25th September 2019 Public Meeting

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Local architecture: blending the new with the not-so-new

As with other kinds of beauty (or ugliness), a perception of what is good or bad in architecture has to be in the mind of the beholder. That was a key assertion of Professor Geraint John, president of St Albans Civic Society in his talk as guest speaker at the Harpenden Society's September public meeting.

A distinguished architect himself, Prof John is noted for his work in designing sports and leisure facilities, including those for the Olympic Games. In 2014 he was awarded the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal ‘for his many years of outstanding service to the Olympic Movement'. 

Prof John, who lives in Fishpool Street, St Albans, told his Harpenden audience he was ‘open minded' about the excellence or otherwise of today's major building developments. On the matter of probably inevitable urban growth, he said he was primarily concerned with how it was approached and delivered. There was a need for local authority councillors, particularly those responsible for making planning decisions, to be ‘educated' on architectural matters. Too often planners lacked local knowledge.

‘We should look to the future with an eye on the past', he declared. ‘We have to cope with the computer age while respecting the architecture of the past'. He spoke approvingly of the current focus on sustainability. That necessarily meant recognising the challenges of global warming, notably in the choice of materials used in new buildings and during their construction. An obvious example was the avoidance of pollutants and such materials as asbestos.
    With an inference that variety is the spice of life, Prof John asserted that ‘there can be no one univeral style', adding that ‘form follows function'.  He maintained that the Greeks had the right approach to building design more than two millennia ago in recognising the importance of proportion in a structure. In doing so they picked up on the ‘golden ratio' of 1to 1.61, which had been identified even earlier in pre-history by the Egyptians in building the pyramids and which occurred in nature, in the spiral pattern of a sea shell for example.

Prof John cited a number of local developments which, in his view, deserved favourable mention. They included, in Harpenden, Waitrose supermarket, the ‘sympathetic' conversion of the former Post Office in Station Road to house the Côte Brasserie, the extension of Harpenden Common Golf Clubhouse and, to quote the Sunday Times architecture critic Hugh Pearman, ‘probably the best modern house in the world', designed back in 1962 by the Danish architect Povl Ahm. 

In Prof John's judgment, there should be no automatic objection to mixing old with new architectural styles when, typically, an existing, possibly venerable, building is extended or a fresh development is proposed close by. He pointed out that St Albans Abbey was a long-standing, even traditional, example of multiple piecemeal additions and modifications in different styles using disparate materials, undertaken over some nine centuries.

The Abbey's 1980s Chapter House could be said to have continued that tradition. And, bringing its architectural history right up up date, the brand new entrance and visitor centre from architects Simpson & Brown, surely demonstrated how harmonised building styles from different eras could be successfully achieved.  Prof John warned however against ‘historical falsehood' where attempts at a direct copy of existing design characteristics too often failed.

During a question and answer session Prof John reminded his audience that it sometimes needed time for people to come to love the kind of new building which initially stirred bitter controversy. Examples were Coventry Cathedral and Richard Rogers' creations for the London Stock Exchange and the Pompidou Centre in Paris with their ‘exterior plumbing’.

Professor John is welcomed by Harpenden Society chairman Phil Waters.
Commended: Waitrose supermarket
Commended: Harpenden Common Golf Clubhouse