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'Effort without visible consequence'

Paul Finch’s letter from London: When work doesn’t result in buildings

What proportion of practice time is spent on designs which never see the light of day? It’s not a subject much discussed, since it sounds a miserable area of professional and creative life – effort without visible consequence.

Nevertheless it has informed a provocative and stimulating exhibition for the British School at Rome, conceived by Reinier de Graaf of OMA. ‘On Hold’ opened last week with a lecture by Reinier, whose combination of deadpan delivery plus rapier wit delighted a packed lecture hall, who recognised only too well the frustrations arising from the multiple reasons for things not happening.

Take, for example, the surreal tale of the White City masterplan project around the BBC in west London, commissioned from OMA in January 2005 by a consortium of landowners including the corporation, Land Securities, Helical Bar, a couple of pension funds and Marks & Spencer.

A scheme was produced in December that year; in May 2006 political control of the local authority changed; the scheme survived, though some renaming of elements was required; in January 2007 there was friction among the landowners and in March that year, Landsecs sold its land to Westfield for the possible expansion of the new shopping centre next door.

In July 2007, the BBC commissioned a separate masterplan for a project known as ‘Creative London’, but Westfield declined to put its land in and in November the BBC announced it was to sell the northernmost part of its landholdings. In May 2008, despite earlier contrary indications, English Heritage listed Television Centre and in June 2008 the BBC abandoned any idea of revamping
its Media Village as part of the Creative London concept.

In July 2008, OMA undertook discussion with the landowners to see if something could be done to upgrade the underground station and a strip of land associated with it. No agreement could be reached and in October the practice produce a summary of where they had got to, which was, essentially, back to where they had been in 2005.

Not the least surreal element of the narrative was a letter, or rather its signatory, expressing dismay on behalf of the landowners that OMA had chosen to make an image available to the media of the conceptual masterplan. Being ticked off by someone called Matthew Bonning-Snook must have made OMA wonder if they had drifted into the world of the Goons or Monty Python.

It was a relief to learn that London is not unique; indeed de Graaf calculated that 75 per cent of projects undertaken by OMA over the past three decades had not resulted in buildings. Was he downhearted? No, because, as he pointed out, the work was based on a desire to build and had been grounded in reality. It was not theoretical, nor was it paper architecture, removed from the idea of building. All the work had started with a genuine intention to realise the design, and this contributed to the experience and understanding of the practice.

The point of the exhibition, part of a series on ‘cities in flux’, conceived by the British School’s director, Marina Engel, was to give this unrealised work a second life, to make the virtual tangible, and to reflect on ‘history with a message for the future’.

That message is partly about the nature of urban design, where de Graaf suggested that ‘the primary challenge is to be vague and specific at the same time’, given the role of urban planning in providing ‘a context for boom-time quantities… It is as though the ethic of thorough analysis and accurate planning has become worthless overnight’.

OMA will be exhibiting in London at the Barbican later this year, in rather more celebratory mode, as their building for Rothschilds opens in the City. For now, I am still wondering about an exhibit in Rome showing London’s recent, iconic, individual and clustered skyline buildings, with the comment that our capital is ‘hosting modernity without ever really entering into the obligation to modernise the city’. Perhaps it’s just because we don’t like big plans.

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