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Starchitects think journalists should toe the line


That’s not how it works, says Rory Olcayto

It’s no surprise that both Wolf Prix, in his attack on the David Chipperfield-curated Venice Biennale, and Chipperfield, with his angry response, both attack the media before rounding on each other. The press is just one more territory for both of these influential architects to exert control, and despite their dismissals - Prix says the media ‘constantly exaggerates’ and Chipperfield is ‘disappointed’ the AJ gave prominence to Prix in the first place - both of them use the press to further their own ambitions.

Both are experienced media diehards too, not Bambi-like starlets caught unexpectedly in the headlights, despite their complaints. Prix begins his tirade with a Bob Dylan quote, which asks ‘which side are you on?’ while Chipperfield frames his letter with a witty headline-friendly pun aimed to belittle his foe (Though I’m not sure with ‘Kicking against the pricks’ if he’s referencing the biblical quote or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ third album.) Sometimes, however, the press won’t play ball in the way a paid-for PR consultant does. And this is as it should be.

Yet you can’t blame any high-flyer in the profession for taking this stance. As Jonathan Meades writes in his fantastic new book Museum Without Walls, ‘omnipotent, ubiquitous global practitioners possess both a PR machine and - hardly different - a deferentially aniligual architectural press to support their vain pretentions’.

Meades says the influence of such a press, which we hope you would agree AJ stands apart from, ‘increased with the advent in 1983 of Blueprint’, a glossy organ that made architecture attractive to a public unreachable by the charms of AR and AD. Wallpaper, Icon and Frame are among the others fingered by Meades as working with a select group of names who suck up to each other in a ‘vortex of mutual dependence’.

Chipperfield and his team, led by former AJ editor Kieran Long (how’s that for Common Ground?) have in fact been using the media to promote their ambitions from the moment the RIBA gold medallist’s appointment was announced. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for Chipperfield. There’s nothing more annoying than when a critic slams you for not doing something, or saying something, when you have.

You’ll remember this feeling from your own university crits. But the Austrian architect’s swipe at the lack of political engagement or exploration of matters such as the messy episode the building of Herzog & de Mueron’s concert hall in Hamburg has become, is a clear example of this kind of swipe in action. Sadly for Prix, it devalues his broader point - and it’s a good one, well worth reporting - about how far removed from vital political discourse the profession has become.

What’s up with the British Pavilion?

Here’s a nice, simple idea that will show how vibrant, strange and cultured our tiny Isle of Wonder really is - without trying to please all of the people, all of the time as this year’s has done. Give the curation of the British pavilion over to the four nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland over the next eight years. Who wants to go first?


Readers' comments (2)

  • It is possible that in 4 years the UK will only be made up of 3 countries. With the planned vote north of the border, who is in line to design the Scottish Pavilion? This fractious issue in itself gives a clue as to one possible sub text to any UK pavilion.

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  • It's true that Wolf Prix made some valid points and that David Chipperfield doesn't come out of this as well as he might, because he takes the criticism (much of it directed at the modern incarnation of the biennale itself) too personally. It's also seems that Prix has a problem with Chipperfield’s architecture, perhaps deeming it too corporate-friendly and bland and that his opinions in this regard rumble 'not-so-deep' beneath the surface of his press release. What Chipperfield would no doubt have pointed out (had he not allowed himself to feel so personally affronted) was that Prix himself highlighted the essential ridiculousness of his position by mentioning architecture and Pussy Riot in the same sentence. It's anachronistic to imagine that architects have (or ever really had) the power to influence politics through built form. Shouldn't the Jenks Prize winner have realised by now that one of the fundamental lessons of Post Modernism has been the peripheral nature of much of what architects do to society? One suspects that Chipperfield understands this, indeed Patrik Schumacher was quite heavily attacked recently for making a similar point.
    To imagine that architecture which has it's roots in fulfilling quite boring but fundamental human requirements can have the same effect as punk rock, which (if you go back far enough) has it's roots in the protest songs sung on American slave plantations, is silly. These are points that could have been discussed by our 'responsible-media' had it not been so concerned with saving face.
    As architects we have to realise that our failure to get the ‘basics’ right has led to our increasing marginalisation, those basics being the design of beautiful, durable, meaningful buildings. Unfortunately nearly 100 years after Le Corbusier et al, we have to admit that we are still struggling with these simple aims and in typically straight-laced fashion Chipperfield’s ‘Common Ground’ seems to address this.

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