News: More than Duxford on show at Stirling lecture
Anyone hoping for a complete description of the magnificent American Airforce Museum at Duxford would have been disappointed at Fosters director Spencer de Grey's presentation at the riba. Not only were there no jury members on hand - even in the audience - to explain their choice, but de Grey chose to present six buildings including Duxford - the only one of the half-dozen 'with which I have not been involved'.
However, what we did get was an insightful commentary on a certain view of contemporary architectural practice. The Heritage Lottery Fund alone has paid out £1.2 billion since that first fateful dropping of the balls in November 1994, and matching funding has brought the total value of the projects to £4 billion. Almost all goes on buildings, and there are four other granting bodies. 'We will look back on this time as a golden age for architecture in the public realm,' commented de Grey. And the reasonableness of that proposition was borne out by the projects he showed, all of which were made possible by lottery money.
They were the National Botanical Garden of Wales, the British Museum, World Squares For All, the Millennium Bridge, the Regional Music Centre and School at Gateshead, and Duxford. The Welsh botanical gardens involves rebuilding a once magnificent park in beautiful landscape between Carmarthen and Swansea; their centrepiece is a 55 x 95m toroid glass dome supported on inclined steel arches. As yet without its Katherine Gustafson-designed internal landscape it looks especially fine, at least to architects. At the British Museum, in an early stage of construction, Robert Smirke's internal courtyard is being restored and roofed with a glass canopy which resolves the square edge with the refaced reading room designed by Robert's brother Sidney, to create 'a major new public space in London, open from 7am until 11pm'. The new canopy and refaced Smirkes ensure its photogeneity, even before one has had a chance to take in the underground education centre and other attractions.
The Millennium bridge, linking Bankside and St Paul's, really is 'a beam of light'. Its elegant structure and clever lighting give it the appearance of a moving car photographed on long exposure at night. And it clearly performs an important function.
But the London schemes do carry a health warning for the cynical. De Grey emphasised the urban implications of each - the new route and public space through Bloomsbury up to the University of London precinct and beyond accorded by the British Museum, new pedestrian routes in the south bank arising from the bridge, and all sorts of benefits - not least in reduced bus journey times - coming from the World Squares project, also shown. All of these are real, but I felt just a vague nag that they imply certain patterns of behaviour and movement which are not unlike those of airports: large semi-covered, semi-private space for milling around, with access and exit through controlled points. It is as if, at some deep subliminal level, Sir Norman's love of flying is informing his view of public space - above all, no roads, and all movement conforming to traffic control.
Gateshead promises to be remarkable, two auditoria and a school, separately articulated internally and covered in a unifying series of huge steel arches. As landmark and in function, it will make a positive contribution to Tyneside.
And so to the evening's star, Duxford. On an airfield and having a clear purpose with which only the most ardent pacifist could really take issue, it avoids some of the ambiguities which arise from several of the others' inherent natures. But I would have appreciated some comments on why the torus shape should be appropriate to housing plants in South Wales and aeroplanes in East Anglia. Anyone who claimed the lecture lacked theoretical discussion, though, might have picked up on the entrance sequence, past a memorial to usaf personnel who died in action to an apparently subterranean door beyond which aircraft are interred. Didn't Loos have something to say about monuments and tombs? And what magnificent, noble naivete in coming eyeball-to-eyeball with a B52 without a trace of irony.