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Britain doesn't do deep architecture

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Stifling dreams threaten London and Glasgow, but Guggenheim dream comes true, says Rory Olcayto

‘The town is not really like a natural phenomenon … If it related to physiology at all, it is more like a dream…’

London versus Berlin

What a fantastically obvious, simple, and profound point Joseph Rykwert made when he wrote that in 1963, for his book The Idea of a Town. It came to mind following the airing of David Chipperfield’s view on London, in relation to Berlin, earlier this week. In the German capital, ‘there is still an idea of the public realm,’ he said. In London, however, ‘we have given that up. We have declared the public realm dead; the question is how to get stuff out of the private sector. We are unbelievably sophisticated at that.’

Was Chipperfield thinking of the Garden Bridge, that much-heralded ‘public asset’ that will prohibit groups of eight or more from walking across it unless they’ve received prior permission, be closed from midnight to 6am, and bar cyclists? He didn’t say, but he may as well have been.

Taken together – the Garden Bridge’s authoritarian rules and Chipperfield’s sense that the public realm in London must first be wrested from the mitts of the private finance – what does it say of the dreams our capital city weaves? A psychologist might comment that ‘London has trust issues’.  The same could be said of most British cities. It is as if we don’t trust ourselves to live decent lives in public, and must therefore invent rules – extremely stupid rules – to restrict our behaviour. In case we … do what, exactly?

Chipperfield goes on to praise Germany’s ‘reflective’ culture and to decry Britain’s lack of sensible, intellectual dialogue on the meaning of architecture and urban design, which he thinks undermines the quality of the places we make. ‘Ours is a success-based culture. If something is successful, it’s successful. Whereas in Berlin there is a lot of discussion about what things mean.’ He’s right. As far as architecture is concerned, Britain doesn’t do deep. What are we so scared of finding out?

Glasgow versus Glasgow

Meanwhile in Glasgow, a spanner in the works from Julian Harrap, who has slammed plans to ‘faithfully’ recreate the Mackintosh library in the city’s school of art. What kind of dream does Glasgow resemble if it chooses to rebuild the library as if it had never burned down? A nostalgic, comforting dream, free of risk or adventure … a boring dream? In other words, one you wouldn’t even remember in the morning. As Harrap points out in our news story, the library was designed for just 10 people, and was no longer properly functional. Radiators were added over the years. Glazing details changed too.

Harrap, joint author with Chipperfield of the Neues Museum in Berlin, has a point. Few can match his experience, vision and skill in working with older buildings. The decisions taken at the Neues, which combines new with old so brilliantly, came about after years of contemplation and study. Glasgow needs to rest first; clear its head.  The rush to rebuild the library as was, from a distance at least, seems to resemble a fever dream.

Helsinki Guggenheim

Talking about dreams, Asif Khan’s shortlisting for the Helsinki Guggenheim is the very stuff an aspiring starchitect’s dreams are made of.  This is a biggie – like Richard Rogers in the running for the Pompidou. The achievement, even to make it this far, is astonishing. It is the most-entered competition the profession has ever seen, and Khan is the only British name vying for the job. We think he deserves to win. But please sit your Part 3, Asif – if you land this stellar gig we want to write ‘British architect’ in our headlines without the ARB hassling us!

Magazine of the Year!

Talking of winning, the AJ was named IBP Magazine of the Year last week, while Richard Waite bagged the News Reporter of the Year award. Much of our success is down to your continued support and faith in what we do. Thank you for making 2014 such a memorable year. Cheers!

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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