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Jay Merrick: What do the RIBA Awards say about architecture?

We must accept that awarded architecture must be rare and fight for good design in general, says Jay Merrick

What is the relationship between buildings that gain a RIBA Award, and architectural output as a whole in any given year? If the question seems odd, or even pointless, it can be put another way. To what extent is good, or even outstanding, architecture influencing the quality of supposedly ordinary lives in supposedly ordinary places? And what might a small, ostensibly unremarkable development in Woodbridge, Suffolk, have to do with these questions?

The profession should certainly hold up its artefacts for judgement, and the hazards of praise, damnation, or irony; and design excellence must, by definition, be exceptional. But, in the case of British architecture in 2013, we might also wonder if exceptional means admirably rare, or in some way profoundly isolated.

HAT Projects’ Jerwood Gallery in Hastings

HAT Projects’ Jerwood Gallery in Hastings

That’s not meant as a blunt provocation to architects who have managed to deliver award-winning buildings, or those who have striven to create high quality work, only to be derailed by circumstances beyond their control. It is perfectly right that the profession should be proud that architecture as diverse as HAT Projects’ Jerwood Gallery, Henley Halebrown Rorrison’s Akerman Health Centre and Jonathan Hendry Architect’s meticulously eccentric Beach Chalet should be garlanded with RIBA Awards.

Nobody would wish to think of these buildings as isolated, in any sense. And yet it’s hard not to fend off Caspar David Friedrich-like images of them as symbolic icebergs of intelligent intent, adrift in the turbid, overheated oceans of global dumbing.

For the generation of British architects at the sharp end of the 21st century, this undercurrent of lumpen compromise and curtailment solidified in the noughties when, for example, procurement processes ensured that the design of new academies usually defaulted into vast, securitised oblongs with one or two zingy features and an atrium down the long axis.

The architecture of schools by designers such as Sarah Wigglesworth remain off-trend. While interviewing Colin Stansfield Smith in the downstairs café at the RIBA very recently, it was salutary to be reminded that the architecture of a school should itself be educational in the way the design should express the school’s relationship with its particular environment and uses. These relationships are, of course, subtle exercises in ethics and community.

In commercial architecture, pre‑crash, the profligate use of supposedly artful block colours on facades has become the cladding equivalent of Neil Kinnock’s fatal 1992 rallying call in Sheffield: ‘We’re alright!’ There was also the Lottery-funded recourse to landmark-unique-iconic-stunning architectural schemes sold as miraculous socio‑urban rebirths; too often, they are diversionary implants whose re-energising effects are based on the placatory allure of shopping environments.

The vision of iconic architecture as a unique fertilising agent still taints the work of intelligent and thoughtful architects. I notice, for example, that Tonkin Liu’s Rainbow Gate public sculpture in Burnley has gained a Regional Award. Given their ability to design with originality - consider their superbly rigorous Camera Jewel House - it was jarring to encounter their subtitle for Rainbow Gate: ‘After the rain comes the rainbow. Burnley is a destination once again.’ This time, one hears something very like Margaret Thatcher’s voice: ‘In view of this new sculpture, I declare Burnley to be vibrant, and therefore a place that may occasionally be visited by strangers.’

Villa Müller, by Adolf Loos

Villa Müller, by Adolf Loos

Strangers will not be able to visit nearly a quarter of the 116 buildings that won RIBA National and Regional Awards this year, as they are private houses. There is nothing wrong with owning or commissioning a house of architectural merit. Who would not want to live in Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller, or in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes or in Living Architecture’s Dune House, complete with its helpful booklet on how to have a productive conversation? This year, many might covet the RIBA Regional Award-winning Turf House on Skye by Rural Architects, which is essentially made of timber, and is heralded by the architects as one of Kevin McCloud’s ‘favourite houses ever’.

The Turf House, by Rural Design

The Turf House, by Rural Design

But the salient, contrasting point is that there are only 10 RIBA Award winners in the general housing category. The architectural quality of so-called standard housing is, quite obviously, far more meaningful to the vast majority of people, and places, than virtuoso domestic architecture.

Why aren’t the very best of Britain’s new wave of architects being commissioned, as a matter of course, to design substantial housing estates or apartment buildings? Why aren’t these housing types being reinvented more often? Why do skilled housing architects such as Peter Barber seem to be oddities? And in the meantime, how can housing be ‘sought after’ if room sizes are so small that Britons are spending £1 million a day on air fresheners? Why do the glibly vivid apartment blocks on Glasgow Harbour Terraces remind me of beached Italian cruise liners?

In Govan, across the water from those architectural hulks, Edo Architecture’s RIAS Award-winning Ghost of Water Row, was a temporary installation based on the distilled proportions of four weaving cottages that stood on the waterside between 1700 and 1929. It was a simple wooden structure, lined with Madras cotton made in Scotland; the cloth carried a guirlandes pattern signifying historic Flemish trade on the river Clyde. At night, lit from within, the ghostling glowed white with a gentle surreality. Who, in two or three centuries’ time, would wish to commemorate the ghosts of those apartment slabs?

Ghost of Water Row, Govan, by Edo Architecture

Ghost of Water Row, Govan, by Edo Architecture

Which brings to mind something written in Architectural Design (AD) by Timothy Morton, a philosophically inclined professor of English at the University of California: ‘The appearance of an object is the past. But since an object can’t be grasped by anything - including itself - the essence of an object is the future.’

It’s an idea that could be tested on Witherford Watson Mann Architect’s National Award-winning interventions at Astley Castle. But Morton’s remark doesn’t seem to acknowledge the effects of human imagination. How many hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of new buildings and developments have each of us driven or walked past that have radiated both a sense of the temporary quick-fix without a past, yet also a certainty about the shape of things to come?

In the circumstances, the very best of award-winning architecture seems particularly admirable, and particularly under threat as a design species. Good architecture is not just unusual, but is perhaps expected to remain unusual.

This expectation is reinforced by media coverage of architecture, and most other subject matter, which is selected to generate website hits. Hence, the makeover of Park Hill estate in Sheffield - from degraded 1960s grunge to 21st-century cool - has gathered vast coverage. Simpson & Brown Architect’s St Albert the Great’s Chapel in Edinburgh, as beautifully finessed in its way as Niall McLaughlin’s chapel at Cuddesdon, lacks Park Hill’s tick-box media mojo.

A decade ago, newspaper arts editors and writers hoped to be first with relatively critical coverage of significant architecture; now their models are cornucopial conveyor-belts such as Dezeen and Designboom. React now says the online newspaper reader response flag under a hastily cooked-up online piece about, say, the Shard. Readers are then asked to click if they Strongly Agree, Agree, Don’t Care, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree with the piece.

Do they hear the phantom whimper of Professor Pavlov’s salivating, conditioned-reflex laboratory dogs as they prepare to tell the virtual world, in the preferred anonymous democratic mode, that they Don’t Care? Ideas and opinions, even of something as tortuously achieved and relatively permanent as architecture, have developed the same fibrillating value-trend networks as micro-fluctuations in the money markets.

Professor Pavlov

Professor Pavlov

What is preventing more good architects, and more good architecture, from being recognised and demanded by clients? Two articles in AJ during May exposed the current confusions at the heart of architecture and development. In one of them, Richard Rogers said: ‘We had a mission, and that has gone. Making money has become much more important … There should be less disparity between the poor and the rich. We as architects can do very little about it, but as citizens we have a responsibility.’ But isn’t there something faintly disturbing about this vision of conjoined professional helplessness and personal civility?

And in a Q&A piece Clive Betts, the Labour MP who chairs the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, was quite clear in saying that uncertainties about the operation and effectiveness of the new NPPF remained, and that planning departments were regarded as back-of-house, and were ideal territory for spending cuts. This stripping back of planners will, he said, ‘shape [the quality of] our environments in the future’. He also confirmed that an economic upturn, and a surge in construction demand, would make the situation even more unstable.

Betts’ candid summary ushers us towards a remark made by the eminent historian Tony Judt shortly before his death in 2010: ‘Efficiency should not be adduced to justify gross inequality.’ Nor should it justify the potential transformation of architects into glorified, hyper-efficient apps, programmed to serve the financial algorithms that are effectively dictating the monoclonal architecture that is stripping our towns of characteristic physical differences.

This formal, and ethical, shapelessness will be addressed during Rem Koolhaas’s curation of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. He has asked the national pavilions to be research units responding to the theme Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014. The idea is to examine the history of architecture in specific countries during this period, thus exfoliating the impact of modernity.

Over the past 100 years, says Koolhaas, architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. Each pavilion, according to the British Council, will portray the characteristics and originality of its country’s architecture, and the collective outcome will be to tell the story of the impact of modernity ‘in a way that helps to account for the current situation.’ This current situation may, of course, have less to do with modernity through the long term, than with the relatively recent surge into hyper-consumption.

Meanwhile, the current situation at the defunct Whisstocks boatyard site in Woodbridge, which covers about half a hectare, has nothing to do with ideas of Koolhaasian modernity, but a great deal to do with current typical small scale architectural development situations in Britain. And, in the past six months, the story that has played out down by the waterside in this small town between the A12 and the Deben estuary has been both surprising and instructive.

A scheme for the site was drawn up by a local developer, vetted by the regional design panel and discussed with the local authority. There were no major issues with it; the development, with very little further change to the design, would probably have gained planning approval.

But when the developer presented the scheme to local people in a packed community hall - the meeting was chaired calmly and skilfully by Lord Gummer - it became obvious that the design was regarded as inadequate in terms of its contextual response: the Whisstocks site is 50m from a Grade I-listed tide mill, and lies on the edge of a charming stretch of the river Deben that is very popular with townspeople and tourists.

The developer, knowing that the council and the design review panel were broadly onside, could have made placatory noises and submitted the scheme, with a few minor tweaks, to the local planners. Instead, he brought in an internationally-experienced architect to work with his original designer to significantly refine the massing, detailing and mixed-use content of the original scheme. The result is a much more sophisticated and contextually considerate ensemble of buildings and public realm.

If the scheme gets planning permission, and if it is built as designed and specified, it could be exemplary - not simply as architecture in isolation, but as an example of a fillet of townscape improvement achieved through a process of reasonable doubt, constructive public involvement, and cross-communication. This is a specific and local design that has benefitted from specific local concerns and aspirations.
Has the revised Whisstocks scheme been influenced by prize-winning architecture elsewhere? It surely must have been. We must accept that awarded architecture has to be rare, and perhaps generally isolated from the perceptions and discussions of public life. But this is hardly a killing blow to the possibility of good design. In the end, and particularly in a climate of cutbacks, every good design must be fought for - whether it’s for a £200 million scheme in central London that goes on to win a RIBA Award, or a small group of buildings in a town that most people won’t have heard of.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sirs
    Re Whisstocks
    The credit here should go to Paul Weston who did the initial designs and then facilitated the process having it reworked. This would have challenged many others.
    Charles Curry-Hyde

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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