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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 23rd October 2009
In what style should we build today? David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, ponders what modern architecture really is.

In 1864 the wool merchants of Bradford, then at the height of their prosperity, invited the great art critic John Ruskin to address them. They were about to commission a new building – a Wool Exchange – and wanted to know the latest fashion in architecture. The evening did not turn out as they had hoped.

Ruskin began the talk with the words ‘My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build; but, earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind . . . I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this exchange of yours.’

This was bad enough. What followed was worse. He told them that he did not care about the planned Exchange ‘because you don’t . . . You are going to spend £30,000, which to you, collectively is nothing; the buying of a new coat is, as to the cost, a much more important matter of consideration, to me, than the building of a new Exchange if to you. But you think you may as well have the right thing for your money. You hear of me, among others, as a respectable architectural man-milliner: and you send for me, that I may tell you the leading fashion; and what is, in our shops, for the moment, the newest and sweetest thing in pinnacles.’

The Bradford woolmen must by now have been getting very cross. But Ruskin had a point. Fashion does not make great buildings. There needs to some underlying truth to them that gives them a timelessness and true vitality. The Bradford merchants did build their Exchange, designed by local architects Lockwood and Mawson in the Venetian Gothic style promoted by Ruskin. It functioned as an exchange for a century, and is now a bookshop and café. Looking at it today, we can see that it is very much a product of the High Victorian period, when styles were eclectic and you could have virtually any style you wanted.

Style is an odd thing. Kevin McCloud’s latest television series on the Grand Tour pointed out that for more than a century the prevailing national style was copied from classically-inspired Italian buildings, especially those of Palladio. We are still living with the results – you have only to look at Ripon Town Hall – and even buildings like the one housing Burton’s shop on the Square – to see how used we have become to classical columns.

In the Middle Ages things were different. You built in what was then the modern style. So over the centuries that it was constructed and altered, the builders of Ripon Cathedral used the style that was then current. So we have parts in the Norman style, with its characteristic round arches, an east window in the Decorated style and a nave in the Perpendicular style. This was up-to-date building, and was what was expected. Perhaps there were a few grumblers – ‘Don’t like this new pointy style of arches – what was wrong with the old ones?’ – but no one consciously built in an old style.

And what of today? Look around at Ripon’s latest buildings, and you will find little to suggest that there is any really modern style of architecture. There are lots of ‘polite’ buildings, ones that are carefully designed to be unassuming and self-effacing, aping the styles around them rather than making a statement in themselves.

Why should this be? Partly, it is a result of the planning process. Architects know that if they are too innovative their plans will get knocked back by the planning authorities, who themselves are influenced by the elected politicians, many of who show little architectural imagination and certainly little courage. So the architects play safe and design buildings that are likely to be passed.

You might argue that a historic city like Ripon is not a place for modern building or for experimental architecture. But why not? Of course, mistakes will be made, but at least the attempt should be made. This is not plea for buildings that deliberately set out to shock. But modern architecture can be as satisfying as that of any other age if it is carefully designed. It can even have an impact not just visually but emotionally. An uncompromisingly modern building – a convent called Stanbrook Abbey – has recently been built near Wass in the North York Moors National Park. It is an exceptional structure that works both practically and spiritually, and has great emotional impact.

Planners must not be afraid of modern architecture; nor must we. Instead, we should embrace and encourage it – and we should certainly show an interest in the style in which we build, if we are not to run the risk of the kind of criticism that Ruskin meted out to the hapless Bradford wool merchants.

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