If you didn't know what a 'flaneur' is, you soon found out in Jay Merrick's talk to the Society in the Willis Building. Much of his talk was about the value of strolling in towns and cities, observing and reacting and feeling a part of the environment. Baudelaire, he said, "walked Paris into existence". As a child himself in San Francisco in the 1960s, Jay got to know vibrant parts of the city as he frequently strolled down towards the waterfront.
Now as an Ipswich resident, he described with critical affection his favourite stroll into town. Close to the impressive 'Georgian' terrace on Norwich Road there are some contrasting little shops some of which have character, but then near the junction with Bramford Road there is the 'Revett's' building with a "tinny carapace" on top which "belongs in a business park" and is "a failure of planning". Each side of Barrack Corner he sees a mixed picture, but heading off into Civic Drive ("not really civic, just a dual carriageway") there are three welcoming buildings - the New Wolsey Theatre ("each façade talks to what it faces"), the big AXA curved building ("designed by people who used their eyes" and conveying a sense of "craftsmanship and pleasure in detail") and the Willis Building itself (Norman Foster, "the arch-technocrat" making "Modernism bow to the existing street layout"). There is enough in this walk, he said, to produce an emotional connection with the town. A Society like ours should be even more vigilant to ensure that townscape quality is maintained and enhanced.
However, the architectural correspondent of The Independent and writer on this subject in several other journals didn't simply confine himself to a verbal account of a stroll in our town, enlightening though that was. More thought provoking was his considered opinion that town planning and the predicament of towns themselves suffered two major blows decades ago from which they've never recovered. One was the abolition of Retail Price Maintenance in 1964 which set the scene for American-style price cutting. The other was the enthusiasm of influential theorists for the 'Non-Plan', a reaction against the then town planning. This gave local communities a bigger say in planning - good in theory, but combined with price cutting it led to the inexorable growth of big business, which could come along and say, "We know what people want and we can pay for it". The result we see today is the influence of a giant business like Tesco whose effect on town planning is so powerful because Local Authorities usually can't afford to resist it.
In his second session upstairs, Jay reminisced about architects whom he had interviewed during recent times. [Tony Marsden made notes on this part because I had had to retire with a heavy head cold!] He recalled Oscar Niemeyer in Buenos Aires at the age of 96 who said he had brought sex to architecture - while continually glancing down at Copacabana Beach below. In Jay's opinion, if it were not for Le Corbusier, Niemeyer would have been the single most important modernist. "At the age of 102 he's probably still exploring the formal possibilities of reinforced concrete." He also described an interview with Zaha Hadid on the second floor of her MAXXI Museum in Rome, "unquestionably a diva"! And he recalled Norman Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, whom he has known for ten years yet "I don't know what makes him the most driven of architects I've ever met." Nowadays, he employs over a thousand people in all continents - sixty buildings going up at one time. "What you get from Foster is the best possible solution for a site." Which brought his listeners back to where they were, the Willis Building, one of Foster's early creations - and near the end of a memorable evening.