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Let’s hear it for vanity projects!

Paul Finch
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It’s better to try – and occasionally fail – with grand creative endeavours, rather than not try at all, says Paul Finch

In one of the episodes of Larry David’s hit TV comedy Curb your Enthusiasm, he makes a point about viruses. You shouldn’t condemn them all out of hand. There are good ones, as well as bad.

I feel the same way about vanity projects – potentially wonderful work for architects but, as with any creative endeavour, success is not guaranteed. Better to try and occasionally fail, rather than not try at all.

In the generalised attacks on the new prime minister, the following have been identified as ‘vanity projects’: a bridge across the Channel, HS2, a Manchester-to-Leeds railway line, Olympicopolis (now renamed East Bank), and Thomas Heatherwick’s buses (surely better than the cyclist-killer bendy-buses).

This is rather odd, since all the above have specific purpose or function, with or without the support of a single individual. In other words, if one political party supports something, it is good, but if their opponents support it, all is vanity. I support all of the above and, if an individual’s reputation is enhanced as a result, good for them. Boris Johnson’s support of the Great Northern Powerhouse is as welcome as George Osborne’s. Perhaps it will happen this time round.

Moreover, there are plenty of examples where civic pride is difficult to distinguish from mayoral vanity, if that is the right word. Any Olympic bid, for example, is unlikely to be successful unless there are some particularly driven individuals who want to make it happen. Miserabilist opponents will huff and puff until success appears on the horizon, at which point they change their turgid tune.

Public monuments are another example, the Eiffel Tower being primus inter pares. Ditto iconic civic or cultural buildings like the Sydney Opera House or the Pantheon – or those libraries and other buildings funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Does ‘giving something back’ count if it has a name attached to it? A good question in the light of controversy over the Sackler family name, now being removed from some cultural institutions because of the provenance of the funding. Presumably some Nobel prize winners will be thinking about handing the money back to the sponsor, given its origins (dynamite, etc).

So let’s hear it for good vanity projects (Diocletian’s Baths), while being rightly critical of poor ones (the ArcelorMittal Orbit at Stratford). But let’s remember that there is nothing so vain as the vanity of the critically self-righteous.

Part W

The list of ‘alternative’ RIBA Gold Medal winners, all women, is an interesting idea which the organisers should be careful not to undermine as a result of a slapdash approach to history, chronology and specific achievement at the date of the prospective award.

A serious study would make the case for a substitute winner, but explain why they were better than the person (virtually always male) who was actually awarded the medal in a given year.

As argued in this column before, one could also make a case for some male architects having a better claim to the medal than actual recipients, particularly the ludicrous award to the entire City of Barcelona in 1999. 

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