A couple of weeks ago I moved back into the refurbished Town Hall Extension in Manchester. The inside offices are as you would expect, open plan, modern, with meeting room "pods" and glass fronted meeting rooms; but the building itself has been kept in its 1930s glory, a mixture of the functional and the grand as befits the age. Clanking up the stone steps, or admiring the municipal fittings, I couldn't help but think that its not unlike a lot of poetry of the thirties: serious, austere, certainly grand, but not particularly ostentatious. Its a building that wears its craftsmanship lightly, but is proud of itself, very like the poetry of Auden, Isherwood and Spender. It is serious in intent - this is clearly a civic building - and though there is room for ornament there is no room for frippery.
It got me thinking how alike the poetry and buildings of an era might be. I can't quite think of an architect-poet, though we might co-opt William Morris to our argument in some sense: but it does seem that they often parallel each other. Post-1918 buildings and poems both seem to be breaking free from their early 20th century moorings; ambitious, modern, sometimes baroque, and often over-reaching, the poetry is as spacious as a 1920s house. For the Chrysler building is as monumental as "The Wasteland". The fifties see a poetry of the confessional that finds its echoes, at least in part, in the American kitchen, the American diner. A public-homeliness that strips away the stoic blandishments of the immediate post-war years, and revels in new forms of intimacy. The sixties is both gaudy and relaxed; whilst by the seventies we're seeing post-modern buildings alongside L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, equally brazen in their facade, but perhaps rotten at the core in some way as they struggle with the social divisions of that age. Bty the 1980s poetry is as mixed use as the modern mall; as quick and easy to understand as a McDonalds. Get to this century and we're no longer building anything iconic - everything is an accumulation of styles and purpose, a bit eco here, a bit Scandinavian here, a bit workspace over there: and maybe our poetry is equally pick and mix, but cramped by too little attention, like a new estate, going out to poetry readings as there's not room at home to cook more than a take away....
Just wanted to say that I really like this analogy. I would like to push it back into the 19th C but the social ebb and flow of those years is still a mystery to me.
I think it works quite well in the 19 th century - a burgeoning middle class reflected in the tight formalism of Tennyson et al; surely as upright as the Victorian semi; and the late period saw "decadence" where buildings were classical on the outside but modern on the inside - surely descriptive of the Rosettis, Hopkins etc.
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