Temple Of Timber: Zaha Hadid’s Ode to Cambodia’s Tragic Past Is Filled With Contradiction, Hypocrisy … And Incredible Beauty
Listing 49 blog articles for the tag Angry Review.
The architectural language used for Zaha’s Brisbane debut — entitled Grace on Coronation — is more consistent, to say the least. Each tower is identical, forming a series of gleaming champagne flutes wrapped in spindly white exoskeletons — the architect herself said of the skyscraper’s distinct forms: “the design tapers each structure to minimize their footprint and open the riverfront to the public; creating a vibrant civic space for Toowong within a new riverside park.”
If one was to be cynical (and I have a well-known penchant for cynicism), the idea that the tapering minimizes the buildings’ footprint could be read as a complete misnomer. In fact, the opposite maybe true, in that the buildings are bloated as they rise up — designed to maximize the developer’s return on the upper apartments. The creation of a "vibrant civic space" must also be brought into question, given the incorporation of irregular, grass-topped plinths at ground level. Will these spaces really be utilized in the way ZHA intends, or will they suffer from the same issues besetting almost every Le Corbusier-inspired complex of towers in the park?
History indicates that the public will typically search out specific types of open space that offer enclosure and a distinct sense of place — courtyard cafes, covered arcades, steps in front of libraries and museums, a riverfront coffee shop. It is possible that they can also be convinced to enjoy a break on incidental wedges of manicured parkland, especially in beautiful climates like that of Australia’s eastern coast — but lawns of this kind must be easily accessible from those aforementioned spaces.
On the contrary, the plinths designed by ZHA isolate these green wedges, encircling them with 15-foot walls of pale concrete and restricting access to the park from the street, particularly on the side furthest from the riverfront. Presumably these plinths are designed to conceal car parking, the age-old bane of any urban high-rise design and a necessary evil — nonetheless, the negative impact at street level is undeniable. The firm proposed a similar master plan for residential towers in Bratislava’s Culenova City Center, but in that case the plinths were pushed downwards at the edges to form multiple linkages between the street and public spaces within the development. The proposed plinths in Brisbane do not share this quality — get ready for a warm hike up a series of pristine concrete ramps or steps to reach that hallowed slice of amenity space to enjoy your lunch!
The tower’s cage-like external appearance is reminiscent of another of ZHA’s high-rise residential proposals set for construction imminently, the One Thousand Museum Tower in Miami, Florida. The curves on display exemplify Hadid’s propensity towards the formulaic notion that a sensual form trumps structural function when attempting to sell an image of luxury to prospective tenants. The language that has served her so well on the horizontal is stretched skywards, less concerned with efficient engineering, and more preoccupied with displaying the firm’s signature parametric style on the largest billboard possible — three towers at over twenty-five stories each should do the job nicely (particularly when there are absolutely no existing high-rise blocks anywhere in the vicinity).
Further assessments of the project’s prospective success or failure will rest upon the release of more images — interiors, floor plans, and details of the spaces at plinth level. Regardless of any misgivings about the principles behind the design — particularly those pertaining to the public realm — the fact remains that ZHA are likely to have answered the brief bestowed upon them with customary aplomb.
Hop aboard a time machine, and take yourself back to a period when architecture was viewed as the perfect vehicle for demonstrating status, prosperity, and joyous exhibitionism — when formal flamboyance and the conspicuous expenditure of wealth was not frowned upon; rather, it was celebrated as undeniable proof of a city’s unstoppable progress.
Some of you may have been whisked away to 1920s Manhattan, with the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings rising rapidly skywards — others may have found themselves in Dubai in the early 2000s, when a forest of luxury high-rise hotels was sprouting from the desert sands. However, look east and you may well reach the conclusion that no time machine is necessary: China’s love affair with iconic architecture has been in full swing for the past decade, and shows no sign of abating.
One of the more recent additions to the collection of showboat structures popping up throughout the country is Wujin’s multi-chromatic Lotus Building, a civic landmark constructed as the centerpiece of a new "People’s Park" in the heart of the district. Designed by Australian firm Studio 505, the cluster of flower-shaped structures houses parts of the region’s planning bureau, as well as new exhibition halls, meeting rooms, and conferences centers for municipal use.
The designers were unapologetic in embracing the premise of architecture-as-object to achieve an iconic form, evident in their own description of the project: “conceived as an inhabited sculptural form, emerging naturally from the lake; the visitor enters from beneath and is greeted with a cathedral like revelation of space…the complex shows the three stages of the lotus flower, from the new young bud, to the full ripe flower, through to the opened bloom with a seed pod within.”
The use of super-sized objects as a tool for achieving impact at ground-level, not to mention the oft-desired novelty silhouette, has been prevalent in China for some time. Back in 2001, C.Y. Lee’s Fang Yuan Building in Shenyang — a gargantuan coin-shaped skyscraper — was conceived as an extraordinarily unsubtle ode to good fortune and financial prosperity. The building was a perfect illustration of China’s bold but naïve approach to the genre — and proof there is no accounting for a client’s taste, no matter what the budget may be.
Things have improved since then. Master plan proposals correlating with the 2008 Olympics brought with them numerous grand gestures in iconicity, with OMA’s CCTV Headquarters and Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest Stadium changing China’s urban landscape and ushering in a new era of instantly recognizable architecture.
Fast-forward to 2012, and behold Fushun’s "Ring of Life:" A soaring, 515-foot high loop of steel that acts purely as an observation deck. It is a folly of epic proportions, but as a contrived city symbol, is no more indulgent than the Eiffel Tower, or the St. Louis Arch, which it bears a strong similarity to.
In comparison to these monumental formal gestures, the Lotus Building is a different animal (or, more appropriately, plant). It still bears all the hallmarks of an urban table decoration, but is more refined and considered in its detailing: Studio 505 have employed certain finishes and specifications that raise the building above the displays of kitsch excess sprinkled throughout the rest of China.
White, beige and stainless steel hexagon tiles were hand laid to cover every internal and external surface, giving the building a subtle sheen that reflects the sunlight in a similar manner to Australia’s very own flamboyant icon — the Sydney Opera House.
By night, the building takes on an ethereal glow, with a complex lighting system turning the building’s curvaceous surface pink, then yellow, then aquamarine. Inside, timber and metal details to the conference rooms form a corporate setting fit for a high-budget science fiction movie.
Questions will be asked about the politics behind such architectural showboating for a civic building: is this the best use of public funds in a country where those in rural regions remain in desperate need of improved services and infrastructure? Whatever your view, the Lotus Building is an undeniably striking example of landmark creation.
Such projects may seem contrived and overblown, but the delivery of such buildings in China will continue as long as developers — particularly those affiliated with the Chinese Government — believe architecture can act as a statement of socio-economic intent. With that in mind, it seems the Lotus Building may be the first flower to bloom ahead of a long spring of grand architectural conquests in the east…
The Angry Architect
Images via: Architizer
Assemblage winning proposal, via AAS Architecture
The original contest was run by the RIBA on behalf of the Iraqi authorities, and Assemblage was awarded first place in August 2012, picking up $250,000 in the process. In second place came the sculptural, rock-like forms of Capita Symonds, with ZHA’s proposal trailing in third. One juror described Hadid’s design as “very convoluted,” adding that “Alan Howarth [former architecture minister and member of the jury] was very clear that the design needed to be all about how MPs meet their constituents and how people get together — but her scheme threw everyone apart.”
Assemblage's winning proposal, AAS Architecture
Harsh words indeed – so it is no wonder that Assemblage might feel dazed and confused about how the selection process played out following their victory. The firm had been awarded an overall score of 88% by the jury for their striking design, a juxtaposition of cuboid and cylinder shaped forms linked by a broad avenue. The circular form is comprised of tapered fins, forming an elegant, perforated curve reminiscent of Rome’s iconic Colosseum.
The comparison with a building so synonymous with violence is tragically poignant at a time when the so-called Islamic State is reaking havoc in the north and west of Iraq. That fact has caused many to fundamentally question the political wisdom behind the decision to forge ahead with plans for a $1 billion dollar complex, when a humanitarian crisis looms once again for so many across the country. Should this kind of public project be put on hold in such dire circumstances, or is there a chance the construction of such a building could be viewed as a catalyst for peaceful political dialogue for generations to come? At present, the overriding consensus must surely lie with the former, but the project is being forced through nonetheless.
Assemblage's winning proposal, via AAS Architecture
Aside from the architecture, the biggest criticism of all has pertained to opacity – from the moment Assemblage were announced as winners, the process has been cloaked in secrecy, with discussions behind closed doors leading to a complete turnaround. If you’re wondering why you have reached this stage of the article and still haven’t seen an image of ZHA’s chosen proposal, it’s because the design has never been released publicly … prominent home-born critic Ihsan Fethi complained roundly about this farcical reality in an email sent on behalf of the Iraqi Architects Society:
“I personally tried in vain so many times to even have a quick look at the design with no success. Of course this is contrary to the principle of transparency and it is absolutely unacceptable for us Iraqi architects, or any Iraqi citizen to that matter, to be prevented from seeing what their Parliament would look like. We absolutely have no idea.”
Images via: Architizer
Some parties are worth crashing – the celebrations held last week to mark the opening of Foster + Partners’ Yacht Club de Monaco must have been a blast, with HRH Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene leading the festivities upon the principality’s newest landmark.
Of course, if you wanted to attend you probably would have to sneak in – the glittering venue is accessible predominantly by members only, with yacht owners who moor in the marina given passes on a ‘case by case’ basis. If you did manage to find yourself on board though, you would be greeted by some eye-wateringly slick architectural detailing, even by Foster’s high-end, high-spec standards.
The club is entered via a glazed courtyard that frames views out over the harbor to the palace. The main floor contains a club room, bar, restaurant, and outdoor swimming pool (exclusive to YCM members, naturally). The next level is dominated by a double-height function space, with offices and a series of private "cabins" for invited guests. On the uppermost floor, there are a number of event spaces, opening up to a roof terrace that will no doubt form a fitting venue for the most splendid of champagne receptions for yachting galas and the Monaco Grand Prix each year.
You have probably noted by now that the form of the building is incredibly reminiscent of the super-yachts for which it has been built – it is so similar to a seafaring vessel, in fact, that Foster could easily be accused of going down the same road as the infamous National Fisheries Development Board building in Hyderabad, India, designed to resemble … you guessed it … an enormous fish. However, the yacht club’s nautical mimicry can be more easily forgiven – every mast, boom, and deck holds a practical function, responding to the club’s coastal location.
Is there a place like heaven on earth? Well, if you are enamoured by modern architecture, minimalist art and the most beautifully finished slabs of concrete on the planet, then there might just be – and its name is Naoshima, off the coast of Honshu, Japan.
This tiny isle – known as Art Island to many – is a hidden gem of epic proportions, located some way from the well-trodden tourist trail between Hiroshima and Osaka on the south coast of Japan’s mainland. It is the result of a long-running collaboration between the rich and politically influential Benesse Corporation, local councils, a number of extraordinary artists, and the unrivalled, all-conquering King of Concrete himself – Tadao Ando.
Sanaa's Ocean Terminal
Upon disembarking the boat at Miyanoura Port on the western edge of the island, one is greeted immediately by cutting edge, big-name Japanese architecture: SANAA designed the crisp, super-minimal Marine Station and visitor centre, and its uncompromising simplicity is a sign of things to come. Naoshima’s unique brand of quirkiness is also apparent from the outset – a curvaceous, poker-dotted pumpkin sits at the end of the quay, the first in a series of joyful outdoor sculptures dotted around the island by the superb octogenarian artist, Yayoi Kusama.
'Haisha' House by Shinro Ohtake
A half-hour stroll to the northeast of the island brings you to Honmura, the largest village on the island. Even this quiet residential area has been infiltrated by the threads of contemporary art weaving throughout the island: The Art House Project has seen half a dozen traditional Japanese houses transformed into modern art installations, many hidden down tiny side-streets and behind noren (Japanese entrance curtains). The architectural treasure hunt that began at the port recommences here as well, with James Turrell’s surreal ‘Back Side Of The Moon’ – a pitch-black space within a timber-clad cuboid (painstakingly detailed by Ando) that warps every sense imaginable.
The Ando Museum
As if this weren’t enough, Honmura is now home to The Ando Museum, designed by the man himself and dedicated to his series of projects on Naoshima and further works in Japan, including a stunning model of a much-celebrated ode to modernism: The Church of the Light. As with the Art House Project, the subtleties of this site are notable: Ando’s signature concrete plains dissect and frame the internal spaces of the museum, yet all signs of modernity are hidden within a traditional Japanese house of timber and tiles. This concealment is symptomatic of Naoshima, a curiously understated location whose primary visitor demographic remains dominated by those who tend to know what they are looking for – namely artists, designers and, of course, architects.
The biggest surprise at this stage is that the main attractions of the island are still to come, in the form of Ando’s trio of hillside galleries. If ever there was a physical embodiment of perfect minimalist concrete construction, this is it: each gallery is full of the gray stuff, finished with Ando’s typical attention to detail and a perfect foil for the contemporary artworks adorning each space.
Inside the main atrium of Benesse House
First, the Benesse House Museum comprises a dramatic cylindrical volume with further galleries radiating outwards, and installations that overflow from the museum and down the hillside to the rocky peninsula below.
Outdoor galleries, Benesse House
The boundaries between guesthouses, galleries and open parkland are continuously blurred across Naoshima, with the whole island acting as a huge, incredibly scenic exhibition hall – all as a result of the incredibly close relationship between the artists, the architect and the Benesse Corporation itself.
The Lee Ufan Museum
Another unusually close collaboration led to the creation of the second gallery along the southern coast, where Ando worked with Korean über minimalist Lee Ufan to create a museum in the artist’s name. The two men have similar philosophies in their respective fields – ‘less is more’ could only be described as a massive understatement here – and an alleged argument about the colour of a wall within one of the gallery spaces sums up the overriding aesthetic rather well. Ando wanted the wall left gray, while Ufan demanded that it should be painted… pure white, naturally.
Overlooking the courtyards of the Chichu Art Museum, carved into the hillside
Finally, the coastal route arrives at Ando’s pièce de résistance – The Chichu Art Museum is Naoshima’s crowning highlight, an enormous, sunken sculpture of a building that defies a host of architectural conventions to provide the perfect environment for displaying the works of three extraordinary artists. Ando set himself a seemingly impossible task during the concept stage of the museum’s design: the architect insisted that the entire building should be buried within the hillside, but that every piece of art would be lit by natural light sources.
The Monet Room
Walter De Maria - Time/Timeless/No Time
The resulting gallery comprises a series of chambers lit by meticulously positioned roof lights, with a series of beautifully simple, geometric courtyards carved in between. Each space was designed with specific artworks in mind, and it shows: thousands of tiny, pearlescent tiles cover the floor of the Monet Room, creating a hallowed atmosphere fitting of the French Impressionist’s masterpieces, whilst a soaring, cathedral-like cavern contains Walter De Maria’s eerie granite sphere and gold-leafed timber mahogany forms. Finally, James Turrell’s ‘Open Field’ and ‘Open Sky’ – architectural installations that frame voids as artworks in their own right – are an exhibition of both artist and architect’s simple mastery of light and shade.
James Turell's Open Sky
Wandering back along the waterfront to SANAA’s Marine Station, one would be forgiven for wondering if the whole experience was some kind of wonderful architectural dream, but no: Naoshima is a very real mecca for fans of Tadao Ando’s brand of modernism. Heaven on earth? Maybe, just maybe.
The Angry Architect
Images via: Architizer
Walter Gropius. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I.M. Pei. Paul Rudolph. Philip Johnson.
The timeline of the Bauhaus School reads as a who’s-who of modernist architecture – the impact of directors, professors and students who travelled along the school’s distinctive educational path is astounding. Its legacy is huge and complex, and the ideological design philosophies of Gropius et al can be seen sprinkled throughout countless contemporary masterpieces. If there is one place where these philosophies are embodied in their purist form, however, it must surely be the city of Dessau in Germany, where the School relocated after the rise of the Nazis in 1924.
As well as the construction of the iconic School Building in 1925, Gropius was commissioned to design three semi-detached dwellings for the Bauhaus Masters, and a detached house for its director. These dwellings encapsulated the German architect’s vision of utilizing industrial prefabrication a tool to produce perfectly functional units of domestic architecture: although the standardisation of elements was never fully realised due to the limitations of technology at the time, these houses have become synonymous with the lofty ideals of the Bauhaus.
It is understandable, then, that there has been fierce debate surrounding the approach to rebuilding, restoring, or reinterpreting the houses that were damaged or destroyed during World War Two. Five of the six semi-detached dwellings survived with varying amounts of damage, and have been meticulously restored over the past 24 years, now serving as exhibition and event spaces. The houses of both the Director and artist László Moholy-Nagy were completely destroyed by Allied air raids, and thus posed a greater challenge to renovation architect José Gutierrez.
A quick history lesson: The director’s house has a truly turbulent past, and an extraordinary list of inhabitants. The only detached house in the complex, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius lived here with his wife Ilse until he left the school in 1928. Hannes Meyer inherited both the directorship and the residence for 2 years, before a certain Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took over in 1930.
Walter and Isa Gropius.
When the house was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, with only the basement block surviving, the plot remained empty for over 20 years. Even then, it was just the beginning of an arduous road to reinstatement for Gropius’ masterpiece: in 1956, the new landowners were refused planning permission to rebuild in the original style, so a detached, gable-roofed house was built on the foundations.
After decades of debate, it was finally decided to resurrect the memory of the original Bauhaus structure and its intrinsic design ethos. The occupying property was demolished in 2008 to make way for a new building that would act as an information center for the Masterhouse-Ensemble, and work has finally been completed, reopening earlier this month.
Original 1926 and rebuilt 2014 director's house.
While the striking silhouette of the director’s dwelling has been reinstated, its external appearance and internal layout have been substantially reinterpreted by Gutierrez. The minimalist design has been stripped back even further, forming a ghostly cast of the original building that appears more as an abstract sculpture than a domestic structure.
Explaining the ethereal design, José Gutierrez said that “memory lives off blurriness and imprecision,” going on to say: “We wanted to create something playful and light, nothing too heavy: an innocent glance at Germany’s painful past.” Whilst the architect’s attempt to achieve ‘innocence’ appears contrived in this context, the formal result is undeniably elegant: a nod to Gropius’ astute eye for proportions and composition, without straying into stylistic pastiche.
Original Moholy-Nagy House with Bauhaus-designed furniture.
The architect employed the same approach for the Moholy-Nagy House, peeling away both the external and internal surfaces to leave a monochromatic palette – the original internal layout is also eschewed, replaced with a series of open-plan, double height spaces. Initially, the removal of floor plates and absence of classic Bauhaus details appears counter-intuitive: are these elements not essential in illustrating the overarching ideas and resulting spatial qualities of Gropius’ building?
Rebuilt Moholy-Nagy House.
The logic behind these design decisions comes to light when one considers the intended use for the reconstructed edifice: the neighbouring house of noted polymath Lyonel Feininger hosts a permanent exhibit devoted to composer Kurt Weill, which will expand into the Moholy-Nagy house this year. This programmatic shift from domestic to public use dictates that the shell of the original house should become a lighter, more flexible container in order to function, and Gutierrez has opened up the internal space accordingly.
Ultimately, the reinterpretation of the Master Houses appears successful: the architects involved have revived the intellectual spirit the Bauhaus whilst avoiding nostalgic clichés, resulting in a collection of subtle exhibition spaces that should act as an appropriately polished backdrop for future exhibits.
Would Gropius, Meyer and Mies be satisfied? Probably not – but to be fair, you can rarely please perfectionists…
The Angry Architect
Images via: Architizer
...And so it begins. The endless struggle against banality in architectural design and criticism alike.
I will strive to be that pigeon, excreting wisdom across the windscreen of Baron Foster's Dymaxion. I'll be the gum stuck to the bottom of Zaha's blister-inducing shoes. I'll be the backside inadvertently crushing Liberskind's perpetually thickening black-rimed spectacles. I'll throwing all manner of proverbial metaphors around in a wretched state of discontent, whenever a building or its creator duly vexes me.
I may get angry. But I'll also be calm... when it is truly deserved. Most importantly though, I want to hear YOUR views: this is not just the home of my opinion on architecture, it is an ouspoken oasis for all who venture across the deserts of the internet. So speak up, get involved, and vent to your heart's content, even if your main reason for doing so is to dislike everything I have to say. Free speech and honesty is the order of the day here: for that you will gain my respect.
Behold, a quick run-down of the site’s main features:
Here you’ll find all the latest posts: Architectural reviews (as featured on the mothership that is Architizer), guides for architects and students alike, breaking news… and the odd dollop of fun for good measure. I’ll post links to each and every post on facebook, which will act as the public forum for you to sound your hearty agreement or utter discontent at my endless outpourings.
Over there on the right, the TOP ARTICLES list has a few classics to get you started!
Click on the second tab at the top of the page, and you’ll be whisked away to the wonderful land of Zazzle – home of all things angry, and all things architecture. This will be an ever-growing source of high fashion / juvenile wit: If you have a cynical slogan, an age-old proverb, or a whimsical picture of a cat sleeping upon a drawing board that you’d love to have imprinted on a T-shirt for eternal prosperity, send it over here and I’ll sort out a bespoke design for you pronto.
This page is on the way! The BOOKS tab will feature all the best architectural literature for students, architects and anyone else who harbours an unhealthy obsession for buildings. These are my personal recommendations: and by golly, my judgment on such matters is second-to-none. However, if you feel I’ve missed a classic publication or an essential guide for architecture students and professionals alike, drop me a message on facebook and I’ll look at adding it to collection!
Now, whilst I am generally right all of the time (trust me, I’m an architect), I also appreciate the views of others – if you’re very lucky and extraordinarily articulate, I may even agree with you. On that note, if you have any suggestions for additions to the website, I’m all ears… espouse your wisdom here and we’ll get this online house in order! Until next time folks…
The Angry Architect
Her name is familiar – too familiar for many, if architectural forums around the web are anything to go by – but Zaha Hadid has conjured up a surprisingly unfamiliar answer to the brief for the reinvention of Antwerp’s Port Authority Headquarters, enveloping and expanding the city’s disused fire station at the edge of the harbour. The project broke ground in October 2012, and the construction phase is now in full swing – the estimated completion date is June 2015.
As of 2014, Antwerp’s Port is midway through an 18-year development plan, currently overseen by city architect Kristiaan Borret. Other projects in the vicinity, intended to transform the dockside region through ‘slow urbanism’, have been guided by the scale and massing of local waterfront warehouses, with a modern twist on traditional Flemish architectural styles. Neutelings Riedijk’s MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) and towers by Diener & Diener have indicated how radical urbanism can be crafted with subtle and astute nods to cultural context. It is highly unlikely that the word ‘subtlety’ and the acronym ‘ZHA’ have been used in the same sentence for at least a decade…
Zaha has been in the news an awful lot recently, for her shoes as much as her buildings. She has now combined the two, as Antwerp is treated to an enormous, crystalline stiletto, crashing through the roof of the old fire station: despite the lack of Hadid’s much-maligned parametric curves and swathes of white concrete, this effort is no less ostentatious than any of her other recent attention-grabbers.
Looking at the looming, diamond shaped form above the classical aesthetic of the original station building, one wonders if Zaha may have scribbled her concept for this structure on a napkin whilst at dinner with a certain Mr Libeskind. The unapologetic juxtaposition of old and new here echoes Libeskind’s approach to the Royal Ontario Museum extension in Toronto, and his violent intervention to Dresden’s Museum of Military History. She may also have been taking notes on his questionable design rationale, which frequently revolves around the very literal interpretation of a contrived metaphor: Zaha has chosen to pay homage to Antwerp’s diamond industry by designing an enormous… diamond. Profound!
The building’s precarious composition also has a hint of Will Alsop’s OCAD, which hovers above Toronto’s Grange Park like a cheerful alien spacecraft. Indeed, Zaha has flirted with Alsop’s colourful palette on the interior, where sunshine yellow conference rooms form a welcome moment of contrast within a sea of relentlessly monochromatic office spaces. Speaking of which, those in charge at the Port Authority had better set an extortionate budget for their computing equipment, because only Macs will comply with these unadorned internal landscapes.
While the gratuitous, curvaceous forms – ‘Hadidisms’, if you will – have been given a well-earned break, certain factors synonymous with Zaha are still very much evident here: sleek, corporate interiors abound, and the flamboyant boat-like form is very much in keeping with ZHA’s reputation as the world’s premier Icon Vendor. Whether the locals will warm to this particular icon remains to be seen…
The Angry Architect
The burgeoning banquet of high-rises within the heart of London was given a new, 225-metre tall kitchen utensil in June 2013, as the Leadenhall Building – christened ‘The Cheese Grater’ by the nickname-loving British public – topped out. Ever-present at the cacophonous trumpeting of each new tower’s arrival, Mayor Boris Johnson hailed the building as ‘the latest landmark to grace London’s iconic skyline’.
A landmark it certainly will be, and London’s skyline is contriving to become iconic with every steel and glass step. The Cheese Grater lines itself up alongside the Gherkin (Foster’s beloved corporate monument), and has since been joined by the Walkie-Talkie, Rafael Viñoly’s macho manifestation of the London’s new architectural motto: form follows finance.
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners have produced an inversion of Viñoly’s form, primarily due to their alleged concern for London’s Heritage – the diminishing floor plates of the skyscraper mean that views to Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral are preserved. But is this a logical path to take on an over-crowded stage where commerce is king?
Ken Shuttleworth – self-proclaimed Guardian of the Gherkin – bemoaned the Leadenhall Building’s impediment of views towards Foster’s tower, and stated that the Gherkin should be granted viewing corridors in the same manner as St. Paul’s. Of course, the idea that a 180-metre high shaft of steel and glass needs to have the airspace around it controlled in the same manner as a 300 year-old Cathedral is as extraordinary as it is ridiculous: applying this principle city-wide, central London would never see a new tall building again. Shuttleworth’s logic – more full of holes than this particular Cheese Grater will ever be.
The truth is, crucial factors when considering the merit of skyscrapers remain the same as with any other building typology: expression of form following function, and the quality of architectural details. Judging primarily on these two aspects, RSH+P have largely succeeded. The entwined lattice of steel bracing elements is prominent on the exterior, giving the sloping face of the building a striking appearance that communicates its purpose in a bold and honest fashion. This formidable frame also benefits function: with no central core necessary, every floor has a flexible internal layout. Even the lowly masses are granted a generously proportioned, sheltered public space at the base of the exclusive address.
Despite its use (the building will be inhabited by the City’s usual corporate profiteers), this latest incarnation of the High-Tech High-Rise is one landmark that Londoners can grow to be proud of. So Mr Shuttleworth, I put it to you: Perhaps the Gherkin is actually impeding views to the Cheese Grater now? What a curious turn of events…
The Angry Architect
The very British saga of David Chipperfield’s proposal for Elizabeth House took another twist in June 2013, as English Heritage and Westminster City Council forced a judicial review into government’s decision not to call in the scheme. Their argument: the building will encroach on the views of Parliament. The mighty River Thames, dissecting the two bickering councils, has taken on the appearance of a gargantuan rope in a perpetual round of tug-of-war... being pulled timidly in all directions by planners, ministers, members of English Heritage and UNESCO. Chipperfield is no doubt beginning to wonder if either team will ever lose their grip and tumble into the gloomy bureaucratic waters.
It’s another feast of epic nimbyism in the middle of London – and all the while the battle is being fought entirely on the wrong terms. The views to Parliament are barely affected at all, and even if they were, would it really be to the detriment of the city? Would tourists cease taking photographs of Charles Barry’s ornamental spires? Would the building crumble in the wake of faceless, glassy boxes springing up a few hundred meters away? UNESCO has ‘threatened’ to put the World Heritage Site on its endangered list, making Big Ben an architectural Giant Panda, and the House of Commons a very gothic Siberian Tiger.
The difference here, of course, is that the houses of parliament aren’t in much danger of becoming extinct. They are not going anywhere, nor will they every truly be in danger of ‘evil’ modern developments, the reason being that cities are made to CHANGE. They are organic entities: the idea that views need protecting, like displays of artifacts in a stuffy museum, is beyond antiquated. Great new buildings, of any style or size, create great new views too. In time, good quality architecture becomes part of the urban fabric, and the identity of a city is thus enriched, not damaged as UNESCO and English Heritage seem to believe.
Speaking of good quality architecture, English Heritage would do well to re-frame their argument around the highly questionable quality of Chipperfield’s proposal. Looking at the current CGIs, it appears that the architect’s digital artists accidentally nudged the contrast controls on Photoshop: the pale tones and pallid shadows belie how dark this looming slab of steel and glass would make the surrounding streets, particularly on a typical British winter’s day, when the sun tends to steer clear of this fair island.
Previous CGIs showed horizontal black bands between the expanses of glass; these have been muted with the oh-so comforting shade of ice-cold aluminium. While the intention may have been to ‘lighten’ the whole affair, it has only served to obliterate the single discerning feature from the external elevations. As a result, the block has all the identity of a paperweight.
If the quality of the architecture was truly mind-blowing, I have a sneaking suspicion that Chipperfield would not have stirred the English Heritage dragons from their dusty lair – as it is, he has a fight on his hands, and the Councils of London need their proverbial heads knocking together… Boris, get to it.
Agree? Disagree? State your case here.
The Angry Architect
This week, the focus shifts east, to the metropolis of Wuhan in central China. A new public building, the snappily named ‘Zhang Zhidong and Modern Industrial Museum’, is under construction, and is the first creation in China by a particularly political member of the Starchitect set: Daniel Libeskind.
The piece has a certain sculptural quality: It appears as an outlandish ornament, placed carefully on an urban mantelpiece fringed with perfectly manicured hedges, circled by identical black cars… this is a museum curio to match the artifacts within.
There is no getting away from the fact though, that like the pre-eminent Zaha Hadid, Libeskind is another perpetrator of ‘Brand’ architecture. Whatever the building’s function may be, and no matter what socio-political context it may emerge within, a Libsekind building conforms to a familiar one-liner: an aggressive, titanium-skinned concrete explosion that yells, “I WILL be an icon of your city! Look at me!”
Hmm, that almost sounds like a dictatorial architectural style… do I smell irony?
Libeskind has argued that, as the project is privately funded, and therefore distanced from the totalitarian regime, this particularly foray into the heart of China is morally acceptable. Most likely, he has listened to his peers on the subject – As Will Alsop succinctly put it, “the choice you have as an architect is, can you help to make a positive change, or do you stay away - in which case the countries are condemned to some terrible architects and nothing moves on.”
Whether Libeskind’s museum constitutes a ‘positive change’ is debatable, but at least he’s remembered whom a country’s cultural buildings actually benefit: The local people, not their autocratic overlords.
The Angry Architect
Earlier this month, Foster & Partners revealed plans for a residential ‘community’ quarter at 250 City Road, Islington. The London site, situated mid-way between Angel and Old Street, has a typically turbulent development history: BUJ Architects won planning for previous owner Land Securitites in 2010, before the 1.9ha triangular site was bought by a consortium including Berkeley Homes who hired DSDHA.
Deborah Saunt and David Hills’ practice was later dropped - reportedly because it did not provide Berkeley’s required densities - and Foster & Partners brought in.
Of the two CGI images presented, the lower makes for encouraging viewing. Apartment blocks of copper and warm yellow brick surround a generously proportioned green space, peppered with perfectly manicured hedges and trees. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. This truly is a superbly inventive CGI artist’s impression of East London.
Let me present you with an alternative vision, a disturbing parallel universe… the REAL East London. Storm clouds gather over faceless, corporate office blocks that extend eternally upwards into the shroud of mist. But wait… is that really an office block? Or is it, in fact, an apartment block? Or simply a gigantic paperweight, dropped by a City trader on his way back home to Hampstead Heath?
These buildings are as distinctive as tombstones – all erected for unique individuals, but all sharing the same, stoney air of inevitable doom.
This glass obelisk of a skyscraper sees Foster reduced back to tedious convention by Berkley Homes’ ‘density requirements’. Density requirements are the territory of financial think tanks, of number crunchers, of blue-sky thinkers, of any other frivolous, capitalist metaphor you can think of. They place the importance of gross floor area and profit margins over that of proportions, individuality, invention, and – ultimately – the well-being of those inhabiting a place.
And so, even Foster is susceptible to the London Effect – where money becomes the boss of everyone, and everything – residential ‘community’ quarters included.
Agree? Disagree? State your case here.
The Angry Architect
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