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Author interview – Matthew Freedman, Best Buildings Britain

We caught up with Matthew Freedman, author of Best Buildings Britain, to chat about his thoughts on modern architecture, what inspired him to write the book and why he believes we should all love a bit of concrete! 

How did the book come about, what is the idea behind it?

It’s the third in a series by the publisher, Luster, that already covers Belgium and Holland. All the books are based on the same simple principle: an architectural tour based on the choices of a whole range of architects and experts.

The main section gives you 75 British buildings completed in the last 100 years, based on the choices of about 30 interesting people — practising architects, and experts in architecture and design of one sort or another. They contributed a list of their favourites, and anything picked more than once automatically made the cut. It makes for a really varied, occasionally eccentric, selection. It’s not meant to be complete or definitive, but I hope it’s diverse and thought-provoking.

Why did you want to write it?

I think about buildings all the time and I use them a lot, so it seemed like a good idea.

How did you decide on the timeframe for the buildings chosen – from 1918 until today?

The idea was to keep things focused on a range of modernist styles, and demonstrate what excited the contributors about the buildings of the 20th and early 21st centuries. I started planning the book in 2018, and looking back 100 years to 1918 just seemed right. The choices embrace Bauhaus, art deco, brutalism, underground stations, ornate cinemas, unorthodox private houses … And beware: there’s plenty of exposed concrete in this book! But there’s a lot more than that too.

Were you surprised by any of their choices?

Often. Plenty of things came up again and again, just as you’d expect: 1930s landmarks like Highpoint in North London and Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion, plus the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, the Lloyd’s Building, and so on. Frankly, it would be downright odd if certain buildings didn’t feature. But alongside those, for example, Norman Foster chose Concorde and wartime prefab housing — examples like that are great reminders of the breadth of people’s interests and inspirations. Asking a diverse group means you get a rounded-out selection that includes seaside apartment blocks, defunct shopping centres and postmodern pumping stations, as well as all the acknowledged greats.

What did you learn from writing the book – any buildings you’d never heard of?

Certainly. Apart from the main 75 illustrated entries, every contributor’s complete list is at the end of the book. That adds about 100 more buildings, so almost everyone will find something new. I particularly like the small, personal choices. Things like the 1969 house (chosen by Peter York) inserted in a 19th-century terrace in Pimlico – a nice bit of brutalist infill. Or the unassumingly moderne Redhill Odeon (1938), a childhood favourite of Bevis Hillier, who went on to pioneer the appreciation of art deco.

Some of the choices have been demolished, what factors make other modern buildings stand the test of time?

There’s a major random factor here. It’s certainly not the case that the all best buildings survive, and the rest get knocked down, through some kind of rational selection process. We still have Preston Bus Station (1969), for example, only because of a passionate struggle by locals and the 20th Century Society. The authorities wanted it gone and almost succeeded. On the other hand, the Tricorn shopping centre (1966) in Portsmouth was flattened by the council in 2004 with no clear plan for what would replace it. Guess what? Nothing ever has. It was a really dull-witted move, which looks very wasteful and short-sighted a few years down the line.

Was there a golden era/decade for modernist architecture in Britain?

We certainly have a legacy of elegant, powerful 1930s buildings, from the Daily Express HQ in Fleet Street to the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. But the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies was definitely something of a golden age, too. Ambitious, optimistic, well-funded public projects produced council housing like Neave Brown’s Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, or Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick towers. There were university campuses like UEA, and of course Lasdun’s National Theatre. Their impact and value – architecturally and socially – are still being thought through, even as some have struggled to survive.

Some of the designs are quite contentious – do you think we fully understand and value modern architecture in this country?

The evolution of taste is a slow and mysterious process, but I’m not sure we’re more conservative than elsewhere. Some people still struggle with art deco designs that others adore. Following on from that, that there’s a great big backlog of architectural styles to get steamed up about: brutalism, high-tech, postmodernism and so on.

What would you say to those critics who find modern architecture brutal and ugly?

Relax, give it some time, loosen up a bit, go for a walk. Don’t be part of the demolish-it-now movement.

Is there a growing affection for concrete?

Yes. In fact, it’s gone haywire in certain quarters. Bookshops are full of beautiful photographic surveys of brutalist blocks, you can get Trellick Tower on a tea towel or a tote bag. This is fine, but it caters to quite a small sector of the population. More widely, I do think full-on concrete is being seen as less alien, less intrinsically unpleasant. It’s partly because what remains is now – finally –  kept cleaner and renovated, from the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank to the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. “Everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance,” says a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. It certainly helps if people can use buildings without bits falling off them.

Give us your top ten favourites?

I think I’ll sidestep that by offering a couple that nobody picked, and which, therefore, didn’t make it into the book. John Wells-Thorpe’s Hove Town Hall (1974) — a friendly, modest brutalist building that I walk past every day. And Birmingham Central Library (1974) by John Madin— an amazing upside-down ziggurat, a really triumphant municipal development that seemed like a terrible loss when it was demolished in 2016. Sorry to end on a sad note!

About ‘Best Buildings Britain’

In Best Buildings Britain, Matthew Freedman presents 75 buildings completed after 1918 in Great Britain, each accompanied by a photo and a short text. The selection is based on the top ten lists of renowned British architects and architecture critics, including great names like Norman Foster, Piers Gough, Charles Holland, Jonathan Meades, Alice Rawsthorn and Richard Rogers. From their lists comes a surprising mix of ‘best’ buildings, from applauded contemporary projects such as the London Aquatics Centre, to impressive must-sees such as Highpoint in Highgate (London) or Marine Court in St Leonards-on-Sea, up to brutalist gems such as Preston bus station and the National Theatre. The book also features the full lists with all of each contributor’s ten favourite buildings.

Find out more about Best Buildings Britain here.