Quinlan Terry and Richard Rogers:
FROM Brentwood Cathedral TO the Lloyds Building
- CLASSICAL OR NOT?
The abiding impression of Brentwood is of a humble, not very consistent building, with some disturbing anomalies, yet with one foot in heaven. Walking away from it in the autumn sunlight, I was not sure I would risk it in the architectural boxing-ring with something like the Lloyds Building: it was too English in its cheerful improvisations, not robust enough in style. Yet although its classical assertions looked likely to evaporate as one's modern X-ray vision thought of steel roof-structures within, it enclosed a space which has a sense of permanence, and a real engagement with the users, at both a practical and spiritual level.
Brentwood Cathedral - Main Entrance Soon after, I went for a brief visit to its ideological rival in London. Only the exterior of the Lloyds Building is open to view. Perhaps, like the Pompidou Centre, the exterior is the main draw. I approached it in the gathering gloom of a rainy November afternoon. It presented a spectacle of tiny lights, of movement in and out, up and down, of emerging concrete pillars with chunky connections rising to great heights, of cliffs of obscured-glass windows, linked by slender networks of tensioned steel around the frames. It had scale and grandeur, but felt forbidding, excluding to the outsider, indicating a private world of great power. It had a strong sense of place: it was somewhere, rather than nowhere; one felt overshadowed by a presence.
With its external lifts rising and falling, in which tiny figures can be seen, depositing themselves on different floors, the strongest sense the building gives is of a gigantic, futuristic machine. It is as if some quite unbelievable film has come to life, and people really have become robots. In scale it is like a rocket-gantry, big enough for its world completely to fill the view, at close-quarters, and to become the world. Entrances and ramps on all sides seem designed to attract (the privileged) in, to draw them into the process. Organisation had come alive. People had become its bloodstream.
After the initial impression, I stood under the opening of the adjacent covered Leadenhall Market, and tried to recover myself. Who was I in relation to this concrete, glass and steel hive? Was I myself a bee or a man? Yet why was it so magnetic, if I had no wish to be part of it? What sort of creation could have this power?
Another Kind of Power: the Lloyds Building
Trying to think soberly about it, the Lloyds Building's most obvious feature is that it is inside out. Like the Pompidou Centre, it wears its innards on the outside. Its intestines, lungs and other organs are displayed outside the skin, which encloses a clear space inside. One could liken it, at least structurally, to Gothic cathedrals, which sometimes have a forest of buttresses outside and have their main public face, the clear planes of the choir clerestory, inside. Rogers has made much of the structure visible, and the sense of being able to experience the thrusts and tensions which uphold this vast building contribute to the visual drama. But it differs from a Gothic building in a significant respect. With a mediaeval cathedral, you know where the boundaries are. You know where the outside ends and the inside begins. The buttresses support clear walls. The Rogers building is a mass of interpenetrating elements with no clear plane for the wall. One feels simultaneously inside, involved with all these elements of pipe, window, lift and stairway, and outside. You do not have the choice, as with most buildings, to stay strictly outside. Here, as you watch lifts rise and fall, and follow ramps entering and emerging with your eye, you feel drawn into involvement.
The inside-outness has certain powerful consequences. The least expected one, even when one has seen the Pompidou Centre, is that it is strangely accommodating to the buildings, old and new, around it. We read that Rogers took great care with the street elevations. That is hard to judge, because there is nothing discernably picturesque in the composition. What seems as significant, is that a facadeless building offers no competition to the surrounding edifices. It is more like another order of being, a tree, which likewise has masses and depths, with no clear outline, complementing the definiteness of 'normal' buildings with its soft edges. Paradoxically, given its immense displays of strength, the Lloyds Building is feminine and receptive, with some of the qualities of nature. We 'read' it differently to the neo-Georgian, not to say neo-Egyptian, blocks surrounding.
This 'feminine receptiveness' may also account for its fascination, its drawing-in quality. There is little for the eye to bounce off, much to take it inwards. At the same time, its indefiniteness of outline and boundary seems to give it strong symbolic power. Today, we have become uneasy with boundaries and distinctions. 'Black and white' has become a nostalgic term. Our generation discriminates between shades of grey. Morality, we believe, even truth, has nothing definite about it, nothing that cannot be contradicted by a 'higher truth'. We feel at home with fuzziness: true and false, right and wrong, have an old-fashioned air. This building makes a powerful image for the new state of mind. It appeals as an artistic expression of the background hum in our society. By articulating it publicly, and giving it solid form, it begins to reinforce consciousness of it, and even to legitimise it.
If this makes it sound like an ancient idol, that is probably not accidental. Just as in old times, when religions would have continued without being embodied in images, but the idols had the power to 'make real' the existence of their god, so today, images affect the mind. They captivate, they make an idea tangible which then furthers its reality. The Lloyds Building has a particular idol quality. Having no facade, it has no face. Like an idol mask, it sees, but cannot be seen. Unlike other things in creation, you cannot look at it, weigh it up, address it, exercise the dominion of being able to call it by its name. Instead it draws you in. It exercises its presence, without us being able to call it to account. This amounts to a kind of hiddenness, which prevents it being seen for what it is. The power, therefore, is on its side, not ours.
The lack of facade may have another significance, as well. The conventional style of building (like the previous Lloyds building, whose detached facade has been incorporated, like a museum exhibit, in the scheme) is much more expressive of institutions as bodies with a public face. The facades of institutional buildings symbolised their address towards society, and society's towards them. Having a facade acknowledged that there is such a thing as public and private, private exercise of public responsibilities. Rogers clearly sees institutions much more at the minimalist level of process.
Behind the Facadeless, What?
Reading an account of the genesis of the building, it is clear that immense pains were taken to plan for all the practical (and some symbolic) needs of the client. Great care was taken to organise the physical transition from old building to new, as well as to plan ahead for any changing needs. But when we look at the finished result, this care takes on some of the aspect of a surgeon operating on a body. The surgeon is involved in a technical operation. His immediate concern is not with the totality of the person, merely with helping the parts to work together properly so that the person can forget about their body and attend to something else. The surgeon is not concerned with ultimate meanings and purposes, the person's place in the world and in society. This style of architecture likewise concerns itself with means rather than ends. That is an oversimplification, because, as we have seen, Rogers' work also conveys something of the philosophy of society as a whole. He is a real architect, and is interested in symbolic images. But one of his strongest images is that of process. His view of man does not seem to extend beyond the material, or higher than the evolutionary, biological conception. Hence the dominance of process in his building: humankind by contrast seems so small.
So there we have the paradox of the Lloyds Building. It is appealing, but appealing in so far as it reduces us. We seem to have a fascination with ungodly power, seeing freedom in domination, finding ourselves in diminution. We have to keep reminding ourselves that for those who do not know God, the play of process and impersonal forces provides security. At least something is doing something to me. Some may try to ride the waves, some will let them crash, some will find their safety inside a machine. A building like this embodies a sense of impersonal force: and so strongly embraces it that it seems to make it into a source of strength.
The Adjudication: Choosing Your Style
Now we have looked at both buildings, and formed some judgments on them, we may feel that we have done all that is necessary to make a comparison of the pro- and anti-classical. But we still have to decide the issue which lies behind the polemic. 'Ought' we to be building like this? Is Terry or is Rogers 'right'? And because these questions still seem so foreign in architecture, we have to ask how it is we get into asking them.
Architecture is a public art. People have little choice whether they see it or not: therefore attitudes to the public are part of its moral background. Architects can hardly use the excuse offered by the television companies: 'if you don't like it, switch it off'. They have a public responsibility to choose for the public, which they cannot push onto the patron or public itself. They are the ones with the gift for expressive design, for public statement. So if they knowingly go against what people will like, they cannot plead 'self-expression'. They must appeal to external criteria.
Building is not a thing on its own, but is involved in the network of obligations and right dealing between different sections of society. We recognise social obligations in matters of safety. But in matters of style we are also brought to use the work 'ought'. What is the obligation here? At the heart of the architectural polemic is the social obligation of truth, of truth-telling between neighbours.
Architecture as Art and Truth?
Stated abstractly, most architects would doubtless feel very awkward if told that their art had anything to do with truth. But truth, as the basic currency of social obligation, is as recognisable in the dumb art of architecture as it is (by its absence) in the politician's speech, or the advertiser's copy. This is clearly demonstrated in Maxwell Hutchinson's riposte to Prince Charles' A Vision of Britain, his book The Prince of Wales, Right or Wrong?1 Hutchinson criticises a style of architecture which he believes has developed out of the Prince's populist espousal of the neo-classical cause: a sort of planner's classical. He believes he has seen many examples of developers and architects cynically applying classical motifs to their otherwise indifferent buildings, in order to ease planning consent. Their use of ornament, he thinks, has no artistic integrity, but is merely a sign-language to get the nod of offical approval. Why does this arouse his anger? Because it is a form of confidence trick, in which people are given the appearance of quality without its substance. Motivation shows all too clearly to the trained eye. Trust has been broken, and advantage taken of people's ignorance.
Cynicism is certainly not the problem with Terry and Rogers. Both clearly believe in what they are doing, and have both fought (and lost) many battles in order to maintain artistic integrity. But truth in a wider sense is still the issue in the argument between Terry's style and that of Rogers. It crystallises on the question of time or period. How should we build for now? Genuineness extends to being true to the present day. For Rogers, the classical revival represents a refusal to acknowledge the present, an attempt to drag the public down an escapist time-tunnel. For Terry, with his Christian understanding, the present time has to be subjected to what is timeless, and he sees no sense in pandering to what will only pass. For him, tradition is a route to what is enduring. One stresses evolution, the other the eternal. But for both, the issue is truth. Each would see the other (though I have not seen this stated) as cheating society out of its rightful truth: either the recognition of the present age, or the acknowledgement of values that last.
Truth to Time
Truth to time is one of the main foundations of the modern movement. As a belief, it has not died, but is urged with passion by such as Rogers and Hutchinson. We, who as Christians know that God creates each moment, have an interest in time. Is there something here on which to be truthful?
When we look at the early history of the modern movement, we find the foundational concern was not with time as such: it was with artistic integrity. Architects had not been saying what they knew. The objection made by modernists to much Victorian architecture (almost all of it, in fact, except the railway stations) was that it said one thing and meant another. It said 'Venice', but meant Birmingham, it spoke craftsmanship and mediaeval artistic freedom - but meant mass production and industrial slavery. Modernists found more integrity in the famed Crystal Palace, which said, and meant, 'factory made'. It did not try to give the impression of a world which was lost.
In post-Marxist retrospect, we are aware that the means of production is not the only, or even the chief truth of a society, and that to try to invent an architecture which is an expression of that alone is to create a far worse kind of untruth than ever the Victorians perpetrated. Their lack of integrity seems a pleasing foible beside the 'truth' of those modern idealists who had nothing very important to be true about. But although much harm was done by trying to turn these negative reactions into a creative system, the initial critical impulse was valid. There is such a thing as artistic integrity. It is not reducible to laws, but it is discernible.
'Time', then, has some importance for artistic integrity. The architect has to know what he or she is doing in relation to it. When we compare the buildings of Terry and Rogers, two aspects of time seem especially important. One is 'philosophical', the way society is thinking at any one time. The other is its level of technological advance. In respect of both these, architects must make choices.
Time and Thought
In the 'philosophical' aspect of integrity, as we have seen, Rogers has certain advantages. He is artistically articulate (perhaps his Italian blood and upbringing helps), and has the gift of expressing not only his own being but also, at quite a deep level, that of our time in his work.
(The language of Rogers' architecture) 'is a web of apparent sense cast over a real void. As such it would seem to represent the outer margin of subjectivity left to the artist after the collapse of first a transcendental synthesis and then a cultural one. Bereft of a catalogue of meanings he produces art as self-consistent as he can make it and in celebration of transience, process and the discontinuity of urban experience. For some artists similar choices have been born of pessimism and despair, for Rogers they are born of liberated delight. With Lloyd's he has attempted to rediscover his roots in the Renaissance as they were first explained to him on Nino's walks around Florence. The clarity of Brunelleschi is evoked and all the pure light of the new humanism which was to begin the long process of the destruction of the foundations of religion. From the rationalism of that tradition comes the certainty of the Lloyd's plan while from its humanism comes its exterior with its celebration of the perpetually unresolved, the eternal becoming, the provisional self. Lloyd's is a great building produced by a man on a humanist tightrope....'2
The Lloyds Building is true art, in that it 'lives' over and beyond Rogers the man, but it has the purity of being true to the people who made it. Terry, by contrast, has less finesse at the expressive level. He is perhaps more of a builder and less of an artist. His personality also does not express itself in direct ways: it is as if the route from heart to head has broken bridges. We wonder sometimes if we see the man or the mask. And yet, as we have seen, his building is surprisingly contemporary in its provision for worship. Spiritually he is right up to date, and this is expressed not as cold logistics, but in a whole form which seems utterly 'given'.
The Technological Aspect of Artistic Truth
The technological aspect of artistic truth at first sight looks simpler to assess, but it is in some ways more complicated. It is not as easy as it seems to describe the technological level of a society, given great diversities of wealth and knowledge; and also much depends on our own consciousness. The argument between Rogers and Terry does not emerge as expected.
First, let us describe the issue. Technology affects meaning. A brick building in the Georgian style, with wooden sash windows, in the eighteenth century, is an 'ordinary building'. A building built like that today represents deliberate choice. It 'means' something different. Further, if we build what appears to be a Georgian building, but with modern structures and materials, that means something different again. To take an extreme example: if Stonehenge was replaced by reconstituted stone, and placed by helicopter, even if identical, its meaning would have altered. For it to look right, we need to know that its stones have been dragged there, we know not how. I find that when I see a church spire that has been recast in fibreglass and deposited by crane, I cannot respond as I would to its original. It seems an ornament placed downwards, not a pointer raised heavenwards.
Without being too rule-bound, there must be some correspondence between a building's apparent structure and its real structure, or it will feel like a replica. If it is built entirely without modern materials, it is also likely to feel like a replica. Its meaning will be 'museum-piece', not 'live building'. Rogers would extend this minimal principle to say that a natural building will employ the latest technology. To do anything less is to make a conservative statement. For him, ignoring technological development is without purpose or value.
Richard Rogers, in the Foreword to Maxwell Hutchinson's book:
'One need only look at the world from the perspective of a spacecraft - an impossibility thirty years ago - to realise that a global revolution is taking place. The world has changed from a small number of relatively isolated communities, to a finite industrialised place. Its surface is covered by an infinitely complex information network; it is becoming an artefact, a global village. The miracle of science is all around us. We have two options, either to ignore the tide of progress and to look for support in nostalgic traditions and images of the past, or to face up to the global revolution and to build upon the developments of the past to make society fit for tomorrow' (1989).3
Rogers is fascinated with High-Tech, and moves in High-Tech circles. To him, that is the way the world is going. If he was a Christian, and moved in Christian circles, he would no doubt believe that that is the way the world is going! Although there is much truth in what he says, the world is in a state of economic imbalance, and high technology is by no means relevant to all. For some, intermediate technology is appropriate, for the majority, primitive technology. Technology in the Western sense is a luxury item. That may not seem of importance to us here in Great Britain, where the technological surge sweeps us all along. But even here, the picture is complex. The Lloyds Building has to be frequently cleaned to maintain its 'modern' shine. Wind, rain and dirt have not modernised. It remains to be seen whether it was wise to have exposed so much pipework to it. I hear that the Pompidou Centre, so striking when pristine, now looks shabby. When we consider the increasing pressure on resources, of which High Tech often makes extravagant use, the 'technological vision' may soon seem antiquated. Therefore it is somewhat arbitrary to decide which style of architecture is more in keeping with our age. What our age should be doing in use of materials is at least debatable.
Terry's Classicism and Technology
How do we judge Terry's classicism in relation to technology? Probably that question should be asked in 200 years! Terry is well known as an advocate of durability and conservation (with such revolutionary principles as using windows for light). But I think it does complicate matters that the Roman style was invented in a different technological era. A modern building has more of a factory-made aspect, one is more aware of assembled components rather than of something built as a whole. (We must not sentimentalise here. Many earlier architectures used handcrafted components made off site.) Some modern materials jar. Reconstituted stone gives a different sense of support from that of the real thing. But then I am glad there is not a new hole in some mountain for Brentwood to be built. What we cannot do is to preclude the classical style on the basis of technology. The purpose of techniques and tools is to increase our options, not limit them. It is a completely false argument to make technology the master, and not the servant. In that sense, Terry has technology in its place, behind the artistic and the spiritual.
Truth and Meaning of the Visible World
As Christians there is one further aspect of artistic truth to concern us. So far we have seen artistic integrity as potentially linking the artist's inner being with the outer world of the present age, in one unbroken line. We have judged Rogers an articulate artist for this age, expressing our own particular time-bubble, but with some question as to how the technicism will date. But we are aware of a deeper dimension to reality than how the world sees itself. We believe that there is such a thing as truth about the world in general, and we want the artist to be true to that. A building which is not true to the world in itself will never assimilate to it, let alone add to it, however much wonder it arouses in its own era.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul gives the key to the meaning of the visible world:
'For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse' (Romans 1:21, NIV).
Creation, in its totality, is a true witness to God - so much so, that if we cannot see it, the fault is all on our side. The world made by humankind (in Rogers' terms, the world becoming 'an artefact, a global village') obviously has a responsibility laid on it. Shall our own works speak of God? Shall our urban environment be a shelter from the truth of God? Shall our surroundings tell a different story, to the eternal power and deity of God?
Obviously such a responsibility needs thinking about in depth. At the symbolic level, church spires, and the old skyline of London, remind of God, and we should not underrate the importance of such images. It may be time to be less coy about giving God His public due. But the Scripture is talking not of clear symbolism but of ordinary nature. We need to think of an architecture which, on the one hand, enhances nature, frames it, brings us into it, and helps us see its glories. On the other hand it must itself be consonant with it, not providing an alternative spiritual environment. We are not looking for buildings which imitate nature - they have to be true to the creation of humankind as well - but they need to embody some of its principles.
Two criteria for aligning architecture with nature stand out. Creation is personal: it appeals to us as persons, its making has the personal touch; and creation is created, it is complete, fully made, not ambiguous. It has a freedom and self-sufficiency. Buildings will need to have this character to be 'like' creation. To be 'suited to' creation they will also need to recognise our character as persons, made in God's image, and to accept rather than deny the created character of what is already there. How do we see the Lloyds Building and Brentwood from these perspectives? What external truths do they embody?
What External Truths do Brentwood and Lloyds embody?
First, let us think of personhood. In one respect, Rogers recognises us as persons in a way rare among architects. He gives us a visually-wrought experience which touches our beings. But when we think of what that experience is, we doubt whether humankind, made in the Image of God, is the personhood he has in view. There is a much stronger sense of people as robots, ruled by events or economic forces, or, as the Bible says, in bondage to 'the elemental spirits of this world'. This view of humankind is appealing, especially as it appears to absolve us of responsibility, but it is not true - and most people, perhaps all people, know it. Terry's building, by contrast, is, as we have seen, less articulately personal, but in the objective sense it respects the totality of human nature. Our spiritual natures, our aesthetic beings, and our bodies are all recognised, and to some extent satisfied.
As an object responding to, or denying Creation, the Lloyds Building also has its ambiguities. In one way, it is a great tectonic drama, of stress, support and tension, that amply respects the physicality of the world. It is not like those modern boxes that seem to float, and to belong to a different universe. In that sense, it is rooted in, and does not deny nature. But in another respect, it contradicts it. Like the Pompidou Centre, it embodies a theme of process, of being extendable (though to a lesser extent). It could end here, but it need not. In nature things grow, but at every stage they are complete in themselves. This sense of a work hovering in a state of incompletion is profoundly unnatural. It stops things settling. It stops them fully being. It ties them to their human maker. This process style lends itself strongly to the making of a human-made, human-referring environment. It obscures the contingent sense of nature as finished creation. Our modern cities are full of it.
We should also mention, as unnatural, the 'inside-out' style. We have seen its advantages in relation to other buildings. But is this relationship, or a kind of self-denial, of non-being? Faces and bodies seem to be part of God's plan for relationship. Even trees and plants have outsides and insides. You can address a face, as God addressed Creation, but you cannot address someone's insides! In some way, Rogers here seems to be turning his back on created reality and personhood. I think we enjoy the experiment. But we would not have it held up as the standard.
Where does this leave us? Certainly not with a sense of Rogers contriving anything untrue. It is we who have to make the judgment. He has been true to his own vision. But seen soberly, great work that it is, the Lloyds Building is offbeat, experimental. To be sure it is powerful, it takes us into its spell and says, 'This is the way the world is, believe it'. No doubt if Rogers had his way, the world would soon be a little more like that! But when we escape from the attraction of the idea, we find we need to centre again. Then we may admit that the building is in fact ugly. In the longterm, it is untrue.
Terry's little cathedral, by contrast, has a self-validating quality. It rests and remains. It is part of the beauty of the world. It does not need attending to. It is not peculiar, outrageous or strange - something to keep drawing us back. It is something whose presence we can rest content with, knowing that an appropriate job has been done. Both buildings, in their way, suit place, people and faith. But we find more of a resting point with Brentwood, for its faith is set to endure.
1. Maxwell Hutchinson, The Prince of Wales, Right or Wrong? An Architect Replies, Faber, 1989.
2. Bryan Appleyard, Richard Rogers, A biography, Faber, 1986, p.275.
3. Hutchinson, ibid., p.xi.
Extract from 'Quinlan Terry and Richard Rogers: a Comparison', ACPA Newsletter No. 21, Autumn 1991
Lloyds Building, rear, from Leadenhall Market