With Ellis Woodman at the helm, the Architecture Foundation can be a truly independent voice for London, says Rory Olcayto
The Architecture Foundation has a new director: the AJ’s critic-at-large, Ellis Woodman. Good. It’s the second step in the right direction for the oft-troubled institution. The first was chairman Simon Allford’s ‘do less but better’ root-and-branch overhaul, announced last June. That involved waving goodbye to a permanent home, arranging a three-year funding plan and focusing the AF’s efforts on ‘dynamic, global’ London.
Regarding London, Woodman is on message. As he says in our interview, ‘I see the AF’s principal role as the development of propositional thinking about London, both at the scale of policy and design … what kind of a city are we trying to make?’ It’s a good question. London is arguably Britain’s one truly great – and globally relevant – architectural project. But it is one that without careful direction could go disastrously wrong. With this in mind, the AJ believes the AF is right to abandon its national remit and become, in effect, London’s architectural centre. Rumour has it, too, that outer London in particular – suburban design if you like – will be Woodman’s pet project. The renewed focus on politics and the next mayoral election is especially welcome. One of the AF’s first ‘wins’ under founder Ricky Burdett was to argue successfully for a London Mayor.
Still, it won’t be easy, even for Woodman, to help find a voice for the foundation in what is a very crowded market. The RIBA, New London Architecture, London Festival of Architecture, Royal Academy and the V&A all promote ideas about architecture and planning in London. Yet, looked at more closely, we can see how the foundation might thrive: the RA, the V&A and the LFA have visitor numbers to think about; the RIBA, as Allford has said, is ‘caught up by the need to protect architects’ and the NLA must strive to keep its commercial supporters on-side. Only Woodman’s AF can be truly independent. If it can fulfill that role, then it will find its voice. But that means Woodman must be allowed to set his own agenda and, if that means ruffling the trustees’ feathers – Peter Rees, Robert Mull, Hanif Kara, Farshid Moussavi, Allford et al – so be it.
When you think of the world’s most influential architects, few of us would cite Jon Jerde. Yet Jerde, who died this week, has bequeathed an incredible legacy: today, at least some of the time, we all live in Jerde’s world: a self-contained commercial townscape, or brandscape, where leisure, retail and dining combine; where security guards ride Segways, and benches are shaped to deter rough-sleepers. Jerde is most famous for his Disneyfied malls (in San Diego, Minnesota, and Tokyo) and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. Without Jerde, then, there would be no Westfield, no O2 Dome, perhaps even no Dubai.
Woodman's appointment is a good move for the Architecture Foundation