Who is the philistine here?
There’s a letter in today’s Guardian in response to a debate about the virtues of Pimlico comprehensive school, a concrete-and-glass building designed by the architectural team at the then Greater London Council which was demolished in 2010. The letter calls the demolition “arguably the most philistine architectural destruction since the demolition of the Euston Arch” and argues that the very real environmental problems that plagued the school, in which temperatures regularly reached 35ºC in the summer and where the internal layout contributed to bad behaviour, should have been tolerated, as they were at Beth Shalom, a glass synagogue in Pennsylvania designed by Frank Lloyd Wright:
Designed barely a decade before Pimlico school, the glass pyramid pushed contemporary technology to the limits. The commissioning rabbi, Mortimer Cohen, and his successors have tolerated the inconveniences in the knowledge that they were guardians of an architectural treasure. How different the petty, visionless attitude of the “guardians” of Pimlico school, an architectural triumph that attracted international critical acclaim and huge numbers of admiring visitors from around the world.
Over the past couple of decades, a number of notoriously ugly ‘Brutalist’ buildings from the post-war era have been torn down, among them a shopping centre in Portsmouth and a shopping centre and car park in Gateshead that was used as the scene for a murder in the gangster film Get Carter. Some, however, can’t be got rid of, among them a Catholic seminary in Scotland which fell out of use due to lack of recruits to the priesthood and has turned into a modern ruin which cannot be demolished due to its supposed architectural significance and category A listed status. A school, however, cannot be allowed to stand if its architecture makes it an oppressive environment in which to learn, let alone if it contributes to violence; they only have five to seven years to gain the qualifications that can make all the difference to what they might be able to do as adults. On top of this, a school day lasts seven hours, a lot longer than a religious service in almost any religion, so what might be tolerable in a synagogue will not be in a school. These are children and young people who were not around when a group of people who are now very old or dead decided to use their education as an experiment (and the school serves an area with a high proportion of social housing). They are not “guardians of an architectural treasure” but innocent victims of someone else’s failed scheme.
Who is the philistine: someone who wants young people to be able to learn in comfort, or those who want to preserve the thing that prevents them from doing so? If architects want to preserve a building that has proven unpractical for what it was designed for, perhaps it could be dismantled, brick by brick, and moved to a suitable site to use as a museum or for their architectural practice. At their expense, of course.
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