The BT Tower recently celebrated its 40th birthday. There is perhaps no more potent symbol in the whole of London of the values of public service and technological innovation that so characterised the 1960s in Britain than this building. In the bluish heat of our own communications revolution it becomes all to easy to ignore the achievements and utter pluck of another age, of a time in which Harold Wilson’s Labour government believed in public investment in such buildings and faced the future with a determined, steely gaze. Today’s Labour government, facing the present with a furtive, duplicitous sneer, has derived no small amount of fame from its own interest in the uses of communications, in all senses of that overused word. Pagers, of course, were the devices so beloved in the heroic age of the spin-doctor, used to spectacular effect by the Labour Party machine both before and after the 1997 election victory to ensure that all players on the Westminster stage were kept ‘on message’ so as not to perturb unduly the already-petrified horses of Middle England. Emails have rapidly replaced personal diaries and papers as a source of the kind of explosive revelations that can destroy careers and keep the tabloids fed for days, most famously in the case of Jo Moore and Stephen Byers at the Department of Transport whose leaked electronic notes proffered the opinion that September 11th 2001 was an unmissable opportunity to ‘bury bad news’. All sorts of government services can now be accessed and used in some way online, from asking NHS Direct if your headache is actually a brain tumour to paying for your tax disc.
The change in the 40 years since the then Post Office Tower was erected goes a little deeper than the rapid evolution of communication technologies and the swapping of names and fascias on the side of the building. Aside from the fact that the present Labour government isn’t now at all the same sort of institution that would use political capital and taxpayers’ money to invest in such a major piece of public infrastructure (or at least one with such an evident, worthwhile utility - something fatuous would be just fine), a more fundamental shift has occurred. Government has changed from a provider of telecommunications (and its attendant structures) to a user. The privatisation in the mid-80s of the General Post Office’s telephony offshoot, British Telecommunications, began the process of liberalisation and competition in the sector that is finally beginning to justify itself with rival companies being granted control over the most important telecoms wires – those that stretch between your home and the local exchange – to provide a genuine alternative to the former monopoly provider, BT. I welcome this competition with gusto, especially as it has enabled me to see that doing business with anyone other than BT is a stressful waste of time and a lesson in incompetence and stupidity yet to be rivalled by any other provider of a private service I have encountered. Wanadoo and Bulldog take note.
In the new world order of privatisation, deregulation and competition, I am, however, moved to ask the very unfashionable question of ‘who is in control?’ The BT Tower was built because of a pressing need to process telephone data, terrestrial television and satellite broadcasts through a nodal point in Britain’s telecommunications network. BT still owns the tower, obviously, and large swathes of the fixed-line network are still owned and managed by BT whether or not the data being carried on it is destined for one of its customers. So the network, largely, remains in monopoly hands with regulation from the ever light-of-touch Ofcom. But it is not in public hands, and the broader question remains at large. If no single party can lay claim to the ownership and management of the telecommunications network and there is no commercially disinterested public body involved in the decisions regarding major infrastructure, can telephony ever achieve such beauty again?
The architecture of telecoms certainly reached its aesthetic apotheosis with the building of the Post Office Tower. Where now mobile phone masts are placed, sheepishly and unattractively, on the tops of tall buildings, or else disguised as monkey puzzle trees in more sensitive rural locations, the Labour government of 1965, under the auspices of the GPO, took an unapologetic stride into the future with its sleek, modern mast in the heart of central London. There was, presumably, no reason at all why the functional need for such a tower couldn’t be fulfilled by a structure in an outer suburb of no repute, or perhaps in some forgotten stretch of Essex along the Thames estuary where only some forlorn marsh birds would have noticed its arrival. Instead, there was a self-evident and noble attempt to make flesh in the most prominent position imaginable a vision of a modern Britain, communicating efficiently and with contemporary flair both within its own borders and with the rest of the world.
The architects (Eric Bedford and his team at the Ministry of Public Building and Works) were exceptionally bold in their usage of motifs now closely associated with a particular brand of 1960s modernism; most memorably, perhaps, the circular shape of the plan, but also the materials of gleaming steel, opaque glass, roughly-textured mosaic and, not least, the integration of functional elements of the structure into the overall aesthetic result. Indeed, it is the satellite dishes clustered in their white and dove grey colonies of various sizes that strike one most vividly, for there can be no denial of utility in this building. On the contrary, it is in the modernity and cultural ambition explicit in a telecoms-mast-made-skyscraper that gives the BT Tower its authenticity, its integrity and its aesthetic value. So honestly is this a functional structure, and so honestly a statement of public confidence in modern architecture, modern communications and a modern society, that it must stand in value alongside the finest examples of 19th Century engineering in the capital – the railway termini, the sewerage system, the Underground, the public baths, gasometers, glasshouses and innumerable other innovations that were conceived in the public good and remain for our admiration to this day.
The tower retains its role as a reminder of a more culturally ambitious time, perhaps even more ambitious than the Victorian epoch that spawned so much of the technological innovation that laid the foundation for our continuing progress. There remains, in both the form and continuing use of the building, a loud echo of the zeitgeist that was imbued into its very construction. The Space Race that was such a driving force in scientific inquiry may not have included Britain directly, but 1965 was the very heart of an era in which all developed societies were intent on exploring both the theoretical boundaries and cultural impact of new technologies. The architectural historian Reyner Banham, writing in the late 1950s, writes how western society evolved from the effects of the Industrial Revolution into what he describes as the ‘First Machine Age’ when, at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, every strata of society began to be affected in their everyday lives by the practical, physical applications that earlier industrial innovation had wrought – cars, telephones and electric lighting being in the vanguard of this ‘new’ revolution. The Second Machine Age was, by the 1960s, gathering its own momentum as computing and communications pointed towards an almost invisible technological future, one in which wealth generation depended on the networks and machines we could not see rather than the fossil-fuelled brutes we could; belching road traffic and gargantuan factory machines being merely a legacy of old technology. Microwave communications were an exciting strand of these new technologies – but what form can be fashioned from invisibility? In the fine tradition of Modernist thinking, a practical need was translated into positive action so that the physical demands of high frequency radio – that the waves had a transmitter and receiver – were met in a sublime fusion of function and form.
Here is a building that proclaims its usefulness by its slender, tall, dish-studded form, and yet in being so confidently a mast becomes also an evocative symbol, more powerful than a mere tool. Symbolic of a socialism rooted firmly in contemporary thought, of a political ambition for the public good, the tower is monumental in very many ways of a dormant political philosophy and now distant cultural milieu. Built in its cylindrical form because it was noted that the buildings which survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb explosions were mostly circular (able to deflect the force of the blast by their aerodynamic shape), there was an intention of permanence in the building, a hope that a nuclear atrocity need not disrupt government communication and the furtherance of British interests and values in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The hoped-for permanence has lasted 40 years to date, and an English Heritage Grade II listing order on the building two years ago will no doubt aid its future survival (at least in the face of non-nuclear threats), but the physical legacy of the tower is but a mausoleum for the ideas that fashioned it.
In the economy of the future, indicated today by the phenomenal success of companies such as Google, eBay, Yahoo! and all the other dotcom miracles that create jobs, wealth, technological innovation and a sense of progress, what place does architecture have? The real architecture of the future is in the software that powers my writing and electronic publishing of this piece, and in the microchips that help run it all. There are, of course, labyrinthine layers of physical infrastructure that underlay the electronic shop window of the web-based commerce and technology, but I doubt there is a will to make any of this beautiful. A warehouse, a building to house a computer server, a low-rise office block in Silicon Valley – none of these structures need to be well designed because they don’t have a public, they need communicate no message. The ultimate products of our own machine age are screen-based, and so long as customers respond well to their web experiences then the companies that provide them will surely make money. The desire of the public sector to contribute positively to the built environment appears to have dwindled alongside its abandonment of technological innovation to those parties who prioritise commercial success over the public good. It is certainly in the public good that the world around us all, the reality beyond the screen, is beautiful in a way that does not deny our needs but neither denies our humanity. Useful technology made beautiful for all is what the BT Tower achieves, and its example should be followed.