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University of life says Earth Centre is too much of a white elephant

editorial

It should have been the perfect metaphor for our times.

Ten years after the launch of the National Lottery we have all come to our senses about empty sensationalist projects. We know that developments have to satisfy a real need or yearning if they are to succeed. So away with all that theme-park flummery that never succeeded in getting Doncaster's Earth Centre to do more than just limp along. The time has come to hand it over to a serious proponent of sustainability. Bill Dunster is that man, a one-time extremist dreamer who is now rapidly nearing the mainstream, not because he has changed his views but because popular thinking and regulation have moved so much closer to his position.

So how satisfying it would be to relate that we had now entered into a new age, with Dunster's serious approach prevailing over superficial razzmatazz. But real life is not that simple. The Earth Centre trustees don't like Dunster's idea. Even worse, they don't like his building. Although the conference centre he designed has had a modest success - the RIBA once held a regional conference there - and it is still lauded on the Earth Centre's website for its flexibility and environmental credentials, now the chair of the finance and audit committee for the centre's board of trustees says that it has 'serious deficiencies'.

Doubtless there are also deficiencies in Dunster's economic model. A 'university of sustainability' is an attractive idea, but universities aren't the easiest institutions to make succeed. And if one were to be created, would a slightly godforsaken site outside Doncaster be the favourite location, even one with all sorts of eco bells and whistles? It may well be that the Earth Centre, flawed in conception and in its desperate plunge downmarket, is a white elephant. Even architects who enjoy, in differing ways, the kudos of Feilden Clegg Bradley, Bill Dunster and Will Alsop, couldn't breathe life into this particular dead duck. Theme parks are more fun, and serious museums are more serious. Universities need to be conceived and designed as such. Despite all the green thinking that went into the various buildings and features, the physical complex that is the Earth Centre may prove not to be very sustainable.

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