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Social Architecture- and why it shouldn’t be all about politics

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Cicely Barnett explains why the architecture of Exeter’s beloved Sidwell Street could soon put a spring in your step…

Sidwell Street, Exeter, has become somewhat infamous among students of the city. Due to its combination of tacky, poorly designed post-war architecture and the natural consequence of such disparaging buildings attracting trade predominantly from charity and pound shops, it’s a street that has a reputation for being a bit grotty. And no, I’m not having a go at such centres of commerce per se.  Bear with me. The fact is, as is briefly discussed by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island, Exeter was badly served – one could say abused – by town planners in the 50s and 60s. What the Luftwaffe didn’t flatten, the town planners surely did.

Not quite. Unlike Bryson, who hankers after an ultra-conservative, unrealistic and almost childishly idealistic England that never even existed, I am not nostalgic for ‘chocolate-box’ Exeter. We should adapt with the times we live in, of course, and as Streatham’s Forum has demonstrated, modern architecture can be both practical and beautiful.  On some points I have to disagree with my damning seminar tutor who apparently wasn’t able to see any reasonable argument or non-fascist point in Bryson’s architectural jibes at Exeter and other British cities. From an aesthetic and creative perspective, his condemnation of situations in which characterless, dreary, purely practical ‘modernism’ has been erected in areas that have been historically important for hundreds of years is relevant. Surely this is an acceptable view?

For example, I think it is reasonable to regard the vast, obtrusive linear block now owned by John Lewis, built on the very spot where the North Gate of the Roman city wall once stood, as inappropriate. Many people, including myself, have commented on the ‘amazing view’ from the café on the top floor, but do not consider how the building itself is an utter eye-sore that dwarfs the Norman cathedral and dominates the city-scape for miles around. Separately, was it right for the planners to mow down what was left of Exeter’s high street in order to create a cohesively architectural space? It is what it is. But it would not be allowed today, what with conservation areas, listing and greater awareness and appreciation of historic buildings.

Image Credit: Chris Sampson via Flickr
Image Credit: Chris Sampson via Flickr

Indeed, thank God for such organisations, which are entirely necessary in ensuring that tragedies such as the loss of Bedford Circus – a beautiful Georgian oval reminiscent of Bath Circus that was entirely flattened in the 1942 bombing raid – are not repeated. Hundreds more gems were lost to make way for roads or simply an uglier building. Debenhams now occupies the spot where Bedford Circus once stood. All that remains of this and many other gems is a mere plaque on a wall, tipping its hat politely to the past. Greater education is needed to ensure such tragedies are not repeated, even on a smaller scale. How many façades on a suburban street or in any town or village now boast PVC windows and doors?  I understand the purpose – insulation and economy – but they mostly look cheaply manufactured and mismatched. I am not going to sound off with some William Morris-esque rant demanding that everything be made by hand and serve a purpose, but surely this is a valid aesthetic concern to raise?

Image Credit: exetermemories
Image Credit: exetermemories

The problem is that voicing such concerns normally brands you a snob. This needs to change. Architecture is art. Indeed, historically the mother of all the arts. It affects the way we feel, not only visually, but through the atmosphere it creates. ‘We shape our buildings and they shape us’. Therefore architecture can, just like other art forms, be separated from its author and be appreciated independent from context. It is not really about history, and it is certainly not about politics, or idealism, or artistic snobbery, but about how it makes us feel. Unlike Bryson, I am not afraid of the modern, of practicality and of industrialisation, but I maintain the view that architecture is subconsciously working upon our psyche all the time, as indeed any environment does on the human state, and therefore we should endeavour to create and conserve artistic harmony in our buildings.

So I was excited to hear last year the news that Exeter City Council is planning to redevelop the area now attributed to the Bus and Coach station (in other words a sprawling square of dated concrete and metal flanked by Sidwell Street on one side and equal grey monotony on each other side) to create a ‘Grecian quarter’. It was the Greeks, after all, who invented much of what we now regard as architecture and gave it form and meaning. And so it seems fitting that it was a Greek who bequeathed to us a very modern line on its abiding and deep relevance: ‘Architecture is a social act and the material theatre of human activity’ (Spiro Kostof). Hopefully when complete, the atmosphere of grimy Sidwell Street will be lifted and thus, subtly, the lives of all the people walking its pavements.

Cicely Barnett

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