack. Its name says everything about this White Tower of our times. The Cambridge Crown Court takes the defensive theme and style a stage further.
In the City of London, an obvious target for terrorist attacks, most new buildings are not citadels of brick, concrete and stone, but towers of glass. These might be seen as two fingers up to terrorism, although in reality, they are the product of brute economics. At least one, though, looks as if it might be ready to lead the fight back against invaders: Foster and Partners' 30 St Mary Axe, which opens shortly after Easter, resembles one of Werner von Braun's V2 rockets.
In the end, only wise diplomacy will make our buildings and the lives we lead in them safe. No amount of concrete can ultimately protect us from the will of spiteful destroyers. Until we learn wise governance, however, we may well see Britain filled with aggressively defensive buildings, and for this to become a national style - as it did with their predecessors 200 years ago.
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