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Web Exclusive: Letter from London

In post-Brexit Britain, should we expect new sweetness and purity in contemporary English architecture? Or a resurgence of fanaticism and intensity in the education of architects?

September 13, 2016
by Brian Carter

The Switch House by Herzog and De Meuron. Photo by: Jim Linwood, FlickR, Creative Commons. No changes made. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The Switch House by Herzog and De Meuron. Photo by: Jim Linwood, FlickR, Creative Commons. No changes made. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In the country of “keep calm and carry on”, it is hardly surprising that little appears to have changed following the recent vote in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

Although the vote brought about the creation of two new government departments to plan for post-Brexit Britain, staff are still being hired. Unlike Canada, where there are apparently more than 300 negotiators skilled in working with the EU, the U.K. seems to have access to few experienced EU negotiators. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has repeatedly noted that there would be no submission of Article 50—the initiative that triggers departure—before 2017, while others have suggested that a “full British Brexit” could take ten years.

As yet, Brexit appears to have had no noticeable impact on architecture. While the value of the pound and shares in real estate development companies tumbled after the vote, the predicted wholesale mothballing of planning applications in the U.K. has failed to materialize.

Where Brexit’s influence may be felt is in the education of architects in the U.K., where 53 architecture schools currently serve a population of approximately 64 million people (in Canada, 12 schools serve a total population of 35 million). After Brexit, U.K. schools can anticipate downturns in enrollments from EU and non-EU students, possibly prompting closures. Will schools offer more basic fare-foundation courses to survive, or move to graduate education models based on programs in North America?

Erasmus—an innovative program for education and training established by the EU—has radically changed architectural education in the U.K. since it was created in 1987.  Diversity in design studios has increased significantly, while students have been actively encouraged to travel, live, study and work in Europe. Already, anxieties about the impact of Brexit on Erasmus have been voiced.

The Brexit vote has also revealed major differences between the North and South of England—differences emphasized by the media, seemingly overlooked by government, and signaled by the City’s skyline architecture of “Gherkins” and “Cheese Graters.” Those differences have been emphasized by the recent opening of the Switch House—a strident, folded brick tower that is the latest power play at the Tate Modern in London. Designed by Herzog and De Meuron, the museum extension underlines a need to “mind the gap.”

In his book The Englishness of English Art, Nikolaus Pevsner concluded that “as reason and tolerance have gained precedence in the English character, we have lost that fanaticism—or at least that intensity—which alone can bring forth the very greatest in art.”

Discussing his film Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles also recalled a familiar tone in English discourse. “There has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer,” he said. “You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.”

In post-Brexit Britain, should we expect new sweetness and purity in contemporary English architecture? Or a resurgence of fanaticism and intensity in the education of architects?

Brian Carter, a registered architect in the U.K., is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He worked in practice in London before being appointed Chair of Architecture at the University of Michigan. Subsequently, he served as Dean at the School of Architecture & Planning at the University at Buffalo, where he is currently Professor of Architecture.



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