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Rykwert: ‘OMA's Rothschild is a symbol of Britain's oligarchy'

Joseph Rykwert has described OMA’s towering Rothschild Bank headquarters above the Bank of England as symbolic of our undemocratic society

Speaking at the RIBA last night (17 July) as part of a debate on this year’s RIBA Awards and the state of British architecture, the world-famous architecture critic described Rothschild’s New Court – which defied City of London height restrictions and features a two-storey, double height sky pavilion overlooking the Bank of England – as a sign of our increasingly oligarchic times.

Architecture tells us a great deal more about ourselves than we would like to vocalise

Commenting on Rem Koolhaas’ first London building which is considered to be a strong contender for the Stirling Prize shortlist this year, he said: The Rothschild building does make it very clear in what sort of world we live – the fact it is taller and looks down on the Bank of England. We live in a society that claims to be democratic but in fact is oligarchic.’

He added: ‘When this is pointed out, we [architects] tend to forget that architecture tells us a great deal more about ourselves than we would like to vocalise.’

Turning to discuss Renzo Piano’s recently inaugurated Shard, he warned the 310 metre-tall skyscraper could be symbol of a worsening economic climate.

‘Over the next decade the shard is going to be overgrown by Foster’s two towers in Paris and the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah’, he said. ‘Record high building coincides with crisis. It might well be that it gets worse.’

The all-star panel at the Sapa Building Systems-hosted debate in RIBA’s Jarvis Memorial Hall included AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto, AJ editorial director Paul Finch, FT architecture correspondent Edwin Heathcote and RIBA awards group members Murray Fraser, professor at the Bartlett, and Alison Brooks of Alison Brooks Architects.

Heathcote described the RIBA Award-winning 13,000m2 New Court building as the ‘perfect illustration’ of the UK’s contemporary economic situation which he described as: ‘The financial institutions gazing over the Bank of England and dumping all over it.’

New Court, Rothschild Bank headquarters, London, by OMA

New Court, Rothschild Bank headquarters, London, by OMA

Commenting on OMA founder Rem Koolhaas’ role in designing the building, he added: ‘Rem pretended to not be interested in context but in the end created the ultimate contextual building.’

Brooks said: ‘One thing that always stands out about OMA is their really intense discourse around the concept of a building. This building’s concept references the towers of the Medici family in Florence and the idea of the safe as the core of the building and annexes as essays in museum organisation.’

She added: ‘It’s just a really refreshing approach to what could have been a very iconic, extravagant project.’

Jon Palethorpe, commercial director of Sapa Building Systems, said it was hard to identify clear trends across the awards. However, he observed that ‘… to some degree all [the buildings] were set against the unavoidable context of the current economic climate. With this in mind, perhaps it’s unsurprising that in most categories, there were fewer winners compared with last year. Healthcare and school projects were noticeably diminished and housing schemes were almost too difficult to define as such.’

Keith Williams with Jon Palethorpe

Keith Williams with Jon Palethorpe commercial director of Sapa Building Systems,

Read a feature-length report on the panel debate in next week’s AJ.

 

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