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Yet another skirmish in the architectural Style Wars

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Luxury goods designers Thom Mayne and Peter Zumthor will make perfect neighbours in Vals, says Rory Olcayto

News that Thom Mayne’s Morphosis has been chosen by the client to build a hotel alongside Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals spa has been met with derision by the architectural Twitterati. ‘There goes the neighbourhood,’ quipped David Neustein, an Australian architect and critic.

Elsewhere ‘Christian’ on Archdaily, commented: ‘Seems like almost NO ONE who has any sensibility about appropriate and tasteful design thinks that Mayne is the right choice for such a job, including myself! Mayne has a style that has its debatable place, but Vals is not it!’

Woah there, Christian. Take a dip in the cool pool why doncha? We’ve not even seen Mayne’s design yet. And anyway, the client – you know, the person who’s going to pay for a hotel to be built there – thinks that Mayne is ‘the right choice for such a job’.

Why the outcry? Well, apart from the Louisa Hutton-led jury’s refusal to pick a winner, which meant the client went ahead and picked Morphosis regardless, this is simply the next front-line skirmish in the never-ending architectural Style Wars. On the one side you have Mayne, recipient of an international RIBA fellowship just last week, and whose citation likened his work to ‘Mozart’s Sonata in B Flat played by The Clash’.

On the other you have St Peter.  When he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the RIBA in 2013, its then president, Angela Brady, said: ‘Peter Zumthor’s work renews the link with a tradition of modern architecture that emphasises place, community and material practice. His buildings are engaged in a rich dialogue with architectural history.’

It’s basically a variation on the Chipperfield versus Hadid stand-off in the 2010 Stirling Prize contest, which saw Maxxi triumph over the Neues Museum. But, whereas that phoney war saw critics and architects argue the toss over which of the buildings, one in Rome, the other in Berlin, was ‘better’, this battle is more visceral. In Vals, we have the prospect of seeing the two extremes of contemporary architectural expression standing side by side in a pretty Swiss valley.

Yet are Peter and Thom so different? A look at their portfolios says not. If we set aside Morphosis’s four family homes in Tijuana (built at the outset of his career) and a couple of state schools in the US, it’s not unfair to see both Pritzker Prize-winners as craftsmen for the super-rich, or starchitect designers of luxury goods: pretty much peas in a pod. Perfect neighbours, in other words.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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