If you build it…

Why does Britain build what it does and what does it say about us? Writer John Grindrod’s latest book looks to solve the puzzle

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Do you ever think much about why Manchester’s Urbis or Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music didn’t work? Were you aware of how Leeds blew its chance to house the Angel of the North? Or you might scratch your head at the wider, long-term causes of the housing crisis we’re in.

Iconicon might be the book for you. John Grindrod’s third book, it promises a “journey around the landmark buildings of contemporary Britain” but delivers so much more than that.

Iconicon has a particular fascination with Leeds, an architectural mishmash of a city

This is no architectural nerdfest. Grindrod has produced a social history of the last 40 years told through the buildings and places created by and for us, neatly divided into three parts: Margaret Thatcher’s rule and its lingering hangover, the New Labour period, then the post-crash, austerity era led once again by the Conservatives.

It’s really the middle period of those that set out deliberately to deliver “icons”. Why do civic leaders want icons? We shouldn’t necessarily be cynical: no less a critic than the revered Ian Nairn observed in his 1975 Football Towns series that Halifax (and towns like it) “desperately need monuments”. Things to boost civic pride, belonging and just make our places better.

There’s no doubt though that political ego plays a part. Broadcasting one’s success, whether of a location or its leaders, is another driving factor. From the 1920s skyscrapers of Chicago and New York to their 21st century equivalents in Dubai, leaders have sought to create a visible legacy, come what may.

Grindrod talks of icons as distractions. He says: “People want these big, flashy things as a way of branding a city, but some of them don’t really represent anything for ordinary people – often cities seem to see them as a way to avoid doing basic stuff.”

In some cases, it almost becomes a civic mania and has cost councils their solvency, such as in the place he grew up. “There was a desperation to see ‘cranes over Croydon’ and a lot of icons are about making a statement through the skyline.”

None of that’s to say icons can’t serve a purpose when done right – the Angel of the North being a case in point, a totem of the North East’s cultural renaissance. And Grindrod writes warmly of buildings such as Cardiff’s Millennium Centre and the Aquatic Centre created for the 2012 Olympics.

It helps if you know what you want to achieve too. Before alighting on the Gateshead site, a version of Antony Gormley’s statue could have found a home in the Holbeck Triangle, a high-profile gateway site approaching Leeds station.

A public vote plumped instead for a giant cup of tea, and although the council decided against that – hey, this was 1988 – it got cold feet and the whole project was binned. That’s democracy for you.

Iconicon has a particular fascination with Leeds, an architectural mishmash of a city.

“Leeds has embraced everything in a particular way, although it doesn’t seem to realise it,” Grindrod says. “You can see every story here: suburban housing, pomo [the post-modernist style of the 1980s], the pretend modernism of the Blair years, the Urban Splash style.

“There is a version of every era of shopping centre in Leeds, from Victorian through to the recent Trinity. But where Manchester is all about broadcasting its energy, the attitude in Leeds is more like  ‘nothing to see here, it’s always been like this’ whereas it clearly hasn’t always been like ‘this.’”

Part of why Leeds looks different is that things started earlier. Major construction sites were still a rarity in post-industrial Northern cities as Leeds cracked on in the early 1990s, and the “Leeds Look” owes much to this, throwing up oddities such as the city’s Magistrates Court.

Manchester’s development story was of course catalysed by the IRA bomb of June 1996, and from the start was influenced by the city’s cultural figureheads.

Grindrod says: “Understandably for somewhere that’s been so influential, Manchester is always determined to express how ambitious and creative it is. It’s interesting to see that the people who drove that creativity in the post-punk era have been prominent in the Neworderfication of the city.”

Above: John Grindrod. Main image: Leeds skyline showing the roof of Trinity shopping centre (Alastair Wallace/Shutterstock)

For all that ex-council bosses Sirs Howard Bernstein and Richard Leese have been lauded, there has for some years been unease at increasing divisions in Manchester: a feeling that inner city areas and people have been overlooked in the rush to provide for monied types to fuel a vibrant city centre, to make Manchester a “mature European city”.

Part of that story has always been that city living will expand, with the schools, health and more housing options people need as they move into middle age. That hasn’t happened at any scale, and Grindrod questions whether it ever will.

“There’s a relentless influx of young creative people that gives the city its energy and it does feel like a decision’s been made. Manchester has almost fetishised the sub-culture of youth and the arts – it’s not looking to appeal to fifty-somethings. It’s trusting that young people will continue to make the city relevant.

“The lack of that next level might be a complete accident, of course – but at some point you’d think an effort would be made, and that doesn’t look to have happened. But the sprawl of Greater Manchester does allow this in a way other cities couldn’t replicate.” In other words, “they can always move out to Altrincham or Ramsbottom” as they get older.

Liverpool tales span the book’s course, from Michael Heseltine’s intervention in the wake of 1981’s Toxteth riots to the inspiring tale of Granby’s ground-up rebirth. The image of Heseltine corralling a cadre of business leaders onto a coach and acting as tour guide, pitching potential sites over the microphone, is an intriguing one.

“Granby is an amazing tale. This is an area that won the Turner Prize for what they did – not even the Stirling Prize for Architecture, but an arts award! They created art from a social housing project, led totally by the people that lived there. It’s astonishing. That was only able to happen because the coalition government in 2010 abolished the Housing Market Renewal programme.”

The houses were only still there as they were among the last appealing to developers signed up to former deputy PM John Prescott’s Housing Market Renewal – or Pathfinder – programme.

Grindrod says: “There are layers of history. It’s incredibly moving to see this rebirth created in what was the heart of the riot area. Most people have some appreciation now of the police brutality, the poverty, the stop and search… but not really of the intensity of the suffering on the ground in places that were then left in ruins for 30 years, basically as punishment.”

We’re in a mess with housing now of course, and the story of how we got here is well told, particularly the early years of how Barratt became the nation’s go-to housing firm and how the buy-to-let speculators moved in.

Along with Granby, Grindrod points to other reasons to be cheerful right now, including young architects looking to work on sustainable social housing, such as Goldsmith Street, Norwich.

These projects are having a positive impact closer to home than the mega-projects certain “starchitects” have focused on – and there’s a sadness here that the big names of the last generation didn’t by and large do much “for the people”.

But is there any chance these small-scale projects could be ramped up and taken on by the big housebuilders, to make a serious dint in the housing numbers we need?

“No,” he says flatly. “There are people wanting to do good things. But councils like Croydon going bust have made people wary, and there isn’t the money sloshing round to do these things. There are more and more great examples of really good design, and eco-design, but it’s such a weird moment – Covid, the collapse of the high street, austerity cuts – that it will take longer. Ultimately it will come down to money.”

It always does, and many would say that goes back to the 1979 election and the abrupt ending of post-war consensus. Heseltine, the archetypal One Nation Tory, was interviewed for the book, and maintains that Right to Buy could have been made to work, if only the takings from council house sales were reinvested, at least in part, in more new housing.

Could that ever have realistically happened though? Grindrod thinks not. “I don’t think it could have worked out like that – because he was pretty much the only one who thought that way, and he was too ambitious to stay in the role. Once he moved on, any hope of reinvestment died. If a John Major had been in power – maybe. But it was anathema to what Margaret Thatcher was about.”

So, to the icons of New Labour born amid the Things Can Only Get Better-soundtracked late 1990s, when a booming economy was accompanied by pots of cash for public projects by way of the new National Lottery. Optimism was rampant, organisation less so.

“The Lottery had raised so much money, and they didn’t really know what to spend it on. Everyone wanted a Guggenheim in Bilbao project, but that worked partly because it was the only one – you can’t deliver 27 of them in two years and have that impact.”

Some projects were pilloried, some with hindsight are looked at more kindly, some have been reinvented. All told though, the hit rate has been pretty respectable, Grindrod thinks. He writes at length about Cardiff’s Millennium Centre, and the misunderstood at the time Millennium Dome, now phenomenally successful as an events arena – at least until Storm Eunice wreaked havoc in February this year.

“The Dome really is good. The Deep in Hull is absolutely amazing. Sheffield’s Centre for Popular Music would have been a massive hit ten years later – it’s a wonderful building. People would have learned more and adapted if these buildings had been delivered over a longer span.

“In this country, we’re bad at celebrating things and very good at saying everything’s shit, and just the sense of optimism around all the Millennium stuff was incredible. What have we seen in the last ten years? Only really the V&A in Dundee. The Millennium projects feels like a historic moment, now.”

It could be seen as typically British that the delivery was so hotch-potch. “It’s easy to think of some faceless mega-corporation masterminding all this, but the reality was a lot of it was pretty shambolic behind the scenes – people being asked to deliver showpiece destinations with no background in the field.”

As Grindrod says, there hasn’t been a great deal of iconic architecture since 2010, unless you count the ever-taller towers remorselessly creeping up in central London and, to a lesser extent, Manchester, many of them oddly anonymous anyway, even the landmarks like the Shard or Cheesegrater.

The section heading for the 2010-2020 era is “Little Dark Age” and might raise sadness and anger in the reader.

What we saw across that decade was austerity, local authorities ever more desperate for crumbs from the Whitehall table, and of course the Grenfell tragedy, perhaps the inevitable consequence of a system where every cost is trimmed to the nth degree, and every warning, such as the Lakanal House fire of 2009, pretty much ignored.

Less obvious but equally dispiriting has been the swallowing up of community-based housing associations, in touch with often marginalised groups but now being subsumed into ever-larger and by definition more distant housing groups.

This is where we are in 2022. Grindrod concludes that writing in lockdown acted as a “reminder that these things might start with politicians, planners and architects, but they end with us, the residents and workers, managers and maintenance crews attempting to adapt to these new environments. The world around us is a better place if we engage with it.”

We all of us own, spiritually, a piece of these buildings and places: get out there and soak them in. You can’t be charged for using your eyes and ears. Not yet, anyway.

Iconicon is published by Faber

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