The year of fighting back
Year in review 2013: Rory Olcayto, deputy editor
A tale of two city squares
Everywhere on planet Earth the public realm is under threat. Huge swathes of our inner cities are in private hands. Square and parks across the world - who really owns you? And who really cares? Take two cities, as different as can be. Glasgow. Cold, wet, northern, with a gridiron townscape and a shrinking population. Istanbul. Sunny, breezy, southern; Europe’s only megacity, growing larger by the hour.
Glasgow’s famous George Square. A place of protest, of congregation, a very public space, where tanks were once deployed by London - actually less than a hundred years ago - to quell growing unrest. Istanbul’s Taksim Square; once a marsh on the city’s edge, a place to practise archery, to house soldiers in barracks, but today the beating heart of Turkish secular life.
George Square a design competition, run by the City Council, ordered by leader Gordon Matheson. A long story cut short: ‘Make it more useful for private, sponsored events. And move those bloody statues!’ On the jury Geoff Ellis, the T in the Park festival supremo, to ram home Matheson’s plans. ‘And can we ban union rallies too?’
Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park. A small patch of green to picnic in the city. But prime minster Recep Erdogan backs ‘regeneration’ there - maybe as a shopping mall, maybe as a mosque? It was never really clear. Then diggers bulldoze the trees. And when the public - mainly architects at first - try to intervene, ex-mayor Erdogan takes offence. He calls the cops. He block books the water cannons. He ships in tear gas. He tells them: ‘Sort it out.’ Istanbul reacts. Riots last a month.
George Square. Matheson has a tantrum when the jury backs the wrong scheme. He wanted Burns + Nice to win; he loved the soft-focus look. The jury picks John McAslan’s scheme, a stern, Modernist deck. Matheson scraps the competition. He says: ‘I’ve listened to the people. They don’t want a new design. And they want the statues to stay.’
Taksim Square. The riots come to an end. Erdogan pulls back. The park is still a park. But a megacity wonders: ‘How long before he tries again?’
Architectural bloggers of the world UNITE! They’ve gone and listed Preston bus station! (3) And that power station in Sheffield! Yay! Wait a minute … Park Hill’s been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize - after a thorough Urban Splashing - but still, yay! What? English Heritage is holding an exhibition on my favourite post-war architectural mode of expression? Really? And it’s called Brutal and Beautiful? And all those stingy architecture critics bloody love it? Hold on, I’m feeling dizzy. THUD. Umm … What happened? I dreamt they listed … shit! They did!!!
Yes they did. But they knocked down Heygate. And Thamesmead. And Inverkip power station. And they’re probably going to do in Brixton Leisure centre, too. Robin Hood Gardens? Bowed and arrowed. Aye - Cumbernauld’s still standing - but it’s a giant zombie mess. Okay, okay, good ol’ Brutalism has had a good ol’ year, smooched back to life, a prince from a frog, but only because the marketplace rules and there’s just enough kerching! to make it worthwhile. For now. You know what’s coming next? An MI6 HQ revival: Postmodernism we ♥ you too! Yawn.
Reach for the starchitects
That argument, that belief, that after the crash the icon would die, that we’d see a return to quiet architecture, an austerity chic; that argument was nonsense. Look. Starchitects are like banks: the recession made them stronger. And you know what, the word ‘starchitect’ - it’s a really good word. It is in fact a perfect word. So direct. So clear. So utterly lacking in obscurity. Is that why architects hate it so much? Best get used to it - starchitects are here to stay. Still, starchitects have had a mixed year. Zaha’s Soho scheme in China’s Wangjing was ‘pirated’ by local architects for a rival developer (not really) and her Serpentine extension was panned back home (mean-spiritedly). Thomas Heatherwick’s cauldron design was shown to have a strong resemblance to an older Olympic design project by a low-profile New York designer and Daniel Libeskind’s peace centre - on a notorious prison site in Northern Ireland - was scrapped.
Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie turned into a laser-beam death-ray machine … Yes, it’s so easy to knock them, but they are hardly one tribe. Think of the better ones instead as a new kind of Oxbridge: their studios like high schools for the world’s best brains: Rogers, Zaha, Chippo, Foster, Heatherwick - mostly, bravo.
Hard knocks - but school’s not out
Somehow we’re still building some pretty good schools, despite The Great Cull of Two Thousand and Ten. Like Wright & Wright’s school for badly behaved boys - Newlands School in Peckham - a thoughtfully planned building that gets better the longer you dwell there. Like AOC’s St Saviour’s and St Olave’s, where design means more than a light-filled atrium - it doesn’t even have an atrium - and design is instead dispersed through the school. Like Sarah Wigglesworth’s primary in the village of Takeley, whose fortress-like brick wall makes a place out of nothing for 350 kids. And like AHMM’S Chobham Manor in the former Olympic athlete’s village, a building designed to transcend typology, a building that can service the emerging townscape’s needs and become something else - if it needs to. But on England’s south coast, an era really did end when Britain’s best ever school architect died. We’ll miss you Colin Stansfield Smith. At least we still have your schools.
It was the year of Richard Rogers and of Stirk and Harbour too - Stirk in particular - the year they bounced back, Muhammad Ali-style. Losing Chelsea Barracks to Prince Charles and taking flak for One Hyde Park are distant bad memories after the triumphant Royal Academy show in the great architect’s 80th year. Everybody came, everybody smiled and thought: now there’s a very public life, but one impeccably lived.
One amazing building marked the baton change, dragging a modest Stirk from the shadows into the public realm: London’s best-built skyscraper, that giant grater of cheese (5).
‘Think of London, a small city. It’s dark, dark in the daytime. The people sleep, sleep in the daytime. If they want to, if they want to.’ That’s David Byrne, keen observer of all things urban/suburban, in the 1979 Talking Heads song Cities. Who knows which ‘London’ he meant? A small town in the Midwest? Probably. There’s one in Ohio. And another in Kentucky. (Slightly bigger, but not Midwest).
It’s definitely not the London, our London, Britain’s London, Europe’s richest city. Our London’s not small, it’s huge, 8 million and getting bigger again, for the first time in years; and people don’t sleep there. They work. And work. And work. And then they go to the gym. But is it even our London any more?
In 2013, London rattled it’s chains. You think Scotland is pulling away from Britain? It’s more London that wants away. An Evening Standard headline in May read: ‘Simon Jenkins: London should quit the EU and ditch the UK too’. And with every passing day mayor Boris Johnson demands tax-raising powers. The political press says ‘don’t blame London for being too successful’ in one column, plots to shut down Hartlepool - what’s it for? - in another.
Meanwhile the coalition government uses your money to load up London with grands projets: Crossrail. The Garden Bridge. The Olympic Park. South Bank. Tech City. The Northern Line branch to the American Embassy. Private cash floods in: for Battersea Power Station (Hello Sir Norman. Howdy Frank.) The Chinese are rebuilding Crystal Palace. (And the Royal Docks - with Terry Farrell).
The list goes on. And then some blowhard coined this nugget that somehow got taken seriously: ‘London is a first-rate city with a second-rate country attached.’ Charming. Why so greedy, London town?
The printed gun
There were some great buildings to savour this year. Weird things, like Hugh Broughton’s Antarctic research station Halley VI (clearly the building of the year, but too sci-fi, too damn techy, and too far away to put on expenses, for most critics); Stephen Taylor’s palatial cowshed; Niall McLaughlin’s déjà vu-ish chapel and McDowell+Benedetti’s Darth Vader-ish bridge for Hull. More? Zaha’s Montpellier. Caruso St John’s Tate Britain. Gareth Hoskins’ Shetland Mareel. But if we’re talking innovation and ground-breaking design, nothing compares with the printed gun - the Liberator - which fired its first bullet in 2013.
Think of the printing press, the telephone, the television, the Internet. That’s the company the Liberator keeps.