The first decade of the 21st century has seen incremental improvement and fantastic successes in British architecture, says Kieran Long
In terms of one-off projects, the decade begins with Tate Modern. Swiss master architects Herzog & de Meuron, the borough of Southwark, Tate as an institution, the National Lottery and the government should take a bow for making the UK’s most successful public building project of the last decade.
Visitor numbers don’t lie, but the engagement of art with the building, especially through the Unilever Series of large-scale installations in the Turbine Hall keep this building alive (Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in 2003 could have made our top-10 list on its own).
The fact that it has made stately modern galleries out of an existing building also speaks of a different set of values than many of the previous decade’s purpose-built art spaces. London didn’t get an icon – it got a fantastically popular public building that genuinely helped the city face a little more south than it had ever done before.
However, the world familiar to most architects in the last ten years is far away from the heady heights of major public art galleries. It encompasses fights to improve quality in developer housing and public realm (as just two examples), campaigns on the procurement of schools and healthcare buildings and battles to build the exemplars that prove our ability to create energy-efficient buildings in the future.
Actually, the story of the past 10 years, in a very positive sense, has not really been about individual buildings. When I consider this generation’s legacy in British cities, I think of Edward Cullinan Architects’ masterplan for Bristol Harbourside, Brindleyplace mixed-use scheme in Birmingham (some of which was built in the 1990s), the astonishing incremental improvements in the public realm and coherence of Sheffield’s town centre, and public spaces in Coventry, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
For me, Leeds has suffered more than it has benefited from the forces of regeneration
It is very hard to name an individual project or building that sums up this tendency. And there have been mistakes. For me, Leeds has suffered more than it has benefited from the forces of regeneration, and the Thames Gateway project is still an unbelievable mess. The attempts at iconic building-led regeneration of Hull and Salford have so far not made great places. But in general, a move towards the consideration of the overall coherence of projects and the quality of the public realm within is very welcome and very apparent in the past 10 years. It is a success that the whole profession can be proud of.
In terms of environmental sustainability, I’ve chosen to include Wessex Waterby Bennetts Associates (2000), a project that not only made an energy-efficient office building look beautiful, but also flies the flag for monitoring energy consumption in use.
In offices, I have not chosen the obvious. The Stirling Prize-winning Gherkin isn’t even Foster + Partners’ best office building of the decade (surely the curved stepping volume of the Willis headquarters at Lime St, London, takes that accolade), and despite its iconic nature, doesn’t feel influential. If there is one office building that has spawned imitators, it is the heavy, stately facade of Eric Parry’s 30 Finsbury Square office in the City of London, a triumph in claiming a civic aspiration for a commercial building. It takes its place as the best building of any era on Finsbury Square.
Foster + Partners had a decade of amazing business success and its global achievements have helped, to a huge degree, British architecture market itself abroad. Of all its many projects worldwide, it is the Millau Viaduct (2004) that makes my top-10 list. The statistics are astonishing: it is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world (343m), the highest road deck in the world (270m above ground at its highest point), etc. But the sheer, effortless elegance and beauty of the bridge (engineered by French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux) takes the breath away. When I went to Millau to write about it in 2004, it was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had as an architecture writer.
At the other end of the scale, the AJ’s Small Projects competition has gone from strength to strength in the past 10 years, showing the incredible resourcefulness of smaller British practices. There are too many fantastic projects to mention (and more can be seen in the first two issues of 2010), but the one that stays in my mind is Simon Conder’s Black Rubber House on Dungeness Beach, a project that in its mystery and beauty stands to the side of mainstream architectural culture, just as its location stands on the very limits of Britain’s land mass.
The other projects on my list are highly subjective of course, and are moments I remember as very special in the nation’s architecture of the past 10 years. The Almeida Theatre’s temporary inhabitation of Gainsborough Studios in Shoreditch (2000) and a bus shed in King’s Cross, London, (2001) were orchestrated by Haworth Tompkins and were a sign of that practice’s command of cultural venues that it played out through the decade.
In public realm, the pure pleasure and subversive power of Barking Town Square by Muf deservedly won the European Prize for Urban Public Space last year, and makes this list as a quite unique synthesis. It brings together the many forces acting on the public realm in development today, and makes a place of generous character from it.
The best school was Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ St Mary Magdalene Academy
The best school I saw, among so many to choose from, was Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ St Mary Magdalene Academy, although I’m aware this is a London-centric choice. School design (and now procurement) is improving all the time, and the work of BDP, Alford Hall Monaghan Morris, Wilkinson Eyre Architects and Edward Cullinan Architects can not go unmentioned in this context. The best housing is a very difficult choice, but the sustainable, beautiful and suburban project of Clay Field by emerging practice Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects looks like the future to me: a place of strange character, without pretension and free of the gewgaws and gob-ons of much contemporary housing.
If the architectural decade began with one amazingly successful inhabitation of an ageing building (Tate Modern at Bankside), it ended with another: David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap’s Neues Museum in Berlin, which was opened by the German chancellor Angela Merkel this autumn. This remarkably literate, serious-minded and dramatic reinterpretation of the bombed-out wreck of the neoclassical building is one of the great projects by a British architect of this decade and is sure to be showered with awards well into next year.