Why critics don't like the new home for the London mayor
Sir Norman Foster's Greater London Assembly building may not be everybody's cup of tea, but he is the world's greatest architect so - fearing an ambush - even his most determined opponents adopt an indirect approach when attacking it.
While one group concentrates on fanning the embers of the dispute surrounding the run-off with Will Alsop, another is busy conjuring up injurious nicknames like 'Headlight', 'Lamp', 'Orb', 'Glass testicle', 'Cyclops', etc. A third is trying like mad to get the whole thing called in and ground to powder at a public inquiry, while a fourth, the most cautious group of all, is conspiring to get the future mayor to boycott it as soon as it is finished.
What no member of any of these groups seems prepared to do is to break ranks and assert that the design is gross, lopsided and ungainly, and conveys no more comprehensible message to the city than the giant mouse wheel being erected further upstream.
This is a peculiar state of affairs. At first sight, it bears all the hallmarks of pre-emperor's clothes denial, that unstable condition in which every possible signal is being flashed to the emperor that his flies are undone, short of actually telling him. Look more closely, though, and another interpretation emerges. What we have here is an outbreak of New Technology Dread, the most serious for years.
According to this theory, the disquiet caused by the design of the mayoral building is future shock, a rerun of the outrage that greeted the first reinforced-concrete houses in the suburbs in the 1930s. Then, as now, the furore was triggered by their unorthodox appearance, their flat roofs and cantilevers. Then, as now, the real culprit was the new technology that enabled their designers to serve different ends, making their unorthodox appearance not only possible but necessary.
Most of the history of building materials is the history of clay, stone and timber - weak or intractable materials that imposed enormous limitations upon architectural design. Optimised over thousands of years, they produced such masterpieces as Chartres Cathedral and the native American tepee - both tremendous design achievements using materials at the very limits of their capabilities.
Today, those limits are a thing of the past. As far as our infinitely stronger materials are concerned, they do not exist. Indeed, only inertia prevents all architecture from leaving the old formal compound, to which it is no longer confined. But architects who do leave the compound advance into new territory. They join the designers of ships that are really floating shopping centres, and aircraft that are really flying video theatres. Unsurprisingly, they produce buildings that are really power stations, driven not by structural and economic logic but by solar energy, natural ventilation, daylighting and information. These new goals confer a formal freedom, but one that carries with it the likelihood of unorthodox shapes that are not amenable to conventional art-historical criticism. As evidenced by its apparent indescribableness, the mayor's house falls into this category.
Logically, therefore, the obliqueness of the attacks made upon it are proof of the nicety with which Sir Norman Foster has judged how far (too far?) he can go down this revolutionary path.