Ugly or misunderstood? Architect Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (credit: Getty)
It has become a trait of too many of us — and I plead as guilty as any of you might — to go about our daily business not just oblivious of much of what goes on around us, but making a conscious effort to be so. So much of our urban surroundings is, or appears to be, repellent. Most towns possess modern architecture that looks jerry-built, because it often is. Even mock-Georgian, an already hideously debased style, has become worse than it was, since glazing bars became, apparently, an unnecessary expense. Areas that used to produce fine red bricks, or Staffordshire blues, or fine greys, now build in a colour that can best be described as second-day diarrhoea. Modern architecture does not need to be ugly, and certainly does not need to be pastiche if it is to be interesting and uplifting; but no one seems to have told many of today's third-rate builders that.
Yet perhaps we should look more closely at what is around us: for as the new collection of essays (with the odd television script thrown in), by the critic Jonathan Meades demonstrates, even as we think our built environment offers no comfort to the soul or to the intellect, it has the capacity to surprise us, engage us, and lift us up. Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99) contains numerous reflections on what is around us, and reveals the closeness and acuity with which Mr Meades has not just examined, but read about, all that he has seen about him on his travels. No urban landscape is too ghastly that it cannot yield some fascination to him; and this is what he shares with us.
Not everyone will find Mr Meades's style of writing, highly adjectival and allusive as it is, to his taste. It is a style that can only be carried off by someone of great verbal originality, which is why it works in his case. It is why his television films, of which there are too few and which it is criminal not to put on mass-circulation channels rather than the intellectual ghetto of BBC4, are so compelling and remarkable. Nor will everyone respond to his aggressively unsentimental attitude towards our environment, though only a dolt would say that his championship of, for example, the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (a brutalist confection occasionally voted the ugliest building in Britain, and which he lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have reprieved from the demolition ball) does not at least cause one to think.
Mr Meades is impatient with and frustrated by those who find urbanism an offence in itself. He knows that urban areas can be sensitively and successfully regenerated when they have gone into decline — as so many in once-industrial Britain have. Though this can be done "not by preposterous gestures like damming the Tees to make a recreational lake for Middlesbrough or by the tokenism of public art". He loathes much of what he sees as regeneration: "The ineffable estates of executive houses are not internal cancers or wens, they are, rather, external buboes and boils."