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Robert Venturi’s ideas were more powerful than any number of buildings

Paul Finch
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Venturi and Denise Scott Brown didn’t merely affect the architectural weather – they brought about climate change, writes Paul Finch 

Las vegas pics 21

Las vegas pics 21

In general, architects dislike being put into neat critical categories. James Stirling was far from amused by being described as the RIBA’s first Postmodern Gold Medallist – not that this was a description the institute used itself.

Indeed, had Portland Place been more attuned to the changing face of architecture in the 1980s, it would also have awarded its highest honour to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. After all, this formidable architectural duo did not merely affect architectural weather; they brought about a climate change. The power of ideas, expressed in words and images, can sometimes be greater than any number of buildings, however high their quality. The influence of philosopher Paul Virilio, who recently died, is a case in point. 

This has been a miserable summer for architectural deaths. Before Venturi’s demise we lost Will Alsop, who was honest enough to say that, while he never succumbed to the simplistic historicism too evident in much Postmodernist architecture, he nevertheless felt a sense of rebellion in respect of the conventional ‘Modernism’ that seemed to dominate the architectural scene in the 1970s. Reactions of any sort were inevitable and welcome – particularly in the hands of skilful architects like Venturi and Alsop.

There has been little comment about the passing of another fine architectural designer, Kerry Hill, an Australian who lived much of his life in Singapore. He would have been Sir Kerry Hill – but the ending of the traditional honours system in Australia meant he could only append the letters OA (Order of Australia) after his name, which is meaningless worldwide. Kerry was certainly not a Postmodernist; the best description of him was probably that he was a ‘tropical Miesian’ – promoting a brand of thoughtful environmental architecture, particularly in respect of boutique hotels, that brought him commissions across Asia. I was privileged to be invited to contribute to his monograph, Crafting Modernism (Thames & Hudson); he will be much missed.

Some think architecture with an unlimited budget has an unfair advantage over ‘economy’ projects, but I’m not so sure

The annual awarding of the RIBA Stirling Prize is always a moment to reflect on how the potential winners reflect aspects of current architectural culture. The long list for this year’s award, the RIBA’s national award winners, seemed to me to be exceptionally strong and that is reflected in the strength of the Stirling shortlist (though Ian Ritchie’s Royal Academy of Music should have been included). 

At the launch of this year’s Open House last week, there was much discussion about whether Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg building, in which the launch took place, might win the RIBA Stirling Prize, as the practice’s ‘Gherkin’ office building in the City of London did a few years back. Some think that architecture with an apparently unlimited budget has an unfair advantage over ‘economy’ projects, but I’m not so sure. The challenge for the former is in some ways more profound – there are no constraints to act as design crutches. 

V&adundee jimstephenson web

V&adundee jimstephenson web

Source: Jim Stephenson

Kengo Kuma’s new V&A Dundee (pictured) is an example of a building whose budget was too challenging for what was expected, and it was, therefore, exceeded. I hope it figures on the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist next year – it certainly can’t have done any harm to Kuma-San’s prospects of winning the Pritzker Prize. It is a fine building, in a sea of post-industrial junkspace, which does the city proud. The two main galleries, designed by Kuma and ZMMA respectively, are excellent, though that is not the true point of the building, which is to represent the spirit of a Dundee redefining itself through cultural regeneration. A landmark was what the city required, and a landmark is what Kuma has delivered. In this case, form, materials and architectural inspiration are more important than all the words understandably expended around the launch event. Happily, words and buildings are not mutually exclusive.

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