• Alexander Sparkes

An Ode to Concrete

How I learned to love modern architecture, and why you should too.



Once upon a time, in the halcyon days before Love Island and Meghan Markle made whinging the new conversational gold standard, Britain was a nation famed for the icy reception which was meted out to serial moaners and grumblers.

Back in the day, Jehovah's Witnesses, the recently divorced, and people on Parish councils were all rightly considered to be dangerous cranks, and thus studiously avoided. Of course, a sensible distinction was drawn between such groups and those merely engaging in the harmless national pastime of masochistic chit-chat about the weather; and as a happy result society functioned about right for several thousand years.

In recent times however, a pervading sense of doom, gloom and misery has come to infect our national discourse, and now one only has to peruse the front pages of the Mail on Sunday to lose all remaining faith in humanity. Thus, the author of this article proposes a simple solution- to tackle the moaners head on, show them up for the miserable pessimists that they are, and hopefully cow them into silence with fusillades of masterful prose.

As Winston Churchill probably never said, “in student journalism, one must go big or go home”. So in this issue we’ll be tackling the most persistent coven of complainers: the people who just “love to hate” on sixties architecture.

Upon finishing that last sentence, Dear Reader, and after a few moments of probably-what-was-behind-your-Oxbridge-rejection head scratching, you may have realised that you yourself identify as part of this group. Now, with palpable confusion, you blink your misty eyes. An itch dances up your elbow, and a chill shoots down your back. What sort of cretin, you cautiously ask yourself, would dare to stick up for modern architecture?

Allow me to explain. From birth, your typical “St Andrews specimen” possesses a hatred of anything clad in concrete or daintily draped with steel. Perhaps your mother's womb was made of the finest Georgian brick, or your father sported a noble Doric column — either way, it's in the blood to only appreciate a building if it's in the “vernacular.” Harmless enough as youths, these budding architecture aficionados are gradually radicalised by contact with the glorious legacies of the Swinging Sixties (municipal swimming pools, airport car parks, the Midlands, etc.) Until, frothing at the mouth, they decide to escape the modern world with a four-year sojourn in bonny Scotland.

They've seen the postcards. Fantasies of fog-filled streets, brooding moors and gnarled quads waltz through their tiny minds. A little unspoiled corner of Fife is just what they've waited for all these years. They've even heard about the cobbled streets. Then, with dad's Volvo receding into the distance, they slowly turn around, suitcase in hand, to be greeted by the glorious visage of one of the more “contemporary” halls. Pity them, O Reader, but do not forgive them. A potent cocktail of disappointment and betrayal is thus distilled into an unremitting torrent of architecturally inspired rage.

They will cheerfully inform you, rectum tightly clenched and temple vein protruding, that their new digs in ABH were in fact designed by a “man who built prisons”. They will turn a rather fetching shade of fuschia at the thought of the individuality of DRA. And sound slightly splenetic as they recount how Melville came to be Grade A listed. Worst of all, you'll hear them. Every steel beam, concrete doorway, and plate glass wall is to be bemoaned. At maximum volume. At all hours.

Clearly, this undercurrent of self-pitying architectural snobbery cannot be allowed to continue. Besides being socially corrosive, it is also frankly irritating. Therefore, logic dictates there are only two possible solutions. The first solution is, as one would expect, utterly ridiculous. This hare-brained scheme would involve trading in our beloved concrete and steel for the patently neolithic building materials of brick and stone, and hence can be safely dismissed out of hand. The second is altogether more logical, and is to persuade these deviants of the virtues of concrete, by rote learning and endless repetition. Indeed, as many a People's Republic politburo has found over the years, concrete is the perfect backdrop for such a re-education campaign.

Such a programme would take a two-pronged approach. The first prong would be practical. First-year students would be taken on supervised field trips to the third world (Badlands near Aldi), to witness the travails of those still renting “Ancien Régime” properties. Upon seeing the native population struggle to keep warm in the long winter months (for they lack the warming lattice of asbestos key to all genuine sixties masterpieces), even the most stony-hearted among them will be disabused of their romantic lust for traditional forms. The second prong would be the spiritual. Students would be taught to see modern architecture as one of the great liberators of the soul, as a means of societal uplift and personal betterment. Freed from the feudal shackles of bricks and timber, modern man can only truly “live his best life” within the sharp lines and blank walls of these modern-day temples of progress. After all, concrete is just poetry with bits of gravel in it.

So go forth, Readers, and learn to love your local monolith. Stroke the steel. Gaze at the glass. Caress the concrete. Accept that you are but a speck of dust in comparison. One day you'll be in a pot on your grandchildrens' mantelpiece, but concrete is forever.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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