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Weekend roundup: ‘I am not now and never have been a Postmodernist’

Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Robert Venturi • Colin St John Wilson’s demolished lab • Fosters partners’ £23m bonus • SAVE redesigns St Michael’s • Brexit ‘dull design’ warning

Robert Venturi, one of the pioneers of Postmodernism, has died aged 93. In partnership with his wife, Denise Scott Brown, he designed such buildings as the Lieb House in New Jersey (1967), the Seattle Museum of Art and, in the UK, the Sainsbury Wing for the National Gallery. 

But arguably more important was his influence on architecture through books such as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and the jointly authored Learning from Las Vegas. Both his writings and his works sought an alternative to minimalist, geometric Modernism in favour of ornament. ‘I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,’ he said. 

Remembering him this week, Terry Farrell said that Complexity and Contradiction ‘became a manifesto that radically changed all architecture from that time on’. Also paying tribute this week were Piers Gough and former FAT partners Charles Holland and Sam Jacob, all of whose work shows Venturi’s influence. 

Beatrice Galilee, architectural curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who studied architecture at Bath in the 90s, tweeted: ‘Remember reading Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown somewhat illicitly in architecture school when our tutors were pushing practical British minimalism and insulated wall details. My world caught alight.’ 

Contrarily though, he rejected the Postmodern label, proclaiming in 2001: ‘I am not now and never have been a postmodernist.’ Since he literally wrote the book, this raises the question: if not him, then who? 

Venturi won the Pritzker Prize in 1991, though this accolade was marred by the fact that he was singled out to the exclusion of Scott Brown even though their work from the previous two decades had always been attributed to both of them. While Venturi made a point of acknowledging his partner’s ‘crucial’ input into ‘the work this award is acknowledging today’, Scott Brown declined to attend the award ceremony in protest. 

Which takes us neatly to another issue of architectural authorship …

Whose demolished building is it anyway?

Demolished lab

Demolished lab

The news that a pioneering Colin St John Wilson building has been demolished met with a not unexpected uproar. The 1971 biochemistry laboratory on the Babraham Research Campus near Cambridge is believed to have been one of the first buildings clad in Cor-ten steel. James Stirling was a fan, describing it as ‘the first High-Tech building’ and considering it to be Wilson’s finest work.

The Twentieth Century Society described ‘the destruction of this important building’ as regrettable, adding: ‘The timing of the demolition is particularly unfortunate considering the recent loss of [Sandy’s wife and practice partner] MJ Long.’

But who’s this stepping into the fray? Academic, architect and former AJ editor to boot Peter Carolin, who worked at Colin St John Wilson & Associates in the early 70s.

‘I designed Babraham, with the associated architect, Michael Brawne, looking over my shoulder,’ he said. ‘Sandy never did a single drawing of the building. MJ was not involved at any stage.’ 

Carolin also pointed out that ‘the Cor-ten failed long ago and was replaced by anodised aluminium’. Nor did he seem particularly bothered by the demolition, saying that while the building had proved adaptable for many years, ‘it was a tight 1960s plan and I am not in the least surprised that it’s now been demolished.’

Bonuses and trebles all round for Fosters’ partners

Foster partners partnership board

Foster partners partnership board

Hot on the heels of the announcement that profits and turnover had fallen at Fosters + Partners in the last year comes the, perhaps surprising, news that said partners shared £23.4 million in bonuses.

In the previous year, when profits and turnover were higher, the bonus payments totalled a modest £7 million.

The fall in headline numbers appears to be the result of several major projects completing in the year in question, including the Stirling-shortlisted Bloomberg HQ, rather than any long-term decline. The practice was quick to stress that ‘our order book is at near-record levels’.

Nevertheless, the payouts prompted some harsh reader reaction with some feeling that the bounty should be shared out among all the firm’s employees.

The prospects of taking a share in the good times aren’t bad though. While Fosters employs 428 architects globally, it has more than 150 partners and senior partners who would have shared in the payout.

Poll: Was Fosters right to pay out £23 million in bonuses when profits and turnover are down?
• Yes, why shouldn’t it?
• No, it should share the money with all its staff
• No, it should use it to hire more staff 
• No, it should save the money to avoid redundancies in bad times
Vote here

Last week’s poll asked whether the Royal Festival Hall should put a temporary hospitality pavilion on its roof to fund a rooftop performance venue – 41 per cent said yes, 59 per cent no, with 36 per cent opposing the rooftop venue as well.

SAVE’s injury-time intervention

Save mk

Save mk

Hodder + Partners Manchester towers for ex-footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville may have passed all planning hurdles, but SAVE Britain’s Heritage is not giving up in its attempts to overturn the St Michael’s development.

The conservation pressure group commissioned Ian Chalk Architects to draw up alternative proposals for the site, which retain existing buildings threatened with demolition under the Hodder proposal.

SAVE director Henrietta Billings said: ‘This concept clearly demonstrates that a conservation-led design really can preserve the special character of this part of Manchester, while also creating an exciting new development that works within the historic context.’ 

The proposal has won support from Manchester Civic Society and the Twentieth Century Society, while an AJ Twitter poll showed that 60 per cent of respondents favoured it over Hodder’s plans.

Meanwhile, Glenn Howells Architects has submitted plans for a slimline 55-storey tower in Manchester city centre. The Hulme Street scheme, for developer Student Castle, would be 165m tall but less than 15m wide.

It’s going to be dull, dull, dull

Dull mk

Dull mk

Architects have warned that current Brexit plans could lead to ‘dull design’.

The end of free movement will almost certainly lead to a reduction in architects from other EU countries working for UK practices – in fact ARB figures show this is already happening.

Chris Boyce, founder and director of Assorted Skills + Talents, described it as ‘a massive loss fuelled by inward, navel-gazing nationalism, which leads to boring conversations and dull design’.

Nathan Smith of Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects agreed, adding: ‘It’s going to seriously affect the industry because it is not going to be as diverse. One of the most amazing things about architecture is that all offices are microcosms of the world. London’s loss is Copenhagen’s gain.’

Under the proposed post-Brexit immigration policy, individuals coming from EU countries would only be granted visas for jobs paying at least £30,000 per year, a restriction that RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance said would have ‘profound implications for architecture’.

Meanwhile, the government claims a new online system to replace OJEU – the EU’s procurement portal – is ‘well underway’. Procurement expert Walter Menteth questioned whether it could be ready in time for Brexit, adding: ‘It is difficult to see how this is not a recipe for reducing opportunity, increasing confusion, complexity, and a loss of transparency – even if it’s ready on time.’ 

Also this week

  • Adjaye Associates has been selected to design a landmark new home for Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey. The project will involve demolishing the existing museum, which contains a collection of more than 100,000 artworks. 
  • A micro-home by Slovenian practice OFIS Arhitekti, installed near London’s Old Street as part of the London Design Festival, is being auctioned off on eBay. At the time of writing the highest bid stood at £7,000, while installation costs are estimated at around £8,000. However it should be noted that the three-module stack does not at present contain any washing or toilet facilities. 
  • Dixon Jones has won approval for its plans to replace the ramps leading to Wembley Stadium with a set of steps. The concrete walkways were built in the 1970s to allow pedestrian access over a coach park that no longer exists, and were adopted into Foster + Partners’ designs for the new stadium which completed in 2007. The new design includes improved disabled access to the stadium via four additional lifts.  

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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