Eric Kuhne didn't realise the consequences of crashing a Christmas party at Michael Graves' house in 1985. He ran into Jeff Kipnis, 'who had just given a paper at a symposium to celebrate Mikey's 25 years in architecture . . . I had to tell him it was pathetic'. Kipnis, Kuhne remembers, 'admitted to running out of steam on all this decon stuff', and asked, 'What do you do when you get a universe without a centre?'
'You pick up a pencil and draw,' Kuhne replied. Sitting between Kipnis and his host, Kuhne had a revelation that 'they had created polarities' between pathos and classicism, and that he could finally 'find a voice [somewhere between these polarities] to develop ideas about architecture and the city'. He went home and filled a notebook with ideas which through many twists and turns led to designing Bluewater shopping centre as a manifestation of his concept of 'civic society'. It opens on 16 March, the same day that Kuhne participates in an Academy Forum symposium on Architecture and Tragedy.
Kuhne's time as a master's student in Princeton in the early 1980s gave him the formal skills to give architectural shapes to ideas which he had been formulating for many years. With Alan Colquhoun, Eisenman, Gwathmey, Graves, and successive deans Bob Geddes and Bob Maxwell, Princeton enjoyed 'the highest level of discussion about form ever'. During this magical time, 'I watched the school turn from a great debate about form to get completely eroded by decon. It introduced contemporary nihilist thought and stimulated a lot of criticism . . . none of it produced architecture'.
When he arrived at Princeton, Kuhne was already an experienced architect, and in this experience lay the roots of 'civic architecture'. After graduating from Rice University with degrees in art and architecture in 1973, he returned as city architect to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the small city where he had lived since his father had retired from the air force. The populist mayor Ivan Levamoff was 'my introduction to civil society', says Kuhne. 'He said, 'It's our responsibility to create a great city. Business will not do it.'' Some years later Graves arrived in town to build the Hanselmann House. 'One day Mikey said, 'You know what you're going to do tomorrow; you're going to take your graduate entry exam'.' So off Kuhne went to Princeton - only to have the phone ring. It was Levamoff's successor, saying, 'You know that scheme you were going to build for Ivan? You're going to build it for me.' Kuhne hired six classmates, made $100,000 in his first year, and irritated staff by not devoting himself entirely to academic work.
Kuhne's education and intellectual development illustrate that American culture is not the oxymoron which many blinkered Europeans would have. His father taught him to draw, and his mother, who had a masters degree in education, used to say, 'Who shall we have to dinner tonight?' and then 'take Byron off the shelves'. Solemn parental injunctions to 'add to the library' finally got through when Kuhne realised he was not being told to buy books, but to write them. This may sound corny but it is also credible: America has always had a strong ethos of self-improvement through education, and the civil values of small communities were extremely strong among early settlers. Kuhne himself admits to a 'naive optimism', and these significant communitarian phenomena have their downsides. But the mission he realised was to take their best parts and translate them, through his Princeton experience, into built form. Anyone who doubts their centrality to American culture should check out Kuhne's oft-cited lodestars of the Rights of Man, Lincoln's stirring call to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', and fdr's 'four freedoms'. They are the mediating ideas between the classicism Graves represents and Kipnisian nihilistic pathos.
Civic architecture, as Kuhne describes it, starts with the need to recapture the ground plane, and make enclosures rather than object buildings on it. The Bilbao Guggenheim, he says, 'is arguably one of the finest sculptural buildings of the twentieth century', but 'where the titanium hits the ground it is absolutely desolate. It forsakes the experience of humans at ground level for the experience of looking at the skyline'. More succinctly, he evokes the Sydney Opera House as 'a great skyline piece, ratshit ground plane'.
Sydney is the site of Darling Park, his first project for Bluewater's developer, Lend Lease. Malcolm Latham of Lend Lease happened to attend a lecture by Kuhne in Sydney called 'Civic versus Public (how ordinances and rules have usurped pageantry and ritual)'. Even more fortuitously, he happened to be sitting next to Kuhne's sister, who overheard him say to his wife, 'I've got to meet with this guy.' Offered the opportunity to work on one of any number of Lend Lease schemes, Kuhne demanded to be on the one where there was greatest risk. That commanded full attention from the board. He had to contend with a Harry Seidler-designed masterplan where the main level was 6m above surrounding streets, and the plinth bristled with vents. The most representative of Kuhne's points was never to let back-of-house facilities dominate those of public life. And when public access and civil values are supported by architectural form, which creates rooms and spaces, you get civic architecture.
Lend Lease liked what it got. When it became involved at Bluewater it was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill large shopping centre, projected, in 1994, to be worth £294 million. Now it is worth £1.2 billion because, Kuhne says, 'people have thrown ideas, not just materials, into that chalk pit'. And it is those ideas that create a civic architecture which we can, from next week, all go and assess for ourselves.