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2016: The year of brick, cultural projects and Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern extension by Herzog and de Meuron
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Laura Mark takes a look at the architectural highlights of 2016

Many thought last year was the year of the brick, but 2016 has seen it remain at the forefront of architectural materiality. As a range of housing schemes emerge across London, clad in the city’s native stock, the pared-back brick aesthetic looks to have taken over.

It was a style Peter Cook denounced earlier this year, dubbing it ‘biscuit boy’ architecture. Nevertheless, the continuing theme carried through to this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist – arguably a marker of the best of British architecture – and here it was clearly plain, well detailed, and well mannered. As critic Edwin Heathcote put it at the time,‘where is the eccentric, the visionary, the social activist or the lone mad genius?’. They weren’t in this year’s list that’s for sure.

The shortlist featured its fair share of brick, with one third of the schemes lovingly showcasing the material – from dRMM’s first foray into using brick at scale at Trafalgar Place in Elephant and Castle, to Caruso St John’s exquisite if predictable gallery for Damien Hirst.

Caruso St John’s win highlighted the Newport Street Gallery as one of this year’s standout buildings. It really is a very good scheme, and when I took the AJ’s alternative Stirling Prize jury around the conversion of three listed Victorian scenery workshops we were taken aback by its expressive and poetic nature and the clear quality of its detailing. Its finely crafted nature is a welcome departure from the current trends of the dumb-down-and-whack-it-up design and construction environment.

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Highlights of 2016

Source: Helene Binet

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

But the brick project everyone was waiting for this year had to be Herzog & de Meuron’s extension to the Tate Modern (below) – and it didn’t disappoint. This project really moved the material forward and took it to another level. The building’s 336,000 bricks in 212 different types act as a curtain-like skin, veiling the building with a sturdy yet flexible façade.

We’ve watched the towering ziggurat of brick emerge on the Southwark skyline over the past decade, and it was certainly worth the wait. You’d think one building of the scale of Tate Modern would be enough for most architectural practices – but not for Herzog & de Meuron. The Swiss firm has completed several high-profile projects this year, with three of the most notable run by senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler – he’s certainly had a busy year.

Like the Tate Modern, the practice’s Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg was also over budget and behind schedule, completing seven years after the planned date and costing more than 10 times its original estimate. But again, like the Tate, this is a building of national cultural importance, and Herzog & de Meuron has triumphed in creating yet another stand-out showstopper.

Blavatnik School of Government Herzog and de Meuron Iwan Baan

Highlights of 2016

Source: Iwan Baan

Blavatnik School of Government Herzog and de Meuron

In the UK we’ve been waiting since 2003’s Stirling Prize-winning Laban Centre for another Herzog & de Meuron building, but then, just like buses, two came along at once. March saw the completion of the Blavatnik School of Government for Oxford University. With its trademark Herzog & de Meuron sweeping concrete staircases and generous circulation-cum-social space, it was unsurprisingly a hot contender for this year’s Stirling.

And then finally I visited the practice’s new building for Vitra, an archive displaying a history of chair design. Compared with the practice’s three larger-scale projects, this simple scheme, in the German town of Weil am Rhein, pales into insignificance. But it is still a fantastic project with its cut brick façade and large bright white interior space.

Vitra Schaudepot by Herzog & de Meuron

Highlights of 2016

Vitra Schaudepot by Herzog & de Meuron

It wasn’t just Herzog & de Meuron that was completing major cultural buildings in 2016. It seems to have been the year of the cultural mega-project with the Design Museum’s new home in the old Commonwealth Institute and Amanda Levete’s MAAT in Lisbon both making headlines.

Another regular big event on the cultural and architectural calendar is the launch of the Serpentine Pavilion. This year, BIG’s towering pavilion design was one of the largest yet, at a scale unlikely to be seen again as figurehead Julia Peyton-Jones waves goodbye to the organisation.

BIG's Serpentine Pavilion

Highlights of 2016

Source: Iwan Baan

BIG’s Serpentine Pavilion

The pavilion was certainly ambitious. The particular construction method, referencing one of architecture’s most common elements – the brick wall – had rarely been used before. Stacked on top of each other, the 1,800 hollow glass fibre reinforced polymer (GFRP) boxes created a modular curved wall which snaked towards the main gallery. It looked impressive.

But with the exception of these few iconic projects there was little else to shout about. As the rest of the world carried on its 2016 year of doom and gloom, the architectural community just seemed to plod slowly onwards. With worries over Brexit and a lack of other large projects coming through, I predict much more of the same for 2017.

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