A new book celebrating England’s postwar buildings has given our Design editor a fresh appreciation of some modernist and brutalist beauties.
Hindsight is a luxury, we’re often told. But a new book hit my desk this month which shows that budding architects needn’t delve too far into the UK’s past for optimism or inspiration. England’s Post-War Listed Buildings, published this autumn by UK imprint Batsford, is a lush compendium of buildings that highlight the variety and creativity (and at times downright daftness) of the often-decried architecture of the late 20th century. Between the covers you’ll see everything from a toast-rack-like university building in Manchester to a flying-saucer-shaped garage via swirling water-towers, arched bus-stations, jutting factories and boxy housing complexes.
As the pages tumble past a broader picture emerges from these disparate constructions, one of confidence and originality. It’s a fearless procession of previously unheeded or ignored materials, finishes, shapes and structures that silently pepper otherwise unassuming towns and fields. Surveying more than 650 buildings, 70-plus monuments and a handful of telephone kiosks, the book offers a fascinating collection – and crucially a united vision – of a misunderstood but prolific generation of creators and their creations.
What’s more impressive is that authors Elain Harwood and James O Davies have looked beyond the absurdity and shabbiness of some of the book’s outliers and seen this genre of buildings for their collective value. It’s a treasure trove for young architects looking for ideas. Socially the postwar years were a time of seismic change in the UK. Prosperity waxed and waned, the provision of the welfare state signalled optimism – and free spectacles – for all. And quietly a generation of architects sought to express this in a panoply of futuristic, forward-looking designs.
The book’s release is made all the more timely by the renewed popularity of some once-reviled buildings. When they were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick towers in London inspired such ire that James Bond author Ian Fleming named one of his best-known baddies after the Hungarian-born architect. Yet today the brutalist blocks are some of the city’s most prized properties.
The recent award of Grade I listed status to the British Library – a sprawling red-brick building in London’s King Cross – is further proof of an increasingly forgiving approach. Ground was first broken on the controversial project in 1982 but its construction dragged on acrimoniously for 16 years. Now it has come full circle and is accepted (if not necessarily lauded) for its boldness. Young architects invariably draw on the past for inspiration and the mood of the buildings they grew up reading about. I look forward to turning the page on this period of history to see what these students make of the confidence evident in this often unfavourably regarded (but ripe for a rethink) chapter.
“There’s an osmosis: the city is becoming more rural and the countryside more urban,” says Peter Daniel, co-founder of Stuben 21. “Our philosophy is to bring the chalet – the essence of the Stube [parlour] – into the city and the 21st century.”
Founded in 2003, the design firm has made its name in Austria and Switzerland for minimal but homely furniture, made in wood and stainless steel by cabinet-makers. For Daniel and his business partner Nicole Horn, Stuben 21 is more than a design brand: it’s a lifestyle. They host talks and recently completed their first urban chalet in the heart of London. “We built the rooms around our furniture,” says Daniel of the panelled loft in Oslo Court, a Grade II listed building in north London.
“Since the beginning I imagined this lamp illuminating creative activities,” says architect Pablo Carballal. His creation is made from two hollow pieces of oak – that helpfully hide unsightly wires – with a white lacquered base and diffuser made of iron. Produced by furniture-maker Imasoto, the Mamet model is also available as a floor lamp.
Taiwan’s second city is set to be the world’s first to design a light-rail transit system without pesky overhead power lines. Due to operate daily from the end of this year in Kaohsiung, the €460m redesign was undertaken by Spanish firm Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles. Each of the five-car trams can accommodate 250 passengers and, powered by rechargeable batteries, will ultimately be able to cover 22km of track on each loop.
The batteries recharge when the tram brakes and a short length of overhead power cable in each station provides a top-up. The tasteful white and forest-green livery is on track to impress too.
“Tala is a Zulu word that conveys the concept of conservation and beauty, converging the two,” says Joshua Ward. This year he co-founded the brand of the same name with three fellow University of Edinburgh graduates with the aim of creating beautiful, efficient fixtures. He lifts a globular bulb to the light and points out the filaments within; it resembles a 19th century Edison bulb but is fitted with 60 small LEDs that glow golden in colour.
From the classic Squirrel Cage to the eight-watt Gaia, each of Tala’s bulbs is 85 per cent more efficient than its incandescent counterpart and (Ward claims) can burn for up to 10 years. But it isn’t all about bulbs: in October the team launches its first wooden pendant in collaboration with designer Joe Armitage.
talaled.com ; heals.co.uk
Every item of furniture from Portland-based Phloem Studio in Oregon is made to order. Founded by Benjamin Klebba in 2009, it sells his work and that of his father Ron, who has been making Shaker-inspired furniture since his son was a child.
The Swift Chair is a triumph of exposed joinery, a woven seat and thick, angular limbs. Part of the Strand Collection, the distinctive effort encourages the languorous with its comfortable spindle back. Its patterned weaving is made with approximately 110 metres of thick rope and its sculptural lean ensures it will sit nicely in any setting.
This September Lugano inaugurated the lac, a museum to compete with its bigger Swiss rivals (Zürich and Basel) for the attention of the art world. Set on a lakefront piazza next to the city’s medieval centre, the new venue abuts a church dating from 1500 and the façade of a former grand hotel, yet the design by Swiss architect Ivano Gianola isn’t overbearing. The all-glass entrance hall leads to a gallery raised on columns and clad in green marble, while concerts are performed in a 1,000-seat auditorium with interiors in pear wood.
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the Acadèmia Altimira language school called in a design team for a studious refit. When considering how to enhance the multi-use space in Barcelona’s northern hills, Valencia-based design firm Masquespacio wanted to make it both visually appealing and useful for all ages. “The original space was divided by screens, that generated both visual and acoustic barriers,” says Beligian-born Christophe Penasse, who co-founded Masquespacio with his Colombian partner Ana Milena Hernández.
The pair created sliding doors with wooden slats to utilise natural light and allow teachers to adjust the space according to class sizes. “We wanted to avoid a feeling of being boxed in,” says Penasse. “So we played around with colours and materials to ensure students were both engaged and surprised.”
“There is a kinship between California and the Nordics: Los Angeles design couple the Eames were fans of Scandinavian design and travelled there several times,” says New York-based entrepreneur Fredrik Carlstrom, who has chosen LA to launch the first outpost of his Scandinavian design shop Austere. The space includes pieces from Louis Poulsen, Artek, Fibers & Friends and Skultana.
Carlstrom sees the store as a platform to present brands you’ll know and others you won’t. Based on its success, he is taking the concept back to New York this year.
Design collective Groupwork combines the creative approach of an interior designer, architect and visual artist to celebrate the home’s less-lauded objects. The latest work of trio Sarah Trotter, Murray Barker and Esther Stewart see them refining a striking bronze rendition of the humble bathroom towel rack.
The easy-to-install piece is part of bathroom-fittings range Project 003, which has garnered praise for its simple appeal. It can be ordered with treated oak blocks and vessels, while toothbrush and soap holders can be added or removed as required.