The UK prides itself on its sense of humour.
From Pop Art and Archigram to Punk, from Monty Python to the YBAs, our arts scene has had its tongue pressed hard in its cheek since the 1950s. But the humour can seem to have dried up a little. This must be the case when one of our most witty, yet intelligent, practices - Birds Portchmouth Russum - is invited to have its first major retrospective not in Shoreditch or Bethnal Green but in the home of dry minimalism, Basel.
Orson Welles famously said that all those years of peace and prosperity in Switzerland led only to the cuckoo clock. But consider that cuckoo clock. It is a functional timepiece which humanizes the mechanical nature of time with the punctuation of an animated bird. It is (whether intentionally or not) the tempering of the mundane with the absurd. It serves then as the perfect metaphor for BPR's work.
The minimal glazed walls and clear spaces of Basel's architecture gallery (housed in a former furniture showroom converted by Diener & Diener) have been subverted by the absurd inventions and interventions for which BPR has become known. This is most evident on the floor which is dominated by a row of black doors opening onto brothellike red, plush interiors. Each door displays a ludicrous handle - a range of ironmongery commissioned, and now manufactured, by Dorma (which also sponsored the show).
The handles are humourous at first but gradually reveal another dimension.
Thoughtful, organic and sculptural, each design says something interesting about the mechanism. Indeed, this is what BPR does best - reveal an essence through humour or sheer sculptural verve.
The famous cuckoo clock uses a miniaturized version of an archetypal Swiss architecture to conceal a mechanism. BPR's trick is the reverse: it is to create architecture out of blown-up mechanisms.
Cyborg prawns suffer from elephantiasis and are scattered around the Morecambe seafront to revitalize the ailing tourist trade (see picture), kitschy crowns are plugged into Oxford Street buses to create London's Christmas illuminations, Brobingnagian spark plugs and oversized tires support a flyover. Every one of these schemes would have enriched our architectural scene and helped to continue the mad/visionary tradition of British architecture.
The rare built schemes, though more modest in scale, reveal a thoughtful and realistic practice attempting to enliven our streets by making physical connections. The footbridge at Plashet School, with its delightful organic lines, is one of the best recent urban interventions. The Pacemaker, a mechanistic, self-contained services unit which plugs into existing buildings to provide all the necessary service spaces, is a brilliant Pop idea (building on Archigram), yet still has to be picked up.
Basel has become a place of architectural pilgrimage for students all over the world. Its most visited works include a series of signal boxes by Herzog & de Meuron and a minimalist supermarket and brewery by Diener & Diener. They are all exquisite, sheerly functional buildings, but you can't help thinking what BPR might have done with them. And whether they might just have been more fun.
Edwin Heathcote is an architect in London