Celebratory demolition? The whole idea stinks
Sunday January 2, 2005
Here's a neat idea for a new television series. Let's get the public to nominate the six vilest books in the English language and in the grand finale, they get to burn them live on camera. No, we haven't come to that yet, but later this year, Channel 4 is offering us the next best thing. Demolition is a four-part series that promises as its climax the total destruction of a major piece of architecture. Or as Nick Kent, the executive producer, puts it: 'The final night of the series will see a spectacular celebratory demolition of one of the nation's nastiest eyesores.'
Whether or not the occupants will have been evacuated in advance, he does not say. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Stirling Prize that goes each year to Britain's best building, also broadcast on Channel 4, Demolition will be inviting nominations for what they call 'the vilest building in Britain'.
Each candidate 'will be judged by a panel of experts, according to its quality of construction, scale and aesthetics'. The viewers will vote for their least favourite, which then may - or more likely, given the logistics of blowing up MI6 or Sellafield, may not - get its coup de grace on time as prime as Channel 4 has to offer.
Now, of course, there are plenty of bad buildings out there and plenty of things that I would rather that Britain could see the back of. In London's Hyde Park alone, the Queen Mother's gates or the animal war memorial; practically anything designed by Broadway Malyan, responsible for the clump of monstrous apartment blocks opposite the Tate Britain.
But even in the era of such playground bullies as Jeremy Clarkson or charisma-free Paul Burrell and Janet Street-Porter in the jungle, Demolition is a series which stands out as a stinker of an idea. It is wretchedly ill-conceived TV programming. After the appalling vision of the Twin Towers reduced to rubble or the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, how can anybody find even a hint of the celebratory in watching a building erased from the world? To suggest that dynamite is the enlightened planner's best friend is to take us straight back to the mentality that produced so many of Britain's worst buildings in the first place. It is an offer of the quick-fix solution that is no solution.
Tear it down and build something new is the usual response of the unscrupulous politician in a hurry to make his mark, more interested to be seen to be decisive than in less photogenic, but more effective solutions to the problems of Britain's cities. There are already far too many examples of comprehensive development demolishing whole areas three times within a single lifetime.
Look at the Gorbals, whose tenements were described as vile in the 1960s when Glasgow City Council demolished them. The tower blocks that replaced them were blown up to cheers in the 1980s, and now there are already abandoned areas of two-storey housing in the city that were put up to replace the replacements.
Or look at London Wall. Depending on your taste, it was the greatest eyesore in the postwar rebuilding of London or the most impressive attempt at realising a modern grand plan, made up of a dozen glass slabs hoisted up on stilts in parallel rows on either side of a dual carriageway. Twenty years after the last of them was finished, they have all but vanished. Who can really claim that the swaggering, bulky replacements are an improvement? Tearing down buildings before their time is the ultimate in profligacy. Making buildings consumes precious resources and energy and we shouldn't just throw them away without a struggle to make them better.
Then there is the fickleness of taste. Time and again, we have seen that all it takes to turn an eyesore into priceless national heritage is the passing of sufficient time. What makes this whole business so curious is that Channel 4 promises us that Demolition carries the blessing of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
It owes its genesis to George Ferguson, the institute's publicity-crazed president with his silly season notion that attracted far too much attention last summer for X-listing buildings that he didn't care for. 'Vile buildings are an affront to our senses,' claims this sensitive soul. In a masterpiece of Orwellian double-speak, he claims: 'Demolition is about planning for a better future.'
Concentrating on encouraging the building of good new architecture might be a more productive, and certainly more dignified use of his energy. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
I for one will certainly be scanning the back catalogue of Ferguson's firm, Ferguson Mann, with more interest.