What’s the architectural equivalent of Prometheus?
I think we might need some new ideas – for just about everything, worries Rory Olcayto
Excess is our default cultural setting, informing everything we do. Science fiction blockbusters and iconic architecture, for example, have more than just megabucks in common. They’re big. They’re loud. They’re often incoherent. And sometimes there’s a trace of a good idea buried deep inside, under all the CGI.
Once, every so often, a genuinely good one comes along. Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, this summer’s sci-fi blockbuster, was supposed to be a good one. But, like a workaday icon by a starchitect in decline, a closer look shows up the clichés and the emptiness at its core. Scott should have known better. Rehashing work that made your name is rarely a good idea.
What’s the architectural equivalent of Prometheus? Rogers Stirk Harbour has just completed Neo Bankside, a polished but pointless Pompidou prequel which sees the public art gallery reworked as housing for millionaires. The familiar elements are in place and in higher definition: the exo-skeleton, the pin joints, the floor-to-ceiling glazing. But somehow it’s not as good. Could it have something to do with the target audience?
In movies, James Cameron’s Terminator 2 was the turning point. It’s the sci-fi blockbuster equivalent of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, a shiny metallic special effect wrapped around a strong story, the inspiration for a hundred dumber knocks-offs. As most sci-fi film obsessives will tell you – and really, they’re not so different from architectural nerds (trust me, I’m both) – the last good one to come along was 2009’s Moon, a low-budget space mystery shot by a first-time director. Lesson. There. Somewhere. Surely.
This culture of excess is still all-pervasive, despite five years of economic gloom. And because this one idea pervades everything, you can see parallels everywhere. That Glasgow Rangers have gone bust, largely the result of gorging on big-name foreign stars ahead of nurturing local talent, for example, seems clearly linked to Glasgow’s reliance on starchitects to shore up its architectural credibility, usually at great expense and in place of local firms. Cities do have personalities. Cities do behave in certain ways, whatever the stage may be.
Elsewhere, Anish Kapoor’s Orbit sculpture surely expresses something about London, something about Britain. Its sheer oddness forces you to wonder what it says about now. Whether it actually means anything at all. It’s just so damn weird, too extravagant, too big to ignore. Is it a symbol of our collapsing financial markets, its red steel knotted loop a helter skelter metaphor of market economics, as some critics have asked? Is it a symbol of the moneyed élite’s willingness to indulge frivolous desires, whatever the cost? Or is it the purest, most facile icon to date – a napkin sketch writ large in steel? What I’m trying to say is: I think we’ve had enough now.
Okay, it’s not as good as Alien but Prometheus does have more stylish furniture, including an Omni armchair by Materia (above) which appears in the plush quarters of Meredith Vickers, played by Charlize Theron, the crew leader of a stellar voyage set to discover how life emerged on Earth. Vickers’ quarters are plush with furniture including a Fazioli piano, Swarovski chandeliers and a robotic medical pod that can treat any medical need. To have a chance of landing the Red Dot Design Award-winning chair, kindly supplied by workplace furniture specialist Kinnarps, answer this question: Who, according to a Prometheus crew member, ‘doesn’t build in straight lines?’