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From Barts to Baku, architects must choose their projects wisely

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Architects must increasingly consider the ethical dimension of their work, writes Rory Olcayto

For a retired architect, Michael Hopkins has been rather busy of late. As our news feature on p10 explains, he has meddled in the affairs of Steven Holl’s design for a Maggie’s centre at Barts hospital in London. The American architect’s scheme is seeking planning permission for the second time after failing to win approval last year, but a spanner has been thrown in the works with a rival proposal that Hopkins has masterminded for a group of objectors.

It may seem like a battle between two styles - Hopkins’ heritage-friendly Modernism versus a more bold intervention - but there is a sense that Hopkins is being more than a little opportunistic. After all he’s never been asked by his good friend Charles Jencks to design a Maggie’s of his own. The real conflict however, has been obscured by the personalities involved. What it boils down to is one group seeking to add to the Barts estate with a progressive, modern facility and another - the ‘Friends of the Great Hall’ - disrupting the process to serve their own ends and see a building they care about placed centre stage. The real meddler here is the Friends’ chief spokesman, Royal gynaecologist Marcus Setchell. By describing Holl’s scheme as a ‘carbuncle’ we can ascertain his leanings - and by arguing so vociferously in favour of relocating the Maggie’s centre away from the hall, as Hopkins’ plan does, it is clear his interests are focused on heritage, not cancer care.

The irony is that Holl’s scheme stands apart from the Great Hall, while Hopkins’ design for the Friends would see two stair towers slapped on either end of it and requires another part of the Barts estate to be demolished to make it happen. What a muddle. And, while Hopkins has planned a thoughtful rival Maggie’s, it is very much a secondary consideration for the objectors, as their name makes clear.

Time to walk away, Friends, and place your trust in Maggie’s - and Barts’ - decision to go with Holl.

Aliyev Center is a brave choice for Design of the Year

News that Zaha Hadid’s Heyder Aliyev Center in Baku has picked up the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award has caused quite a stir. No surprise there: Hadid’s sculptural landmark may be a stunning example of contemporary architecture, but it does seem odd to celebrate a building that honours a former KGB chief accused by Amnesty International of human rights abuses during his dictatorship in Azerbaijan in the ’90s.

Still, as the philosopher Alain De Botton said in 2008, when the project first came to light, architects have a ‘fondness for strongmen’ - chiefly because they make it easy for their chosen architects to build without constraints. It’s a subject close to Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic’s heart: his book The Edifice Complex explores the power relationships between architects and dictators.

Some have called the museum foolish for awarding the Baku landmark, but Sudjic knows what he’s doing. The museum’s statement that it wants to be part of ‘the conversation around the realities of contemporary architecture’ implies Sudjic is provoking a debate with this controversial winner. It’s certainly a more interesting choice than the UK government website that won it last year. So fair play to the Design Museum director: it’s a point worth debating. As the client base for grands projets drifts eastwards and away from the so-called mature democracies of the West, architects must increasingly consider the ethical dimension of the work they win abroad. The decision has also gained Sudjic’s museum masses of media coverage in its 25th year of business and made the world sit up and take notice of an award that is competing in a very busy market. Talk about ‘contemporary realities’.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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