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We can't please everyone, all the time

Rory Olcayto

Clients can be hard to please. So can awards panels. And the public. Nobody said architecture was easy, says Rory Olcayto

News that Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels’ BIG are set to take over the Google King’s Cross project from AHMM is no surprise. The tech giant loved their proposals for its new Californian headquarters and ever since boss Larry Page tore up the planning permission AHMM secured for the inner-London site in 2013 and asked for a new design, there has been a sense it would be reassigned.

This is disappointing: few architects think as much about workplace design as AHMM do. Whether you agree with director Simon Allford or not, the White Collar Factory model he developed with Derwent and the ‘universal building type’ – which argues against typologies – are powerful, compelling ideas, emerging from a sector too many good architects barely engage with.

Secondly, many of the ideas BIG and Heatherwick Studios presented for Google’s Mountain View HQ, principally around flexible structures, are in line with AHMM’s research.  This happens more than you might think: good ideas are rarely exclusive.  To have seen how AHMM would have responded to Google’s demands for a rethink would have been intriguing.

Nevertheless, the profession must learn from master storytellers Heatherwick and BIG.  Their tales appeal to everyone. Ingels’ first major book was in comic book format. It has served the Dane well. Days before news broke about the fortunes of Google at King’s Cross, BIG was appointed architect for 2 World Trade Center, New York, a job initially handed to Norman Foster.

RIBA Award clients

Clearly clients are essential to the creation of great architecture, whether you have BIG, AHMM,  Thomas or Norman on board. That point is brought to the fore in our annual celebration of the RIBA Awards. As our analysis shows, Urban Splash is the client behind the most RIBA Award-winning buildings in the past 10 years – none, incidentally, for buildings in London.

Who decides?

As for Scotland, where the RIAS has decided that a dormer in Portobello is a greater architectural achievement than Steven Holl’s art school building: isn’t it possible to like them both?  The AJ does. We shortlisted Konishi Gaffney’s nifty roof extension in 2014 and gave the Reid Building the AJ100 Best building award last year. But failing to recognise Holl and executive architect JM Architects’ – bold design is just silly. And, coming so soon after Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum was similarly snubbed it’s more than that. It’s worrying. RIAS, grow up.

The public v the profession

What these awards are for is a moot point. As our Culture essay by Create Streets’ Nick Boys Smith points out, the buildings you love are often loathed by the public. Maybe it’s worth thinking of the public as the ‘ambient client’ on every project undertaken. The public after all – that’s us, by the way, you, me, and your granny – have to live with what’s built (almost) as much as the client does.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Who exactly is 'the public'? What makes anyone think that 'the public' actually has a collective opinion? It is a misleading and hopelessly flaccid term for no-one in particular.
    I wish architects, the architectural press and most of all the RIBA would stop using this ridiculous catch-all, grab bag word as if it were a description of a definable category.
    And even worse it is a hopeless goal in any case.
    It is not measurable, definable or relevant.
    Lets focus on the people who make decisions - those who hold the purse strings and allow architects their sense of civic pride to do their job for whatever wider audience is relevant.
    Stop worrying about 'the public' - there is no such thing.

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  • The RIAS Awards judging is indeed perverse. As well as the lack of award for the Reid Building, Richard Murphy's own house was not even shortlisted yet it has just received a Saltire Society Housing Design Award.

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