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2011: The year of iconus horribilis

Rory Olcayto, deputy editor

The money has run out and so, you might think, given this year’s bumper crop – two Zahas, two Chipperfields, and a couple each from Rem and Rogers – have the buildings. Will 2011 be remembered as the end of a golden era?

A question of sport

As our building studies attest, we think the architecture of the London 2012 Olympic Park is actually rather good. There’s an (expensive) echo of Archigram at Stratford, of plug-in elements (the seating wings on Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre) and demountable structures, best expressed in Heneghan Peng’s remarkable bridge, designed with akt ii, which has two quite different forms for games and legacy use, and which we’ll study next year.

Yet big questions remain: why did the stadium cost £500 million? Why has the commissioning and design process of the media centre resulted in a forgettable building still without a legacy use? And who thought it was a good idea to have a processional route running through Westfield Shopping Centre? And why did the ODA think chopping up the park and selling the village separately to the Qatari royal family, rather than going with the Wellcome Trust’s £1 billion offer to develop the whole site as a technology park was best for Britain?

Icons for all

It was the year of the icon, even if most of them were sheds. Glasgow got a metal shed for its Riverside Museum with a zig-zag facade designed by Zaha Hadid. Margate’s sheds for the Turner Contemporary are white and designed by David Chipperfield. In Wakefield a group of sheds in pigmented concrete, again by Chipperfield, is the new home for the Barbara Hepworth collection. And in Colchester Uruguyan superstar Rafael Viñoly designed a ‘golden’ crescent shed – wrapped in a shiny metal alloy – for local arts group Firstsite.

But in Liverpool the icon crash-landed when shoddy procurement and client mismanagement scuppered 3XN’s landscape-inspired design for a new museum, which saw the Danish firm dumped off its heavily compromised project.

It marks the end of an era the profession has struggled to feel good about. Nevertheless, these are largely happy, successful buildings – in terms of visitor numbers at least. It’s safe to assume that when the money eventually returns, the icon will too.

Like it or not

The year’s best projects – apart from Chipperfield’s Museum Folkwang – include an office, a shed and a staircase. Wexford County Council Headquarters, by Robin Lee Architecture, is surely this year’s breakthrough building: finely crafted, cleverly planned, civic, spacious and easily fit for the Stirling shortlist. Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion was lo-tech, painterly, and ‘full of memory and time’. Thick stipple concrete paths, laid upon fresh, luminous grass, led to a black, cloth-lined box – a basic timber frame with an open-air roof and pretty cloistered garden.

The ‘Smart Nouveau’ staircase by Atmos Studio for a house in Clapham may, or may not mark the emergence of a major talent, but the sheer oddness and bravado this project displays – of super-contemporary quotidian design – is worth a million pop-up cinemas.

Cities for a small fortune

No one who has read Richard Rogers’ Cities for a Small Planet, which calls for high-density townscapes and more public realm, probably not even Rogers himself, would have thought this meant One Hyde Park. Styled by developer Candy & Candy as the most expensive, exclusive apartments in the world, one flat in Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ keynote project this year went for £136 million.

A parking space has sold for £250,000. It has a Rolex shop and a McLaren car show room. Most of its owners live overseas. Only nine homes are registered for council tax. And the Candys have covered their development costs already.

Neo Bankside, another enclave for the super-rich on London’s South Bank, saw its affordable homes quietly dropped this year. It really has been a decade of change. Is this the same Rogers who spoke up for prostitution and begging in 2001 during an RIBA lecture?

The Orbit is the new Prince Charles

This is the project you and the critics hated more than any other this year, a steel tower in the Olympic Park we can’t help describing in more offensive terms each time we see it: the ArcelorMittal Orbit, by Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond. An ‘imploded rollercoaster’ says Building Design’s Ollie Wainwright. ‘Urban lava lamp’ says theObserver’s Rowan Moore. Hugh Pearman of the Sunday Times goes further: ‘By a considerable distance the worst piece of public art I have ever seen’.

This is entirely the response its patron, mayor Boris Johnson, was hoping for, however. When announcing it last year he joked: ‘Some may choose to think of it as a Colossus of Stratford; some eyes may detect a giant treble clef, a helter-skelter, a super-sized mutant trombone. Some may even see the world’s biggest ever representation of a shisha pipe and call it the Hubble Bubble.’ Could the Orbit be that special thing: a monument designed specifically to be ridiculed?

Awards go awry

In Rotherham, everyone was shocked when Evelyn Grace Academy, the south London school designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, won the Stirling Prize this year. Even the winners. Zaha wasn’t there to collect and rumour has it Patrik Schumacher arrived on a late train.

Has the intrusion of politics and the focus on a nebulous feel-good factor skewed the judging experience? Are lay judges too influential? Why not consider it a contest of pure architectural design excellence? Whatever the problem, there should be change. The prize rarely goes to Britain’s best, after all. At the very least the jury should explain their decision in detail. In Scotland, nobody was shocked when the RIAS named seven commendations alongside the winner for the Andrew Doolan prize. Longer shortlists and more winners have been the trend in recent years. As Alan Dunlop wrote, only three projects were worthy of shortlisting. So why not adjust the criteria to include work by Scots elsewhere? Robin Lee’s Wexford, Nord’s Shingle House in Kent, McAslan’s Ironworks in Haiti… that would be a list to be proud of.

Maggie’s galore

Three Maggie’s Centres opened this year. A second one for Glasgow by OMA, another for Nottingham by CZWG and Paul Smith, and one in Swansea, designed by the late Kisho Kurokawa, which the AJ is yet to see. But, after 15 years, is this remarkable project making an impact on the design of healthcare buildings?

If we look at the Teenage Cancer Trust buildings by ORMS and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, you might say yes, a little, in terms of social spaces provided and the attempted softening of more treatment-intensive rooms. And Reiach and Hall’s Stobhill in Glasgow, too, a PFI touchstone, with lots of natural lighting and places to linger and look, must have drawn upon the firm’s experience in preparing a design for a Maggie’s in Wishaw. Circle Bath, the Norman Foster project for the private sector, is another sign the sector is improving. Yes, Maggie’s is making an impact. But you have to look hard to see where.

Postmodernism anyone?

On the back of the Post-modernism exhibition at the V&A and the publication of an Architectural Design special edited by Po-Mo grandaddy Charles Jencks and slo-mo Po-Mo architects FAT, there has been talk of a revival of the much-maligned ‘movement’ this year, culminating in the incorrect assumption that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were set to land the Gold Medal (Herman Hertzberger got it).

Anyone who has been to Istanbul, or Dubai, or Shanghai or even Bristol (or seen pictures of these places for that matter) will realise Post-modernism never went away. But the debates that have taken place in recent months have been stimulating and diverting, if a little provincial (unless you live in London, they will likely have passed you by). One moment stands out. A talk at the RIBA in which Piers Gough and Sean Griffiths discussed their work. In the audience one student asked: ‘Are you allowed to do that?’wary that having so much fun didn’t look ‘sustainable’. It was the voice of a generation.

Readers' comments (2)

  • "Rumour has it Patrik Schumacher arrived on a late train" for the Stirling Prize? Rumour is wrong there. Patrik and colleagues from Zaha's office were on the same train to Sheffield as me, arriving some hours before the ceremony.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Ah yes, The Parametric Express...powered by faster-than-light neutrinos, which cause the train to arrive before it departs...nice.

    ps. glad to see that's the only point you dispute hugh!

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