Author John Grindrod chats to us about his latest book Iconicon: A journey around the landmark buildings of contemporary Britain – a follow up from the cult ‘Concretopia’ – delving into the failures and successes of London’s architecture post-1980, connecting the dots between architecture and politics, and bringing our attention back to the personal stories instead of the ‘glossy corporate histories’ of architecture.
The book cover of Iconicon: A journey around the landmark buildings of contemporary Britain, published by Faber, March 2022
The playful title of the book is ‘Iconicon’ – what does this word mean?
I rather like making up words as the titles for my books – Concretopia came about as an attempt to try to capture the idealism of the post-war period with what was actually built. So with Iconicon I was interested in how the more recent architecture of the last 40 years has so often been dominated by the ‘icon’ – buildings designed to brand and represent a place. But my contention is that the real icons of the age aren’t so much the big fancy buildings like the Shard or the Gherkin, but more everyday places, like Barratt homes or out of town shopping centres and business parks. So the idea of Iconicon became almost a lexicon of icons, great and small, that most represent our era.
The time period you examine in the book is from 1980 to today. Why do you begin your study in 1980?
Partly this was to follow on from Concretopia, which ended in 1979, but also because the period 1980-2020 does feel like an era architecturally, one dominated by high tech, deconstruction and postmodernism, and also the right to buy, the rise of developers’ houses and the commodification of property by TV and media.
1980s housing in London: China Wharf designed by CZWG, 1985–88; and The Circle designed by CZWG, 1987–89. Photography: Nigel Green for Blue Crow Media. Featured on our Postmodern London Map.)
What would you say is the biggest failure of British architecture during this time period?
I think the big failure has been the lure of the big private developer over more community or civic minded schemes. As anyone with a Brutalist London Map knows, the big architects of the postwar period all attempted to create social housing, but it feels like the big names of today have shied away from that, and have gone instead for grand showstoppers rather than more meaningful creations. Also, a trip to Poundbury was a great reminder of how easy it is to get trapped in a heritage fantasia rather than address the real issues of the day.
What was the most positive or progressive architecture that came out of this period?
I’m really excited by the arrival of new council and social housing, exemplified by Goldsmith Street in Norwich by Mikhail Riches, and the work of Peter Barber in London. There’s a lot of great architects working in this field and some beautifully designed schemes coming out of them. Also, the focus on building more sustainably, following the eco-architecture of the 1990s, is very exciting. I love BedZED in Beddington as a great example of that, a community-based scheme that took all the thinking around green architecture and built it on a large scale. Even the sustainable ideals of the Gherkin are laudable too. But I also love the super-modern excitement of Richard Rogers’s Lloyd’s building, which still feels dazzling and audacious today. And some of postmodern buildings, like TV-am’s studio Eggcup House or the Isle of Dogs pumping station, are so fun and charming it’s hard not to love them.
Can you give an example explored in the book of how architecture and politics are so closely intertwined?
It’s fascinating how Docklands and all those Millennium projects were so tied up with the politics of their day. I interviewed Michael Heseltine about Docklands and it was amazing to see how this huge redevelopment was planned at a time when such large-scale government intervention was seen as the enemy. And with those millennium galleries and museums, all of that funding from the National Lottery and the EU made these very political projects. And this was also the period of devolution too, and the Scottish parliament and the Senedd and the construction of Cardiff Bay in Wales all came out of a New Labour project. And then there’s the Olympics… Each of these big projects tells us so much about who the politicians of those eras thought we were as a nation. Not all of that is good.
What would you say was the most interesting interview you conducted in your research? (Who was it with, and why?)
I was so lucky to interview so many interesting people, not just architects but residents of Docklands and Wimpey homes, people who worked in the first business parks and moved into the first warehouse conversions. And all of their stories are fascinating. Terry Farrell was a revelation, he was very funny and also so clear-eyed about those great 1980s landmarks he designed, like MI6. Mike Davies, who drew up the Dome, was mind-blowing on the terrifying process of working on that structure against the clock, and of going there on millennium eve. Emma Dent Coad’s interview about Grenfell was heartbreaking. It’s really all of the personal stories that might have got lost to bigger more glossy corporate histories that I was keen to foreground, and I hope I have done them justice.
Iconicon: A journey around the landmark buildings of contemporary Britain
Published by Faber, 3 March 2022
Available to purchase here.
An ideal companion to Iconicon is the our London Maps set, which will cohesively guide you across the city through decades, movements and architectural highlights.