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The Architecture Foundation has lost its way

A revived Architecture Foundation can put London at the forefront of sustainable urban design, says Rory Olcayto

There was a time when every major city in Britain had it’s own architecture centre. Glasgow had its Lighthouse. Manchester had its CUBE. Even Hull, European Capital of Culture in 2017, had one - ARC.

Yet, just like its bigger cousins in Scotland and the North-West, ARC has gone the way of the dodo. Some are still alive: the Bristol centre, for example, will soon host AJ’s Small Projects 2014 exhibition.

But the one organisation that should be a leading light as the industry enjoys an upturn and new ideas about practice and theory are taking hold, is floundering. I refer of course, to the Architecture Foundation (AF), the first architecture centre, established back in 1991.

It has emerged that the current director, Sarah Ichioka, quit the post during her maternity leave, which began last August, and that her stand-in, Noemi Blager left the organisation in April.

Despite the relative success of the past two directors - Ichioka’s focus on fostering emerging talent and Rowan Moore’s brave attempt to commission a Zaha Hadid-designed headquarters - few would disagree that the organisation has lost its way. Former chairman Will Alsop is right when he says he’s not sure what it is for any more. But he’s wrong when he suggests the time has passed for such an organisation. Instead, we should listen to the current chairman, Simon Allford. He says the AF must undergo a ‘rebirth’ and ‘do less, but better’.

Moving out of its spacious Tooley Street offices as well, where the AF has for many years been generously supported by its landlord, Roger Zogolovitch’s Lake Estates, is a good thing, too. The AF doesn’t need an exhibition gallery - a small workspace will do - because, as Allford says, the focus should be the programme.
The nature of that programme is all-important. London is arguably the world’s creative capital - for the time being. That reign can be extended, of course, but there are many other cities vying for London’s crown.

If the Architecture Foundation and it’s yet-to-be-appointed new director can blend the sectors in which the city excels - the arts, business, finance, technology, fashion and education - with architecture and planning, the organisation, and London, can become a world leader in the most important issue of the 21st century: sustainable urban design.

Cliff Richard: British architecture’s unsung muse?

There was a very funny moment during a talk with the curators of the British Pavilion, Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout, when Jacob explained that, during their research, Cliff Richard seemed to be at the heart of post-war British Modernism and, had they not reined themselves in, the whole show could well have been about the Peter Pan of Pop.

Jacob was referring to items included within the Pavilion: stills from the 1982 Wired for Sound video, filmed in the then very new Milton Keynes shopping centre, and the album cover to the 1973 film soundtrack of Take Me High, a painting of the pop star in front of the soaring roadways of Spaghetti Junction, which had just been completed the year before.

Cliff Richard as the shaman of new British architecture? That may sound too trippy for a British Council exhibition, but that, in part, is A Clockwork Jerusalem’s success: witty but sincere, it provides a magical reading of the signifiers, dreams and desires behind major projects like Milton Keynes and Cumbernauld. (Who knew that the sewage works in MK was placed on a ley-line?) Jacob and Vanstiphout’s show is a more-than-welcome counterpoint to Rem Koolhaas’s cold, empirical, faithless Biennale.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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