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Architecture has globalised, but design can still be different

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Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The World Architecture Festival has become a celebration of variety and difference, writes Paul Finch

I am in Singapore this week for the rather wonderful (though I say it myself) World Architecture Festival, dreamed up in the bar of Moro’s, the famed Clerkenwell restaurant, seven years ago. Launched by the publishing house that still owns the AJ and the Architectural Review, it has been a hard slog to survive the dire world economic situation since our launch year in 2008, but I think we have made it.

Far from becoming an example of globalisation as a negative phenomenon, promoting either silly shapes or replicant glass boxes, what is interesting is the way the festival has become a celebration of variety and difference, and an acknowledgement that architects across the world have much to learn from each other, but, by definition, also much to teach.

For me the event is life-enhancing, because it shows how design can absorb similar influences yet produce entirely different responses, even if they result in templates for others to follow in ways that forego the need to re-invent the wheel for every project. Today’s digital technology presents politicians and private clients with choices: you could have exactly the same architecture, you could have variation, or you could try something new.

In the end it will not make that much difference to cost, taken in the round and in the long term. Of course if you want very quick returns from buildings that will last five minutes, you can have that too, but it is foolish to blame architects for that state of affairs. That is about political and social contexts that are beyond the direct influence of people who simply want to design things in the best way they can manage.

Robert Adam’s new book, The Globalisation of Modern Architecture (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), makes good points about the inevitable consequences for designers and practices of an emerging condition in which local tradition and identity comes under threat. The irony is that the methods by which ‘modernity’ can be prevented from sweeping all before it implies a degree of political and social control, which is what signified Modernism in the first place. Traditionalists love bureaucracies that are on their side.

The destruction of traditional architecture, on a huge scale, as is currently happening in China, is easy to blame on architects, but in truth it is inevitably part of a wider picture. A brilliant fringe exhibition at the Venice Biennale, by the Chinese artist Ying Tianqi, records the destruction of entire cities or neighbourhoods, and shows his efforts to keep them alive, both metaphorically and literally, by taking elements that have been demolished and re-using them in polemical artworks about crimes against identity. This is in the spirit of this year’s Pritzker Prize winner, Wang Xu, who has little time for ‘modern’ architecture, given what it has produced in both old and new locations across his country.

However, there are enough architects who are both modest enough, but committed to older values of architecture, for us not to lose heart entirely. Jonathan Meades’ brilliant collection of writings, Museums Without Walls, contains some vicious criticisms of the profession, and (oh dear) the media that serves it. He makes a point of dismissing the idea that architects can create places - they can only design buildings. True, since it is people that make places. But people are influenced by buildings and the spaces around them, for better or worse.

I take comfort from the fact that Jonathan lives in a duplex in Corb’s Marseilles Unité; now there is a building that would have won a World Architecture Festival Award in its day.

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