John Grindrod’s Iconicon Review – Britain Transformed | Art and design books

IIf the title makes you think these are going to be the big, bright, fun public buildings (“icons”) we all got used to from the mid-1990s through the late 2000s, get ready for something. darker, much more enlightening and rather sad. As cheerful as Grindrod’s style of prose is, filled with pop references and hip asides, what it recounts is the UK’s accelerating decline since 1980, as expressed through what we build . Get ready for a rocky ride that begins with Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy legislation, which killed off the majority of new social housing, and ends, pretty much, with the horrid hell of Grenfell Tower. A system out of control, everyone is crossing their fingers and trying to avoid blame.

Along the way, we’ve had some really good buildings and a lot of really bad ones. As I write about architecture for a living and am of a certain age, reading this book is like seeing my whole career flash before my eyes. That’s all I’ve been through and many people I’ve met, in real time. This is largely what Grindrod (15 years younger) also experienced. And yet, in the moment, you don’t always understand the undercurrents. Why are things done the way they are? Why was there this almost forgotten architectural obsession of the 1980s and 90s with business parks and supermarkets outside the city? What made us think that architectural postmodernism was normal or inevitable? What was that white helicopter in the Barratt Homes ads about?

Since Ian Nairn began his increasingly moving journeys through British cities in the 1950s, various authors and broadcasters have hopefully followed in his footsteps, from Iain Sinclair to Owen Hatherley to Jonathan Meades. All are good in their very different ways, but there’s one thing they tend not to do: question the people involved in creating our towns and villages. This is where Grindrod’s chatty learning style scores points. He researches them, interviews them, enjoys their company, structures his book around them.

There are some big names. Michael Heseltine, speaking freely of the Thatcher and Major years, is one of the book’s stars while Mike Davies, the brilliant gray-bearded architect sidekick to the late Richard Rogers, who always dressed all in red and designed the Millennium Dome in two weeks flat. in 1996, is another. He had it built quickly for a bargain £43million: it was the 12 ‘zones’ inside, including Zaha Hadid’s ambitious Mind Zone, that cost the most. I’m impressed that Grindrod ties this educational exhibit to the never-built ‘WonderWorld’ – a proposed rival to Disney’s Epcot in Florida – planned for the former steel town of Corby in 1982 by Derek Walker, the architect who fitted out Milton Keynes. “This theme park is based on the idea of ​​educational fun,” its brochure said, coldly.

I find more telling, however, the lesser-known Grindrod interviewees, such as Carla Picardi and Sara Fox, the American project managers who built the sprawling Canary Wharf business district in London’s Docklands. “Let’s just say, if it took finesse and subtlety and diplomacy, it was Carla, and if it took kicking down the door, it was me,” Fox says.

It was unbridled capitalism: big tax breaks, virtually no control over planning. In the days of New Labor it was all about cultural regeneration, funded by the national lottery and EU money. Consider Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, an early example of a lottery-funded millennium project, in a Gateshead which also built the Baltic Art Gallery, the Sage concert hall complex, a Stirling’s award-winning opening bridge over the Tyne, high-tech factories . Big hits overall, but not for a key part of the population – the former mining community.

They didn’t want those kinds of jobs, they didn’t see it was all for them, and they got their revenge, like Paul Collard, the ex-ICA man who repositioned the post-industrial northeast as a tourist destination, sadly reminds here. European money be damned. “It’s the community that voted hard for Brexit: that’s how they fought back to everything…it’s our failure, really. We haven’t found a way to make it work for them.

Hugh Pearman is an architectural critic and former editor of the RIBA Journal. Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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