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Martin Pawley: hacks baffled by technology (again)

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Against all probability, the Future Systems opening at the ica last week succeeded in trumping its 1991 show at the riba, the memorable occasion when Beck's, the sponsor, thrice ran out of beer and the atmosphere turned so electric that this magazine's reporter announced that the future had arrived and Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete were about to be given their first major commission. In fact they weren't, at least not immediately. It was four years before their house in Islington, with its abseiling window cleaners, attracted critical approbation, and even longer before its original owners sold it at a profit - an event that moved many hearts and minds hitherto unconvinced about the firm.

Now it is all different. This time round, not only were two celebrated editors unable even to fight their way into the ica because of the mob of people queuing outside, but for those who did manage it, it was no longer beer from bottles but fine wine and food catered by the Caprice (flowers by Wild at Heart).

What does this transformation mean? Well for a start it disposes of the theory (advanced at length beforehand in the Independent on Sunday), that 'fear' is the reason there is not already a Future Systems building on every street corner. Not only did small children and tiny babies survive the display of architectural models at the opening without terror (as did many celebrated architects), but a scouting party from the European and Asian foreign ministers' conference - including Robin Cook, Leon Brittan and their opposite numbers from the Netherlands and Thailand - made a side trip from their tour of the inflatable pomp house in Horse Guards Parade to be shown around and returned unharmed.

So if it is not fear it must be something else. Something so un-alarming that it has been rewarded with the sunny smile of Mariella Frostrup on tv, an imprimatur not to be sneezed at, for it sets an early seal of middlebrow approval upon the fast-building NatWest media centre at Lords. This structure is the key to the Future Systems upgrade to first class. A semi-mythical beast, half boat, half gazing eye, it has at last become believable. As a result, it increasingly urgently calls for the delivery of an opinion by every pundit in the land. And here we see their difficulty. The ayes have got in early and the noes can't think of anything clever to say.

In the national media coverage so far, only one writer - Hari Kunzru in the Daily Telegraph - has clearly understood the revolutionary significance of the centre's construction, the first ever off-site modular monocoque in 100 per cent recyclable aluminium. Everyone else has either taken refuge in denouncing this new technology as unnecessary - as did a writer in the London Evening Standard - or fallen back on marvelling that the traditionalist old men-only mcc should have commissioned such a 'space-age' structure from such architects in the first place.

As the media centre nears completion it will become necessary to do better than this, and that is when the fun will start.

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