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Planners blamed for 'lack of expression' in new buildings

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The influence of planning authorities is leading to a new generation of significant buildings in this country which have no 'external expression'at all, Ed Jones told an Architecture Week audience at the National Portrait Gallery last week, writes Clare Melhuish.

Speaking of his and Jeremy Dixon's scheme for the National Portrait Gallery (in particular the rooftop restaurant, where they 'had to convince the planners they couldn't see the building at all') Jones said that the significance of such pressure meant that the biggest challenge of architecture throughout its history, facade design, was being evaded.

Charles Jencks - chairing the discussion between Jones, gallery director Charles Saumurez Smith and artist John Lessore - argued strongly in favour of a structure that 'celebrated the view'.

He reiterated that he 'wants to feel the architect telling me this is the most fantastic roofscape in Britain'. Instead, the restaurant was, in Jones'words a 'demure, quiet building'.

Jencks was forthright in his criticism of contemporary architecture as 'much too reticent'.

Architects needed 'much more expression', he said.

For Saumurez Smith, the way that the Dixon Jones scheme drew people to the top of the building had been a mark of its success. If the external appearance of the rooftop addition was understated architecturally, the interior of the new space appropriated by the scheme was described as exciting and even surreal.

The new NPG building occupies a former yard area providing daylight to the back of the National Gallery, leading Jones to describe much contemporary practice in this country as a matter of 'fiddling around in backyards'- sharply contrasting with the French grands projets.But Jencks pointed out that, since the turn of the millennium, we have 'outgunned the French'with a string of prominent architectural projects.

Although many people were disillusioned by the decision to use an old, historic building for the Tate Modern, Jones suggested that there was a subversive aspect to that process which appealed to the sensibilities of contemporary art. To have commissioned a purpose-built structure would simply have been to establish a new institution, he said. In the case of Walsall, as an example of the latter, Saumurez Smith suggested there was a considerable gap between the curator's rhetoric of anti-formalism and populism, and the relatively traditional, formal approach to planning and expression followed by the architects.But he nevertheless declared himself a strong supporter of architectural competitions, because 'they encourage people to work fast on adventurous submissions'.

Ed Jones, John Lessore, Charles Saumurez Smith, and Charles Jencks were in discussion at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of Architecture Week's series, Talking Architecture and the Arts

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