[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Mullets. White jeans. Architecture?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

One Poultry
As with fashion, styles come and go in buildings. With the haircuts, clothes and music of the 1980s making a comeback, is its architecture due a revival?

The building One Poultry is nothing if not an eye-catcher. Like a proud ocean liner breasting the waves of commerce, this pink-and-yellow banded block stands out amidst the more demurely hued buildings in the City of London.

This post-modern icon was an unintended consequence of Prince Charles's campaign against "carbuncles" in 1984, although its playful curves could not be further from the classical elegance favoured by the prince.

The royal broadside against modern architecture resulted in plans for a minimalist Mies van der Rohe tower on the site being torn up. The prince had asked "Why has everything got to be vertical, straight and unbending and only right angles; why can't we have curves?"

MI6, also from the 1980s

And curves he got when Sir James Stirling took over the project. Prince Charles described the result as looking like a 1930s wireless. It was not a compliment.

On the drawing board in the 1980s but not complete until 1998, One Poultry has regularly cropped up on lists of best and worst buildings. Others of its era - among them London's MI6 HQ and the eggcup-adorned TV-am (now MTV Europe) building, Dundee Rep Theatre, the Judge Institute in Cambridge, Liverpool Docks and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall - have attracted brickbats and applause in not always equal measure.

Retro style

Just as mullet haircuts and white jeans made a comeback, having been reviled for many years by all except international footballers (the former) and Liz Hurley (the latter), is it time for a renaissance of that decade's architecture?

White jeans, as worn by Liz Hurley for years (left) and shoulder pads
80s fashion: Hot and not
If brutalist concrete can go from urban blight to trendy address - and brightly coloured Memphis furniture can become sought after again - will the current vogue for 1980s retro run to buildings?

There is a tellingly long pause from designer and broadcaster Charlie Luxton.

"The use of colour which came in in the 1980s hasn't gone, which is a good thing. So too the sense of architecture as stage set, rather than the form and function ethos of modernism and minimalism.

"But 80s postmodernism was gauche, flashy and showy. I don't see that coming back as fashions in architecture are as much about advances in technology. The fashion today is for blobby buildings because computers are now able to design and make curves."

The Gherkin
A curved building of flat panes
Thus it costs roughly the same today to cut many panes of glass to make up a curved facade as it did in the 1980s to cut standard plate glass, Mr Luxton says.

The best-known example of this is the Swiss Re building, the "glass gherkin" which won last year's Stirling Prize. This building also typifies the other dominant trend in architecture today - eco-friendly design, which makes use of natural light and ventilation.

Another problem with an 80s revival is that there are so few good examples of the genre. The country was sunk in an economic depression, and what money there was for building was spent mainly on commercial rather than public spaces.

"The country was broke. Just as the 80s fashion was to plaster on make-up to cover the cracks, buildings then were cheaply built with a paper-thin layer of glamour on top," says Mr Luxton.

It's Architecture Week in the BBC News Magazine and on BBC News 24 - watch out for special features, and send your comments below
And very little was being built outside the City of London as there was no money for it, says Victoria Thornton, director and co-founder of London Open House.

"There was no lottery funding and money simply wasn't being put into public buildings. There just weren't the funds around for art galleries, community centres and public housing."

She also doubts that architects will go back to the 80s dressing-up box for inspiration. "It's too showy, too brash; it harks back to that era of conspicuous consumption. While those who have money are still keen to be seen spending it, they are more likely to want something well designed and made with top quality materials."

Restoration game

Two cities outside London with money to spend on buildings were Liverpool - the recipient of government funds to rebuild after the riots which split the city - and Glasgow, in need of a facelift ahead of being 1990 European City of Culture.

It would be a tragedy if the character of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul's dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump
Prince Charles in 1984 on the Mies van der Rohe plan
While some projects were in the postmodernist style, others harked back to the style of the Art Nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

"Much of what was built in Scotland in the 1980s was mock Mackintosh shopping centres," says Penny Lewis, editor of Prospect Magazine.

"Not only was there little money around, that was the decade in which conservation became an issue. We started to wake up to the architectural gems we were losing. We started to restore old buildings instead of knock them down."

Nor do fashions in architecture cycle around as quickly as they do in clothes and interior design.

"It takes an enormous expenditure to make a building, in terms of money, energy used to get the materials and build it, and in the environment destruction," says Charlie Luxton. "Good design goes way beyond fashion, and that's where architecture should sit."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Lilla Bommen, 1989
Here is an office building, Lilla Bommen 1989, sitting in a prime spot in Gothenburg, Sweden. Designed by British-born architect Ralph Erskine, it's loved and hated by many and has been nick-named the Lipstick. I believe the concept was great, but the use of 1980s material - PVC - has detroyed the architect's efforts. Architecture, with the help of new materials, is improving today.
Martin McElwee

Post-modernism may be gone for good, but its benefits have been lasting. Just as punk dragged music out of Death By Disco, so post-modernism focused architects more on making people happy in their spaces, rather than getting nods of academic approval from their old college lecturer.
Des, London, UK

With more than a dash of 80s retro, a huge scoop of Escher, and a self-reflective dollop of post-modernist irony, the Daniel Libeskind building on Holloway Road, north London, is the last word in cool architecture. I've loved this building since I first saw it being "skinned" with super-shiny steel and give it a salute every time I scoot past!
Trent, London

In Frankfurt no two skyscrapers are allowed to have the same shaped top - with resulting pyramids, semi-circular fans and big spikes dotting the skyline. It looks pretty at night. Honest.
Terry Robinson, Frankfurt, Germany

Lloyds building
This photo is a detail of Lloyd's building in London, taken last year. You can see one of the lifts in this picture, along with some of the piping and other machinery. Designed by Richard Rogers. A fine example of 1980s architecture. I really like it.
Paul Dunning, UK

I love the Department of Health building in Leeds. Derided by some as "The Kremlin" due to its Stalinist influence, it is a great landmark on the Leeds City landscape and its Buck Rodgers style metal prong on the roof is just fab.
Judith, Bradford

The lean and mean profit-at-any-cost society we live in we are rarely going to see good architecture. There are some redeemable gems being built, I have a fondness for the new Paternoster Square for example, as it sits nicely in the shadow of St Paul's and mixes new with old very gracefully.
Andrew, London, England

If Prince Charles were to take a course in Architectural History or 20th Century Modernism, he'd be sure to see why Mies Van der Rohe was such a genius and that to tear down one of his buildings would be tantamount to destroying something built by Gibbons, William Chambers or Sir John Soane.
Dave Mathewson, London, England

The Docklands and riverside wharf conversions are maybe also a sign of the "yuppie" 80s. This photo is of New Caledonian Wharf in Rotherhithe, converted in the late 80s.

My favourite piece of relatively recent London architecture? The Ark in Hammersmith, visible from the fly-over and next to the Tube Station. Also in its favour, its architect, Erskine, is British!
Steve Foley, Reading, UK

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific