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Weekend roundup: Is that a tulip on the skyline or are you just pleased to see me?

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Fosters plans ‘Tulip’ tourist tower • Give the people what they want, says housing minister • Nuclear power station win comes too late • Make lays off more staff

Foster + Partners, bless them, are never shy of making the headlines, be it from multimillion bonus payments and Stirling Prize triumphs to lethal falling windows or projects that become the subjects of national referendums. But this week the firm has outdone itself in attracting attention with a proposal for a 305m-tall London tower that it was keen to liken to a giant tulip

Others, it has to be said, found it reminded them of other things – such as a coconut shy, a cotton bud, a stinkhorn mushroom … even an ‘inseminator’ – a device with which I was not familiar until I Googled it, setting off the publisher’s ‘inappropriate internet use’ alarm. 

But it has to be said that AJ reader Tom was not alone in his summation: ‘It looks like a phallus.’ 

The project is backed by J Safra Group, owned by billionaire banker Joseph Safra, which also owns the neighbouring Gherkin, the last Foster-designed project to attract phallic comparisons. While the Gherkin was once the City’s second tallest building, it has since been overshadowed numerous times – including by Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Cheesegrater – suggesting this is very much the case of wanting to prove who’s got the biggest. 

But AJ reader Robert Franklin saw it as symbolising something more fundamental: ‘a last gasp in a (hopefully?) dying age of monstrous displays of pointless and unjustified power; not unlike Versailles’. 

Indeed there does seem something very decadent, in a time of increasing inequality and austerity, fuelling neofascist movements around Europe, that a billionaire decides this is the best way to give something back. 

Fosters’ tower will contain 12 glazed levels containing bars and restaurants as well as a viewing platform, all supported on a concrete shaft and, says the practice, will be ‘a new state-of-the-art cultural and educational resource for Londoners and tourists’. 

The tower has been submitted for planning following a thorough pre-application process that included four meetings with Historic England. Though surely it can only improve a skyline that already contains the Walkie Talkie. If the authorities are game, construction could begin in 2020 and we could be admiring the view by 2025.

Poll: What do you think Foster + Partners’ proposed 305m-tall City of London tower most closely resembles?
• A tulip
• A cotton bud
• A mushroom
• A male appendage
Vote here

Last week’s poll asked what percentage of Zaha Hadid’s estate should go to Patrik Schumacher. In true pantomime spirit, most of you answered nothing at all.

Poll result shumacher

Poll result Schumacher

The housing crisis – it’s all architects’ fault

Kit malthouse crop

Kit Malthouse crop

The newly reignited style wars rumbled on this week with a public performance from housing minister Kit Malthouse that confirmed many people’s suspicion that he only got the job because he had ‘house’ as part of his name.  

Malthouse, speaking at the Building More, Building Beautiful conference, was defending his contentious tweet that compared an Alabama Neoclassical courthouse with a heavily glazed London office building, suggesting that this somehow held the key to building more beautiful housing.  

Taken to task on this, he defended it with all the rigour of a petulant eight-year-old, saying he had never said which building he preferred and that he was seeking to ‘test the air’ on the state of the debate in architecture.  

He added that the public sought out the ‘British vernacular’ of the mansion block, mews house and terrace street, but that ‘the profession has retreated from embracing this and giving people what they want’. 

Yes, apparently the only reason people aren’t all living in these types of homes is that architects refuse to design them. Nothing to do the developers who hire them (or don’t hire them as the case may be) – the multimillionaire housebuilders, many of whom are major donors to his party.  

Malthouse concluded that the profession felt threatened by this challenge to their work, reacting by gathering together and awarding each other prizes. Is he aware that his boss, housing secretary James Brokenshire, was at such a prize-giving occasion last month, praising architects for being the ‘guardians of quality’?  

It was left to the AJ’s Paul Finch, also speaking at the event, to point out that if anyone thought Classicism, Modernism or indeed any style of designing was the answer to our housing problem ‘they are awfully deluded’.  

But if Malthouse is serious about making housing more beautiful, it does seem at odds with his department’s intention to extend permitted development rights so that rooftop extensions can go ahead without planning permission.  

A report by former housing minister Nick Raynsford on the planning system warns that existing permitted development has already resulted in ‘a host of poor-quality design outcomes’ with ‘adverse implications for people’s health and wellbeing’. 

Malthouse has said he welcomes the report while not responding specifically to the issue of permitted development.

Crap competition win of the week

Reiach and hall architects12

Reiach and hall architects12

The lukewarm, slightly flat Pomagne was surely in full trickle as Reiach and Hall Architects celebrated its RIBA competition win for a project to provide workers accommodation and a visitor centre for the Moorside nuclear power station in Cumbria.  

The practice, which earlier this month won the Best Building in Scotland award for its nuclear archive building, won the contest for the accommodation, while K2 Architects was winner of the visitor centre.  

But the bad news was: both schemes have little realistic chance of being built since the entire £10 billion power station project was scrapped two weeks ago, following the withdrawal of backer Toshiba.

The competition process has been a more drawn-out than anticipated. It was launched three years ago and the shortlist was announced back in 2016 with Terry Farrell among those judging the entries.  

It seems that as the developers were packing up their office, they realised there was still some unfinished business, so hastily announced the winners of the competition and paid them their £5,000 prizes before turning the lights off.  

Reiach and Hall director Jim Grimley, clearly a Pomagne-glass-half-full kind of a guy, said he hoped the knowledge and experience acquired through entering could be picked up with another energy provider once a new delivery company had been established.  

The power station was set to provide 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity, but many are suggesting that the scheme’s failure demonstrates that nuclear energy is financially unfeasible and renewable alternatives should be pursued instead. 

Brexit uncertainty continues to take its toll

Make is set to make around a dozen of its staff redundant owing to a slowdown in its UK work. The practice, which is employee-owned, is blaming the off-cited Brexit uncertainty for schemes stalling.  

It is not the first time it has had to reduce staff following the EU referendum; just one month after the vote it was one of a number of practices to make staff cuts as a result of the post-referendum climate.  

Back in July of this year, Rogers Stirk Harbour also blamed Brexit as it announced its own redundancies, while this week Westminster planners attributed it to a ‘significant decrease’ in the number of major schemes submitted this year.  

Whether practices will fare any better once Brexit uncertainty has been replaced by Brexit certainty remains to be seen. 

Also this week:

Childrenvillage leonardofinotti19

Children village leonardofinotti19

  • The biennial RIBA International Prize has been awarded to Brazilian architect Aleph Zero + Rosenbaum for a boarding school on the edge of the Brazilian rainforest. The practice’s Children Village (pictured), a 540-place school in the northern state of Tocantins, beat three other shortlisted projects: Central European University, Budapest, by O’Donnell + Tuomey; Toho Gakuen School of Music, Tokyo, by Nikken Sekkei; and Vertical forest (Il Bosco Verticale), Milan, by Boeri Studio. 
  • John Priestley, who spent a memorable two days last June as architectural expert witness to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry before being sacked when it transpired he wasn’t a registered architect, is to appear in court charged with misuse of title. Priestley has been summoned by Westminster Magistrates’ Court to appear next Friday for offences under the Architects Act 1997. Each offence under section 21 of the Architects Act 1997 is punishable by a fine of up to £2,500. 
  • Residents at the Westhorpe Gardens and Mills Grove Estate, in Barnet, north London, have voted in favour of Pozzoni Architects’ plans to overhaul their homes. The vote was the first estate regeneration ballot carried out under London mayor Sadiq Khan’s new rules. Nearly three-quarters of residents voted to back the plans which involve the demolition and replacement of all existing 102 social rent homes, with an additional 150 homes delivered for affordable rent, shared ownership and homes for the over-55s.

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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Readers' comments (2)

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  • Foster + Partners' proposed 305m-tall London tower is much more like something arguably far more offensive than any of the objects 'on offer' - and anyone who saw the latest episode of the BBC's dramatisation of John Le Carre's 'Little Drummer Girl' last night would surely be left in no doubt at all that - were this to be built - it'd be far more likely to be known as the rocket propelled grenade launcher (or RPG) than anything else. And that would be pretty sad.

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