The luck has finally run out for one of Scotland’s finest Modernist buildings, says Rory Olcayto
Architecture is in the news again. A lot. That’s good, I think. Last week The Times ran a leader column praising Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey for listing Ernö Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House in Elephant & Castle. I know. Weird. ‘Shock of the newish’, ran the headline, with a sentence below explaining: ‘An office development in south London is rightly judged to be part of English heritage’. It was listed, explains The Times, not because it is beautiful (‘an impossibly subjective criterion’)‚ but because ‘it is important’. Wow. An average Modernist building wins both state protection and the support of a newspaper that no longer employs an architecture critic. Who’d a thunk it?
Not Simon Jenkins, anyway. The former Times editor now whines for The Guardian, and he’s mostly pretty shrill when it comes to anything modern. (The stance suits his role as chairman of the National Trust). Last week, however, before tearing into the London Mayor’s tall building policy (ie: money talks) he confessed to liking a few choice modern buildings: ‘I like Broadgate, the Gherkin and the new King’s Cross. I admire Zaha Hadid’s Olympic pool and Lord Foster’s Millennium Bridge - not to mention Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed garden bridge’. And, while that sounds like a UKIP candidate claiming some of his best friends are black before explaining England is in a mess because there are too many immigrants, we’re soon back on familiar ground when Jenkins claims London’s skyline, already ruined, is to be further scarred with ‘bleak glass megaliths’ funded by despots. ‘The Qatari and Chinese edifices about to rise along the banks of the Thames are pastiches of the Gulf economy,’ he says.
The main target of his abuse is the ‘Stalinist’ South Bank Shell Centre development opposite Westminster (pictured), which was recently given planning. And, while Jenkins’ citing of Zaha’s Hadid’s Olympic pool as ‘good’ Modernism feels hollow, tokenistic, he does make a good point. The 134,700m² scheme with buildings designed by Squire and Partners, KPF, GRID, Patel Taylor and Stanton Williams, really ain’t all that. Does anyone - even the architects involved - think this is top-notch design? (It’s not Stalinist, though. More Athlete’s Village on, er…steroids (I hereby solemnly swear never to use this metaphor again). Perhaps Jenkins is right when he says: ‘Talking towers with London architects is like talking disarmament with the National Rifle Association.’ (I hereby solemnly swear to use this one again and again and again.)
Then there was the climbing of the Shard story, which saw Greenpeace campaigners take 14 hours to clamber up its 300 metres to protest against Shell’s plans to drill for gas and oil in the Arctic. It was live-streamed. What a yawn. And the protesters didn’t unfurl their banner at the summit because of safety fears. Safety fears? After climbing a skyscraper? Right.
The broadcasters and newspapers loved it. Greenpeace told the BBC the Shard was chosen because it sits in the middle of Shell’s three headquarter buildings and because the building was ‘modelled on a shard of ice’. No. Sorry, Greenpeace. Shard of glass. Duh.
Finally, because all these stories have been about London, here’s something from the papers about somewhere else. An advertisement in the Evening Standard magazine last week, trumpeting Manchester’s charms, implored Londoners to travel there and ‘do something different’. Like? ‘Visit the award-winning IWM North, Daniel Libeskind’s first building in the UK’. Starchitects eh? They really are a different breed