Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The freedom of the high seas - being able to say you are sorry

  • Comment

Against every expectation 2000 has ended up being a year for failures. A year that started with a doomed shindig at the Dome on millennium night and a rather wet 'river of fire'. A year that made its way through the heart-stopping erection of the London Eye. A year that endured the squabbling over the wobbling bridge; and wound up with chaos on the railways and the biggest racing catamaran in the world being abandoned in the North Atlantic after it started to break up.

What do all these failures mean - apart from providing a field day for lawyers and commentators?

Well, there are differences. The 'river of fire' on the Thames was a matter of perception. Some people saw it, others did not. Marks and Barfield's 'London Eye' is another matter entirely. True, things looked sticky for it early in the year, when fogeyish aesthetic objections joined forces with a troubled erection that looked as though it might block the River Thames for a thousand years, but the fault was soon remedied and it has gone on to become tremendously popular, turning central London into a kind of budgerigar's cage and symbolising the beginning of the life of the metropolis as a Wellsian 'Pleasure City'.

Foster and Partners and Arup with Anthony Caro's bouncing bridge could also fit into the 'Pleasure City furniture' category - had it not been for the failure of the determined media attempt to pass it off as an advanced technology joke.Unfortunately, the bill for (maybe) fixing its wobbles seems to have stretched the joke a bit too far.

As for the failure of the railways, if you bundle in the troubles of the London Underground as well it becomes a tragedy, not of advanced technology, but of first starving, then throwing money at, a technology almost two centuries old. In the 1830s railways boomed like personal computers, but that was a long time ago and the trains were already becoming unprofitable by the end of the nineteenth century. Soon eclipsed by motor transport, they are now more and more being overtaken by communications technology as well.

That leaves Team Philips, the mighty catamaran with its twin 40m masts that thrice put to sea and then started to break up. An interesting case - although such a boat is not architecture - for designer Adrian Thompson once worked for RMJM and King Street Architects in Bristol. Furthermore, unlike the railwaymen, Thompson really is dealing with advanced technology.

Sailing ships may be thousands of years old but £4 million worth of wave-piercing composite hulls, unstayed parallel masts and wing sails are as twenty-first century as any bouncing bridge.

Nor is there anything old fashioned about Thompson's operation. When I interviewed him back in 1986 - an earlier trimaran of his called Paragon was selected for the series 'Objects of our Time' (AJ 17.9.86) - I was surprised to find his solo office completely computerised, using software developed for designing the hulls of supertankers at a time when most architectural practices, let alone sole practitioners, were barely using computers at all. As early as 1986 Thompson had a project for a 60m by 60m trimaran with a mast 90m high that he was endeavouring to persuade Richard Branson to build, so the tycoon could better the performance of his record-breaking diesel engined Atlantic Challenger under sail power alone.

In the '80s, racing yacht design at Thompson's level seemed to me a prototype for a new kind of architectural practice, with the emphasis on computer-aided design and full-time supervision of building work.

Fourteen years later, when I compare Thompson's failure with the other failures of 2000, I am not so sure. Thompson has been able to admit to failure. Architects in the same position dare not.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.