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What Makes a Good Building?

This book, commissioned from the Royal Fine Art Commission by the Secretary of State for National Heritage, takes its examples of good and bad buildings almos exclusively from London and, for some obscure reason, Cambridge. Of the eight buildings analysed in some detail, three are for Cambridge colleges and three were designed by currently serving members of the RFAC. The building that comes in for the most fulsome praise is Clare College Library, designed by Sir Philip Dowson, which qualifies for both categories. Elsewhere in the book, Wren's Emmanuel College Chapel and Trinity College Library are illustrated in three full-page pictures. That makes a total of five Cambridge college buildings, all of them expensive and exclusive and some of them not even visible, let alone open, to the general public. So much for the pious quotation paraded on the flyleaf: 'The rights of the man in the street deserve the same consideration as those of the man in the office or his landlord.' If looking after the rights of 'the man in the street' is what the RFAC is for, then what is all this prissy nonsense about Cambridge colleges?

One other Cambridge example is included, the Holiday Inn, but of course this is cheap, accessible and popular, so it gets the pompous sneer treatment: 'has resort to the classical tradition but in a sadly illiterate and emasculated form.' Of the examples from outside Cambridge or London only one is from the north of England: the Theatre Royal in York. An office block in Basingstoke and a laboratory building in Birmingham are mentioned with approval, but then these were designed by Dowson's old firm, Arup Associates.

So what is the answer to the question in the title? Are there, as Peter Brooke says in his foreword, 'qualities and principles in architecture that must endure.' If so, then the authors haven't found them. The feeble attempts at architectural theory amount to little more than bald assertions. Issues like expression, context, appropriateness and honesty are tackled in a half-hearted and muddle-headed way, and in the end we are left with the not very illuminatin conclusion that good buildings are those designed by good architects -- for example the members of the RFAC and their cronies.

This is a narrow-minded, snobbish and arrogant little book.

COLIN DAVIES
COPYRIGHT 1994 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Davies, Colin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:383
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