What were the most significant ‘thinking moments’ for architects in 2010? The people, the objects, the ideas, that reshaped our perception of what the building environment really means?
Zaha Hadid’s Frock
Every year, architectural commentators painstakingly deconstruct the Stirling Prize winner, as they literally have nothing better to do. This year they were presented with a special challenge, as the Royal Institute of Blokey Architects award was won by a BIRD. Admittedly the bird in question was ‘The Zaha’ but still – how to contextualise the story? The Maxxi Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome had actually got the prize, which was being presented to a woman in a striking yellow dress…oh, wait. THERE’s the story. Hadid’s semi-mythical sidekick Patrik Schumacher described it as ‘post-frocktal, sinuous, dynamic…here, in a sense, we witness the autopoiesis of dressmaking – a worn landscape as a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line…achtung! Did anyone else see that trope flashing past the window? Matron - the curtains!’ The Frock has since won Architectural Garment of the Year and is now the non-executive director of several blue chip companies. Its autobiography – Commodiousness, Firmness and Delight – will be published next year.
Michael Gove&His ‘Magnetic Air’
He looks like a veal calf in a suit, but education secretary Michael Gove isn’t stupid. He knew that when he scrapped all those Building Schools for the Future schemes - claiming that architects had been ‘creaming off cash’ – he was fabricating a story for the popular press. Astonishingly, few people challenged this narrative of commercial practices and venal contractors profiting from public works. Despite everyone knowing that the Labour government, in line with its principles, had bankrolled proper in-house county architects departments to do it all.Gove then announced that the money saved would be used to create a network of new middle class school environments charged with ‘magnetic air’. This costly but effective process of forming ‘coalition molecules’ of inert gases and polemic would motivate pupils, and attract the most expensive teachers. Once BSF had been dismantled, he said, education could get on with its primary tasks, which included raising the standard and clarity of spoken English. RIBA president Ruth Reed said ‘it is the system that created waste, not those that delivered to it’.
It wasn’t exactly sous les pavés, la plage* but the student demos did remind urbanists that ‘the street’ is a multi-layered concept. Yes, you can energise and humanise the inner city with upmarket sandwich shops and well-dressed buskers. You can also do it by stopping the traffic and filling it with clever angry oppositional young people - what a baffled Reuters called ‘British anti-austerity protesters’. Ah, ‘the street’. One day it’s a traffic capillary. The next it’s an open-air hipster version of Les Miserables. Meanwhile, occupations show us how student density may be increased with flexible space and the right political theories. And most importantly the protests offered a simple solution to a problem architects have been grappling with for decades: how to ‘blur the boundaries of internal and external space’. You simply storm the foyer, smash the windows, drag a sofa out onto the pavement and sit on it.
The Cone of Inevitability
Like a stake being driven into the heart of London, but from the ground up, Renzo Piano’s Shard continues its inexorable rise. It’s a
sobering thought that the scheme went to planning before 9/11, yet tragically won’t be completed until next year. Still, Southwark’s Spire of Hope is now taller than One Canada Square. So that’s good. But what will the tallest building in the EU (310m) contain? Well PEOPLE obviously - Piano describes it as a ‘vertical city’. This may just mean everyone on their toes, their perpendicularity expressing timeless architectural principles. But what will the people in the Shard DO? They will be occupying ‘54,500m² of office space, Europe’s first five-star rated Shangri-La Hotel, luxury residential apartments, retail space, and restaurants’. Glacially, through good times and bad, the Shard has inched its way up. It has been and remains a glittering monument to capitalism. Building it: a de-unionised, ethically-cleansed construction industry. Profiting: the usual rich wankers. Residing there: ditto. Fuck the Shard. PS, it’s boring.
Ten Downing Street
This year’s rolling news coverage of the General Election and its aftermath was much more soothing with the sound off. Throughout
Gordon Brown’s departure and The Human Aubergine’s arrival, the Sky HD Copter and the BBC Blimp broadcast hours of virtually uninterrupted aerial views of London. How calm everything looked, as we circled gently over exquisite Georgian buildings and massive symbols of the British Empire. How ordered and unchangeable. The Tories may not have scraped a working majority, but Architecture was a clear winner. We came down to earth shortly afterwards for that famous Cameron-Clegg press conference. Springtime in the Number 10 garden. The leafy trees, lush borders and dazzling blooms now seem like a cruel mis-cue for the uprooting, slashing and burning to come. Still, those marvellous overviews of Buckingham Palace and The Mall, looking like a magnificent, frozen spermatozoon…
George Osborne’s Pain Dungeon
Of course, it was all go INSIDE 10 Downing Street too. Samantha Cameron and her three interior designer friends had plenty of ideas about the ‘makeover’. A few months earlier they had all jetted off for a mini-break in Dubai, where they spent their days laughing in malls, ogling men, swinging designer bags… Correction, that was Sex and the City 2. The Camerons’ restyling of Number 10 was actually quite straightforward: out with the Quaker furniture and dour decoration, in with top-end Milan furniture and touches of glamour sold in little Notting Hill boutiques by Sam’s friends, just back from Dubai. Nobody paid any attention to what was happening next door, where Chancellor George Osborne had created a mysterious ‘den’ for himself. Nobody but Osborne is allowed in; nobody knows what it looks like. We know that on the revised floor plan it’s described as ‘a cruel, experimental thinking space, acoustically sealed and ventilated with mentholated air’. There are rumours of unspecified ‘trappings’ but these have been refuted by Osborne’s airy dismissal, and a superinjunction.
2010 saw the Olympics site in Stratford-upon-Lea finally take shape. It looks like an illustration from a Jamie Oliver recipe: heavy poaching pan, surrounded by an assortment of exotic fish. The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon opened to appreciative noises off. What links them? Jeremy Hunt, the youthful slip of the tongue who’s secretary of state for culture AND the Olympics. In the Warwickshire Stratford you can watch plays by Britain’s Got Talent winner William Shakespeare, who has been dead for some time and is therefore unable to assert intellectual copyright. In east London a legacy of infrastructure improvements, housing and a billion pound retail and entertainment destination is similarly bequeathing us a great slab of cultural heritage although here the inheritance tax might be a bit steep as a lot of the sport stuff’s being done through PFI. SUMMARY: regeneration eclipses sport, legacy eclipses regeneration, PFI eclipses culture, my name’s Jeremy Hunt – I said HUNT missus – and I’m here all week. Exeunt right.
A Home From Home
Architects on holiday can be very trying. Crash-reading and memorising their Pevsner the night before so that the next day’s tour of a charming East Anglian market town can be expertly steered by them and their sensible bloody shoes and their apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of local buildings. At least when you get back to your holiday home they shut up for five minutes. Alas, philosopher and architecture ‘nut’ Alain de Botton has created a nightmare for architects’ companions: Living Architecture. A group of iconic buildings in Suffolk designed by some of the haughtiest auteurs in epic space. The idea is that after a tough day listening to some insufferable prick banging on about stucco and corbelling, you return to your holiday home for a more relaxed real-time commentary on your immediate surroundings. ‘Here you can see the emotional core of what MVRDV were trying to do with Balancing Barn…’ Thanks, Alain. How very thoughtful of you.
The Eagle Has Lumped
Kieran Timberlake won the design competition for a new US Embassy in Nine Elms. The brief called for something ‘welcoming and inspiring’ as a successor to the listed Saarinen building in Grosvenor Square, though this may have been an example of American ‘irony’ as the winning design looks like a cube of shit with overscaled razor wire all over it. It most resembles The Borg, a fearsome entity featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg cruised the universe looking for intelligent life to assimilate and was unstoppable. Its mission statement was ‘Resistance Is Futile’. Timberlake’s embassy – already nicknamed The Rubik’s Bollock in this sentence at least – is being promoted as part of the area’s regeneration.Which is fine, if regeneration means squatting inside its own electrified moat, nervy and paranoid, basting itself with armoured glazing and an anti-personnel forcefield.
What is the future for Epic Space? Without anyone to define it in opaque and pretentious terms, it will simply swirl meaninglessly around in our collective reality like pixellated nonsense. The world of architecture enters 2011 staring into the abyss. Never mind the shredded economy, the evaporation of civic architecture as a concept, the reduction of the role of architect to that of a fag at a minor public school.The demise of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has created a black hole of ism-less antimatter. The Prince of Wales wants his Foundation for the Promotion of Organic Architecture and Quality Meats to tackle national aesthetics quality control. Alas, few people listen to him these days as he’s a discredited windbag. The RIBA has made a bid for the right to say what good architecture looks like, but is getting on now and usually has a nap in the afternoon. Is it possible that a revolutionary movement of architects will arise, fearlessly pushing through the construction of a popular new wave of brilliant homes and schools and public spaces for ordinary people? Well, anything is possible if…oh dear, we’ve run out of space.