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2012: The year of... Shifting perspectives

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A wealth of architecture coming out of Northern Ireland, the Olympic Games, and the Venice Biennale all made 2012 a year of suprising architectural culture

Architectural culture in 2012 was surprising. Positively surprising. Some of the best buildings we published were built in Northern Ireland. A genuinely brilliant piece of architecture – OMA’s Maggie’s in Glasgow – won the Andrew Doolan Prize. Stanton Williams’ high standards, thoroughly explored in its Sainsbury Laboratory (though bettered in my opinion by its Hackney Marshes centre (1)), were honoured by the Stirling Prize jury.

The Venice Biennale was thoughtful and spectacular when it’s usually just one or the other. The Serpentine Pavilion (2), by Herzog & de Meuron, looked good – and smelled even better (it was fashioned from a pungent cork). AHMM’s Tea Building made office design feel relevant. New ideas about practice – Assemble’s ‘permanent 5th year’ model and Piers Taylor’s two-fingered salute to flatscreen monitors – as well as style and expression were hotly discussed. And London’s Olympic architecture proved popular – with the public and the profession alike.

The Venice Biennale was thoughtful and spectacular when it’s usually just one or the other

But it wasn’t all good news. Renzo Piano’s Shard dazzled and underwhelmed in a 40/60 split. The RIBA awards were made confusing by a two-tier system (there were prizes for the very good and prizes for the not bad too). Scottish cities bashed their public spaces: think of plans for Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens (thankfully abandoned) and Glasgow’s George Square (which will hopefully be revised). And the gulf between London’s construction economy and that of the rest of Britain grew even larger than anyone should think reasonable.

The Belles of Belfast City

Who would have thought that three of the year’s best buildings would hail from Northern Ireland? In March this year, Hackett Hall McKnight (since renamed Hall McKnight) completed the MAC (3), a fantastic new arts venue for Belfast.

(3) Hackett Hall McKnight's MAC in Belfast

(3) Hackett Hall McKnight’s MAC in Belfast

Mostly hidden from view by lesser new builds that surround it, this ‘compressed urban environment’ as the architect calls it, is all about brick, from which most of Belfast is built, and a treat to behold when you find your way inside. Lots of great, brick-built spaces, some cavernous, others nooks and crannies, with warm timber details.

It should make the Stirling Prize shortlist in 2013, just as its even brickier cousin, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lyric Theatre, did this year. It didn’t win of course, but the bigger prize is more worthy: taken together, these buildings have transformed Northern Ireland’s status when it comes to good architecture, along with Heneghan Peng’s visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of County Antrim (whose basalt exterior matches the MAC’s black lantern tower). 

Game, set and match – kerching!

The Olympic Games were a huge success. It may have been British athletes who stole the show, but British architecture faired pretty well too: the venues dazzled.

The Populous-designed stadium was rightly shortlisted for the Stirling Prize this year (announced by a far-too-ebullient Olympic Delivery Authority before it had been officially confirmed). The Velodrome inspired a record haul of gold medals. Even the weird, messed-around Aquatics Centre, by Dame Zaha Hadid (a title bestowed this year) produced a great sense of occasion and, during competition, those added-on seating wings gave brilliant views of the bulging striped ceiling.

The park itself had a festival vibe, and the garden areas, designed by Nigel Dunnet and James Hitchmough, were gentle, relaxing, friendly. None of it, however, can justify the ludicrous price tag of £9 billion.

Just a facade

The Venice Biennale was solidly serious, partly political and often very funny, without actually meaning to be. (The Wim Wenders film of 2013 RIBA Gold Medalist Peter Zumthor took sycophancy to new heights.) A series of exhibits in the David Chipperfield-curated Arsenale lectured the visitor on the importance of facades – a good thing given the art of elevation design was almost killed off by rampant use of 3D software this past decade or so.

There were spectacular interventions by O’Donnell + Tuomey, FAT and Norman ‘still got it’ Foster (4). Another show juxtaposed the building of Renzo Piano’s Shard with Gort Scott’s detailed studies of suburban high streets. It hinted at two Londons that never seem to meet but failed to tackle the earth-shaking riots of the previous summer. None of the exhibits did: strange, given the number of London faces involved in pulling it together. The 13th biennale was an earnest show, and a brave attempt to reverse the damage wrought by the Kazuyo Sejima theme-park curation two years before, but mostly this was an insular affair, and far from genuinely provocative.

Style with substance

In 2012 new styles emerged, or rather terms were coined to frame subtle changes. Sometimes very ordinary buildings, or rather very functional buildings that could not be thought of as avant garde, provide the inspiration for others to place emerging trends. Corb had his grain silos, James Bridle (a designer, not an architect) had YRM’s Telehouse West data centre in East London.

(5) Thomas Heatherwick's Olympic Cauldron

(5) Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Cauldron

That building’s facade has a kind of hole-punched computer card pattern ‘printed’ on it, and was Bridle’s inspiration for the New Aesthetic, a fast-developing concept marking the physical-digital overlap, an area architects will increasingly have to deal with. Alongside Earth Style, coined by Dezeen’s Marcus Fairs, to signify the high-end leisure buildings and interiors typified by projects like Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and the Smart Nouveau of Frank Gehry’s ‘melted’ Manhattan tower, Thomas Heatherwick’s petal-tipped Cauldron (5) and Alex Haw’s sinuous CNC-milled suburban staircase we featured last year, the New Aesthetic at least feels like the future – in the same way rehashed, market-friendly Modernism really just doesn’t.

Architectural history is so old hat

The best building I visited this year was an old one: the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul, designed by Mimar Sinan in 1562. It sits above a busy market, its elevated courtyard calm, spacious and giving deferential views across to the Sülemaniye Mosque further up the hill. (Rüstem Pasha was Sultan Süleyman’s grand vizier). Inside, the painted hemispherical dome rests upon a firm octagonal drum. Iznick tiles, produced at the height of the Ottoman ceramic boom in the mid-16th century, line the internal walls.

The best building I visited this year was an old one: the Rüstem Pasha Mosque

I was there with a delegation of British architects who marvelled at its beauty, its apparent modernity and its very clever, urban design, yet few of us were familiar with its charms. Why not? Probably because it’s not considered canon. It should be. If we can look beyond Vitruvius, Palladio and Le Corbusier, better new architecture will surely emerge. We have a global economy, international travel is cheap and British architects have offices all over the world. The architectural profession should have a history to match. What we’re stuck with at the moment is way too ‘western’ and woefully, farcically, dated. Here’s a resolution for 2013: let’s write a new history together.

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