Lessons from a country that doesn't meddle with medals
On returning from Zurich, I was struck by the contrast between the resplendent wealth, clarity and continuity of Switzerland (from the detail of an infrastructure of bollards to trains/signage/architecture), and London, which offers an altogether different model of continuity. Here, links with the past are made through an understanding of degrees of change, recognising difference rather than similarity.
I was recently given Sam Lambert's 1951 publication (illustrated by Osbert Lancaster) London Night and Day: A Guide to Where the Other Books Don't Take You. This introduction to London as a 24-hour city describes another place in another time: where bowler-hatted men walk around St James'. And yet many of the places are recognisable. Street names remain, as does much of the architecture; it's just that it has been re-clad or reinvented.
Even if the architecture has gone, the street line will be familiar.
Incidentally, who honestly remembers buildings once they have been demolished?
They are usually forgotten long before the new architecture emerges.
Traffic is worse, though I am advised that there are no more cars now than there were then (a fantastic statistic if true), so only the ways of the traffic engineer and an obsession with one-way systems can explain our sorry state. What stands out as different is the infrastructure that the fear and loathing of cars has called into being: the horrific signs, barriers, lights, cameras and, worst of all, traffic wardens - the latter having less to do with traffic as an offence and inconvenience than with revenge and revenue.
London deserves a medal - the RIBA's Royal Gold Medal. Such an accolade for London may sound like a stupid idea, and I would agree, but if you can give one to Barcelona, why not our capital?
The trip to Zurich also identified a new paradigm of architectural regionalism: not of materials or addressing steep slopes, but of other ways of managing cleaning regimes.
How else can the Swiss build all those wonderful unbroken super-sized horizontal windows that illuminate their interiors and modulate their facades? Who cleans them and how? I don't know and I don't care. Is there no health-and-safety report demanding a rotatable pane cleanable from the interior?
Are there no thermal standards?
In fact, I imagine the ever-prepared Swiss have both and a lot more, including a sense of perspective. Theirs is a generous architecture of sensible consideration rather than the rulebook. How unfortunate that the new regionalism is 'regulatory regionalism', based on rights, not delights.
Even if you accept that, to the tourist, the grass is always a little greener, the best of what we saw in Zurich reflects a more generous and intelligent attitude, one where quality is expected, desired and paid for. The late Philip Johnson's aphorism that the three key architectural criteria were 'get the job, get the job, get the job' might, you suspect, be replaced by an altogether more civilised idea about drawing details, drawing details, drawing details.
The important point is confirmation that really good architects understand that detail and the big idea are inseparable. You need one to make the other work. Indeed, the fact that you know the detail can be built might allow you a little more time to think about the idea.
And it is on this basis that the best Swiss architects are proceeding. This explains why the Swiss don't give medals to cities: they have a fundamental understanding of the metropolis as a constant, which allows them to enjoy the buildings within it.