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What's it all about?

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In awarding the Royal Gold Medal to Rem Koolhaas, the establishment appeared to give credence to his damning analysis of our cities. But does flamboyant, big-gesture architecture really reject the urban context? Or is it just an old approach in a new guise?

It may be premature to pronounce urban design dead. But it is not in the best of health. Planning continues to be a process of attrition over development control, prioritising the assessment of individual buildings over broader urban vision. Even a big site is often treated as an end in itself, an island.

The headlines go not to urban designs but to the gestural: schemes that contest most strongly the assumption that an existing designer called 'context' already has everything under control.

Blobs, in particular, inspire strong feelings in the orthogonally minded. Future Systems' blue pincushion for Selfridges in Birmingham featured as an AJ Building Study, where we praised it as an effective backdrop for St Martin's Church and contextual enough (AJ 9.10.03), but the building also made it to the Architectural Review's Outrage page, where editor Peter Davey dismissed it as 'a blue blancmange with chicken-pox' (AR 10.03).

Alsop's Bradford was given equally short shrift in the next month's Outrage; this spot could become coveted.

Blobs and the fragmentary are becoming more common - not least because technology, which has often been stealthily influential in the past, has made them affordable. But are they really a threat to the urban fabric of Britain? There are, in fact, few of them - hardly an epidemic. And the complaint of anti-contextualism is not necessarily wellfounded. Peter Cook and Colin Fournier's Kunsthaus in Graz won a competition for a landmark in what is a city of architectural contrasts. While it is intended to be a symbol of the avant-garde for once-sleepy Graz and a piece of one-upmanship in relation to aloof Vienna, it can also be loosely described as contextual. As Cathy Slessor pointed out in the Architectural Review, 'the Kunsthaus can be regarded not simply as a fashionable grotesque but as a genuine extension of the region's tradition of architectural boldness and invention. Cook and Graz go back a long way, and the new building reflects an expressive empathy with the city and its evolution' (AR 12.03). In a city of 250,000 inhabitants, literally thousands queued up on the opening day. As I stood looking, a passer-by advised me to swing the camera round, to better capture the drama of the old and new together. It is well-liked: the people of Graz do not appear to need our sympathy.

As a one-time Birmingham resident who watched the city-centre edge around Digbeth fall apart, speeded on its way by the building of 'urban motorways', I would counter the criticism that Selfridges is not contextual by the question: 'what context?'

The matter of whether you view Selfridges as an entertaining backdrop to St Martin's is, of course, a matter of personal choice.

But a focal point is welcome and the Brummies seem to like it. As with Graz, popular approbation is not the only measure of architectural merit, especially in the long term. But whose city is it? More problematic, surely, than Selfridges is the rest of the megastructure, clad seemingly contextually, except for its lack of authenticity - a big box pretending to be a lot of buildings.

Blob radieuse We are beginning to see embryonic attempts to create 'communities of blobs'. Frank Gehry's competition-winning King Alfred scheme in Brighton, designed with Piers Gough, comprises a cluster of his trademark sculptural forms, a mini-version of the type of development that is being bought wholesale by cities such as Beijing. There, two British practices, Botschi Vargas and Zaha Hadid, have won competitions to design whole city quarters that are essentially expressionistic retakes on Corb's ideal city.

Still in the early stages, it remains to be seen whether schemes such as these will prove more successful at overcoming the problem of 'no-man's land' between the towers than their Modernist precursors were.

For the time being, the UK builds its blobs in isolation. In London, that stretchedairstream blob that is St Mary's Axe (nÚe Swiss Re) and Piano's Shard are the exceptions that prove (ie test) the rule that context rules. Tellingly, when CABE asked questions about how successfully the Shard dealt with public-realm issues, the inquiry inspector dismissed them as not significant. At least projects such as these are big enough to go to public inquiry and thus get a better chance to make arguments about quality of design.

But what about our other buildings? Public inquiry cannot be an effective process of urban design. No wonder the local authorities from Walsall to Barnsley have gone wild for Will Alsop's 'visionary' masterplans.

Here, at last, is an approach that appears to marry the political and economic necessity of large-scale urban planning with the current taste for populist - and undeniably popular - formal Expressionism.

Alsop's approach to urban design has been widely criticised, most eloquently and vociferously by Leeds architect and CABE commissioner Irena Bauman, who dismisses his city visions as 'one-off branding concepts'. But is Alsop's eagerness to imbue individual cities with off-the-peg identities (Barnsley as Tuscan hill town, Bradford as Park City) any more dangerous than sitting back and allowing historically varied cities to lose their identities to the inevitable demands of commerce? Alsop's visions are, at least, an effective means of injecting a breath of fresh air into a moribund planning process, a reminder that it is possible to dream and think big. As Alsop puts it, 'the biggest threat to doing anything interesting is lack of inspiration'. The intention is to aid creative thinking rather than provide a blueprint for development.

Bauman has criticised Alsop for being too inflexible, arguing that, for example, the vision of a city wall surrounding Barnsley simply does not lend itself to partial realisation. But many of Alsop's big ideas have the advantage of engaging, as opposed to obliterating or reinventing, the existing urban fabric. In Bradford, in particular, it is easy to imagine enough of the various fragments of the masterplan being implemented to capture at least some of the spirit of the vision. In the absence of an authoritarian all-powerful top-down planning regime, the visions are unlikely to be implemented in their entirety.

Playing it Kool The reality of the role of the architect within the free-market economy has been addressed head on by this year's Gold Medallist Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas' extensive and pioneering contributions to urban theory rest on his acceptance of the fact that, with the exception of a few authoritarian regimes, urban design is not 'under control' and most certainly not under the control of architects. The challenge for the contemporary architect is to be realistic about the nature of the urban realm - to seek to understand it rather than to control it. Taking the world as he finds it, Koolhaas' approach has been to try to clarify and reformulate the questions that should be asked rather than propose solutions. His built schemes such as his new Berlin Embassy contain pointers but they are inevitably hidden among the practicalities, which must, of necessity, inform any built scheme. It is his theories - incorporating concepts such as 'Bigness' (the Large and eXtra-Large), 'Generic Cities' and 'Junkspace' - that hold the bigger picture.

Bigness Bigness, Koolhaas notes, has no specific theory, yet it is an urban issue. It 'does not seem to deserve a manifesto, (is) discredited as an intellectual problem'. But not for Koolhaas, who expounds 1on the subject at length; a summary of his thinking characterises 'A Big Building' as one that can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture; one where the elevator makes the classical repertoire of composition, proportion and detail moot; a building whose depth is such that the facade can no longer reveal what happens inside so the humanist expectation of honesty is doomed - 'architecture reveals, Bigness perplexes'; big buildings are entering an 'amoral domain - their impact independent of their quality'. Taken together: 'Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue. It exists; at most it coexists. Its subtext is fuck context'.

In a range of projects in his book S, M, L, XL 1- surely the largest practice brochure in the world - Koolhaas works out some ways to address this territory, particularly the use of circulation routes in structuring space and, where appropriate, avoiding the easy option of the featureless 'flexible' space.

Generic cities At first sight the 'Generic Cities' critique 1offast-growing emerging cities, particularly in Asia, has little bearing on what Koolhaas calls the older, specific cities, typically European cities with established shape, history and culture.His framework is that these fastgrowing New World cities may start with a masterplan but rapidly descend into a freefor-all in both planning and architecture.

They inevitably decline into Post-Modernism, in the shallow, architecturally pictorial, sense. Anything that doesn't work is replaced in a continuous cycle, allowing for just enough retained 'history' to keep the tourists amused. One city is like another - generic.

But is the distinction between generic and specific cities really so clearly defined?

Elements of the generic cities as described by Koolhaas are all too familiar: eerie calm in the monofunctional business district; roads that make no allowance for pedestrians;

shopping as the only public activity; atria as voids (though 'the name is a guarantor of architectural class'); and competing, increasingly local infrastructure - planning makes no difference. What Koolhaas sees as non-plan at work is something we share with the cities of the New World. Yes, we have powerful development control through planning authorities and strong conservation interests. But we struggle to reconcile the desire for control with the relentless pursuit of profit and the desperate need for employment, hospitals, housing and schools.

Koolhaas in Berlin Which brings us to Berlin, a place with more than something of the generic city about it.

Despite all that publicity describing Potsdamer Platz as the city's new heart, the Platz itself remains an enormous unresolved traffic intersection - perhaps this is its destiny.

The new area we associate with the name lies to its south-west, an area of groundscrapers ranging from the very reserved (Moneo) to the many overwrought. What strikes you now, though, is how small, how relatively insignificant it is in Berlin as a whole. Mitte - the old middle - does little better, its refurbished (or replicated) buildings mixing with featureless post-war tower-block housing. As with the generic city, Berlin hardly has a centre. Potsdamer is no substitute. And as you look out across the city, over still-open spaces, you see knots of blocks - density in isolation - just as you do in a generic city like, say, Seoul.

Koolhaas' new Dutch Embassy has to face his own questions about how the architect addresses urban anomie. The embassy is in Mitte, among ordinary stone-and-render offices and (better) medium-rise flats. The embassy chose a site where the minor Klosterstrasse meets the Spree river - the only Dutch view in Berlin, according to the embassy, with its river walls tight against the pavements and barges lined up on the far bank. The embassy is a complex, hardthought building, certainly not eXtra-Large, but nevertheless reflecting some of Koolhaas' urban preoccupations. The most immediately noticeable is context. As Koolhaas commented 2on the generic city and nonplace interior space that goes with it (what he calls 'Junkspace'), 'our buildings are more and more able to really disconnect from these realities, or to try to make the best of them'. In Berlin the emphasis is on disconnection.

The embassy is a 27m cube facing the river to the south, on Klosterstrasse to the east, and to the north and west is framed by an L-plan wall-building faced in perforated grey-white metal mesh, leaving the cube in splendid isolation from the lesser functions of the wall building (staff flats, services, escape stairs) and set apart from the neighbours. A curious stance for an embassy, (only now are embassies tending to become introverted because of security). But while you can argue about logic and symbolism, the visual effect of the cube against the wallbuilding with the light filtering through the perforated metal is stunning.

Junkspace Koolhaas' architecture is one of complexity and contrasts, and this embassy is no exception. The main organising idea here is the 'trajectory', the route to and through the building, as it has been of late in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam and at Euralille. This intensely worked sequence can also be read as a response to another of Koolhaas' critiques of urban life - 'Junkspace'. When you work your way through the entertaining writing, that might be read simply as the spleen of a (youngish) grumpy old man lamenting the death of progess, you find a view of interior space to parallel the generic city ideas of the outdoor realm 3.Again, it is about space that is fundamentally generic rather than specific, but for interiors such as offices and malls there is another layer, a countering of vacancy with the artificial - Junkspace eventually attains some (inauthentic) specificity by being dressed up as something else, usually nostalgic or fantastic (Disneyesque).

Koolhaas takes the trajectory as the key device for making space meaningful in this building, and it stimulates related and contrasting architectonic rules without and within, such as that the doors on the trajectory inside should be as thick as the structural walls in which they lie. (One door is some 400mm thick, centre-pivoted, around 4m wide, incorporating shelving. ) The trajectory begins on Klosterstrasse, where passing the ground-floor visa section, you follow ramp or steps up the side of the cube beneath bridges to the escape stairs, to seek the main entrance on the north-west corner. There a generous entrance lobby provides access to a large public space, the prosaically named multipurpose room.

Although this is the extent of the public realm in administrative terms, with sliding glass security doors acting as a barrier to the main body of the building, formally - and visually - the route continues with a clearly defined, but deliberately circuitous, trajectory.

Starting with steep steps, a reference to the Dutch domestic tradition, it zig-zags on through the building as a mix of steps and ramps to the top-floor cafe and through the opening roof on to a roof terrace. Throughout the journey, the trajectory ducks and weaves, narrows and widens, sometimes so low that the lighting is provided at floor level. Some of the time this trajectory is near the heart of the building, but at other stages it is expressed on the facade or, in one case, bursts through as a cantilevered green glass box for the length of one wall, providing strong contrasts to the otherwise pristine cubic exterior.

To emphasis that this whole trajectory is a folded space in its own right, no mere means to an end, it is all lined in aluminium, including the floor. Apart, that is, from the glass box; occasionally subverting his own architectonic rules is a feature of Koolhaas' work, building the complexity and contradiction, holding the spectre of Junkspace at bay, elaborating the requirements of programme more than inventing architectural form from context. As Koolhaas said of Euralille 1, the most important coherence is not formal but programmatic - 'a continuous pedestrian trajectory'. And, of the BibliothÞques Jussieu competition, 'we imagine the surface as pliable, a social magic carpet; we fold it to generate density then form a fistackingfl of platforms; minimal enclosure makes it a building'.

The trajectory anchors this 'interior world' to its surroundings in two respects.

Firstly, as a formal extension of the ground plane and, secondly, as a means of constantly manipulating and drawing attention to views of the outside world.At most turns the far prospect, up or down, is an orientating view to the outside. In the longest diagonal across the building, the view is of the east Berlin communications mast, The Alexander Tower. This view is framed by an opening Koolhaas has made in his surrounding wall-building to the north. In view of Koolhaas' professed willingness to accept and work independently of the city in its found state, and, implicitly, to be accepting of future change, it is particularly interesting that the embassy has, in fact, paid the city in order to ensure that this key view remains unobstructed in perpetuity - effectively crystallising a portion of Berlin's history exactly as it is.

Despite the depth of the building, these terminating glazed areas do much to animate the trajectory with the strong light of a continental-interior type of climate, supplemented by illuminated handrail slots and varied other sources, including coloured translucent film on occasion providing obscured glimpses into surrounding offices.

There is a lot of variety here, the core of the building turned into a thread. It is said that much of diplomacy occurs in corridors. The trajectory does need to be a strong space, especially because, for security, many of the spaces along it are behind opaque doors.

AuthentiCity IfJunkspace is empty, or filled with the inauthentic, in Berlin Koolhaas' search for the authentic complements the 'necessity' of a trajectory with the hard-line authenticity of the structure. There is not a sheetrock partition, says job architect Michelle Howard proudly. Offices may have space-dividing storage furniture screening and the perimeter is clad, but all walls, whether lined or exposed concrete, are structural. They cross each other, transferring loads as the irregular plan works up the building.

Koolhaas' aesthetic/idealistic commitment to 'authenticity' was such that he was prepared to overcome the many practical problems implicit in such an approach (the client had hoped for an 18-month construction programme). From starting on site in March 2000, the contractor started pouring the walls without realising the indeterminacy the structure would have during construction. Work stopped for six months while construction planners were brought in. Some of the lower floors needed continuous propping for six to 12 months until the top of the building was cast and thus locked up the structure. Additional casting complexity came from the dubious decision to embed much of the services in the slab - water, electrics, curtain tracks and more.

(Air conditioning works separately from the slabs, with the trajectory at positive pressure, adjacent spaces at neutral pressure and the double-skin facade at negative pressure acting as an air-return. ) At times, says Howard, there were six architects standing there, holding their breath as a slab was poured. No second chance. The resulting workmanship is remarkably good and the exposed soffits contribute much to Koolhaas' characteristic semi-industrial aesthetic. Clearly, there were financial implications as well, though no one is saying what the building will cost.

But such heroic determination says more about Koolhaas' desire to express the buildings as a continuation of the city than it does about the quest for structural authenticity per se.With a conventional plan and section, 'honest' construction would have been relatively straightforward. The complications were a direct result of the supremacy awarded to the trajectory; at lower floor levels each 'floor' actually has several levels as it meets the ramped trajectory. (A floor-by-floor building model was kept on site to explain this complexity to builders, not just for the structure but for others working off it such as sprinkler installers. ) Material support The approach to authenticity is carried through to materials and components - little treated and coated - what you see is what you get. The palette is quite simple, the complexity coming from setting rules and occasionally subverting them and using the palette in different ways in different spaces. For example, the rule of aluminium lining to the trajectory, including the floor, is occasionally broken with coloured glass or timber. Other principal spaces are exposed concrete and 'tiger' wood (so named for its pattern).

Koolhaas would have liked to bring other woods, too, from former Dutch colonies, plus Persian carpets, resin desksà but for the budget. In the travertine-floored multipurpose room and the conference room, a folding wall lining of polycarbonate sheet (with services behind) is back-lit by unshaded vertically hanging fluorescent tubes.

Nevertheless, Dutch egalitarianism demands a certain uniformity across the office space for the 70 or so staff - exposed concrete with resin-finished concrete floors, simple timber desks and standard 1.9m divider/storage units. (Offices are belatedly being enclosed with custom glass partitioning by Koolhaas to provide acoustic privacy, and probably to meet the Dutch staff 's expectations of cellularity. ) Although the ambassador does get extra space, the most flamboyant architectural gesture goes, not to the ambassadorial office but to a meeting room - a healthy manifestation of democratic principles, but also, again, a significant contribution to the urban realm.

Dubbed the 'skybox', it is a steel-framed box, entered through limousine-black glass doors, that cantilevers out above the entrance and is clearly visible from the street.

Island race The intensity of the architecture is concentrated on the inside of the embassy. The cube-breaking expressions of the trajectory on the outside beckon you inside as much as they create a formal presence on the street.

There is some street presence, which has an island quality. The cube, the exterior space of the ramp and the wall-building all serve to reinforce the significance of a single continuous route. At Koolhaas' IIT Chicago campus, the desire-line routes, the 'pavements', are within the building enclosure.

A similar approach is being adopted by a new breed of 'digital architects' such as Foreign Office Architects. In the designs for FOA's BBC Music Centre, the ground melts into the building envelope; walls and floors are expressed as a seamless folded plane. A broader look at the practice's work reveals that, given less restricted sites, the distinction is eroded altogether.At Yokohama Ferry Terminal (AJ 12.9.02), it is impossible to distinguish between ground and building.

These and other gestural buildings can be read as representing a frustration with the increasingly generic quality even of our own once-specific cities and with stasis in urban design. Given the absence of a process for proceeding more generally, for developing, agreeing and implementing new urban visions, these projects can be read as attempts to pioneer a new urban design on an-architectural-project-at-a-time basis, in most cases the only recourse available. As such, their often island-like quality, far from suggesting a rejection of context, can be understood as an attempt to understand, respond to - and even to model - new urban contexts appropriate to the 21st century.

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