COMMENT

Men of Letters

London

8 March 2017

"The Carbuncle has been defeated but the Stump may well rise… Another word from you, sir, at this crucial time can help save London."

This is not an excerpt from some turn-of-the-century piece of invasion fiction, but is rather taken from a letter, sent in 1985, by five of Britain's major heritage organisations. The addressee was Charles, Prince of Wales, then on tour in Rome. In a 1984 speech at a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) anniversary dinner, he had savaged London's contemporary architecture.

One of the projects he singled out was Mansion House Square, a bronze-tinted skyscraper designed by the modernist master Mies van der Rohe in the City of London that would have, at the time, been the tallest building in the area. Describing it as a "yet another giant glass stump", the Prince's comments helped seal the scheme's fate. Unable to realise his Miesian dream, the building's developer Peter Palumbo commissioned James Stirling to design a rather different structure for the site – the still-contentious No. 1 Poultry, which last year became Britain's youngest listed building.

These two projects are the focus of a new exhibition at RIBA, Mies van der Rohe + James Stirling: Circling the Square. The result of thorough research into both, the exhibition gathers models, drawings, photographs and other artefacts to meticulously explore both Mansion House Square and No. 1 Poultry. Although curators Marie Bak Mortensen and Vicky Wilson have anchored the show on the individual buildings rather than their complicated gestation, a series of correspondences prove amongst the most compelling objects on display. As well as opening a window on one of the most contentious planing battles of late 20th century London, they vividly create an image of a rather different architectural milieu to that of the present day.

When Mansion House Square came in for public inquiry in 1984, Palumbo embarked on an vigourous campaign in its support. The calibre of architects that he marshalled to Mansion House Square's defence was extraordinary. As well as Stirling and Richard Rodgers, he received help from Denys Ladsun and Berthold Lubetkin, by then both advanced in years. A handwritten letter of thanks from Palumbo to Ladsun inadvertently highlights the latter's age by explaining the "chattering tax machine" to him.

A draft of Lubetkin's pro-Mies letter to Building Design is riddled with grammatical mistakes. Critiquing a conservation-based alternative plan for the site by Terry Farrell, Lubetkin declares that he "is not going to be a party to preserving massive, pious, philistine and stuffy respectability simply because it is almost as old as I am" – something that could be taken as a rebuttal to Prince Charles as much as to Farrell's plan. It's difficult to imagine a major architect now penning such a public drubbing of another.

The most surprising intervention comes from Philip Johnson, who gave his support to the anti-Mies architectural critic Gavin Stamp. "I consider it a bad idea," Johnson opined, "for one of the greatest architects of the 20th century to be represented in what may be the greatest city of the 20th century by a posthumous and unimportant piece of architecture." Johnson's dispatch shows the approach of a former curator, considering cities as collections that should contain objects appropriate to their remit.

Stamp himself was a pivotal figure in the opposition campaign. In the 1984 Spectator article "A monument to the dead", Stamp penned a considered, rational critique of the Mies scheme, untangling Palumbo's PR claims before arguing against it on the grounds of its unsuitability for London's "happily haphazard townscape." A year later, writing to the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher with greater urgency, Stamp struck a rather different tone, clearly calculated to catch the ears of his reader: "I should like to see the site developed where necessary by a young, talented and British architect." Threatening Thatcher with the prospect of being "identified with vandalism," Stamp essentially lectures her on urban planning. Even if you disagree with his assessment, the temerity is thrilling.

RIBA's tale is one of a patrician age: inhale deeply, and you might faintly discern the scents of tobacco, beef steaks and St James gentleman's clubs. Women are conspicuous by their absence (plus ça change in the unforgivably male-dominated British architecture sphere). But the humanity of these dispatches – erudite and passionate, dissembling and ageing – feels far more generous than present day depictions of (still largely white, male) architects as inscrutable, aphorism-sprouting genii or TED-friendly tech tycoons. At a time when London is so often pockmarked by Carbuncle Cup-garlanded affronts to urban planning, perhaps architects, writers and heritage groups need to regain the old gumption, and turn architecture once more into an object of earnest discussion.