Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Could we Get Smarter with Brutalist buildings?

The famous 'Get Carter' car park which dominates Gateshead's skyline is being demolished to make way for a new supermarket.

Its architect Owen Luder was on good form on Radio 4's Today programme, clear-eyed and refreshingly unsentimental about its loss, in contrast with the huffing and puffing often heard from architects in similar circumstances.

The car park is/was a fine example of concrete Brutalism and like others of its kind - Luder's now-demolished Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, RobinHood Gardens etc. - it provokes both love and loathing. But not in equal measure - the popular vote is usually about 10 against to 1 in favour.

The problem with replacing the car park in Gateshead is that it is a 'something' which (if the redevelopment is anything like what one expects today - from the Michael Caine architecture of Luder to the Michael McIntyre designs of the average new retail development) is going to be replaced with a 'nothing' that, as Luder pointed out, is unlikely to generate a national news item when knocked down in 30 years' time.

My former CABE colleague Jon Rouse suggested that the car park's helical circulation, combined with the boy racer proclivities of the Geordies, made it ideally suited to creative re-use as a go-kart facility: 'Get Karting'.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Stirling Prize - wacky vs worthy

This year's candidates for the Stirling Prize have been announced - the usual eclectic mix, from an exotic gallery (in Rome by Zaha Hadid) to a south London school (Clapham Manor by dRMM).

They are all very good, I imagine - they are all RIBA Award winners. And it's not easy to compare apples with pears (although both have an attribute in common with buildings - the inside is often not as appealing as the glossy outside led you to hope).

What do you go for? Celebrate Zaha as the cavalier swansong of the age of bling - or is this the kind of award that confirms the prejudices held by 80% of the public about architecture? Or do you give the prize to Chipperfield's Berlin museum - a sober, roundhead alternative, more in tune with the times.

If I were a judge, I'd be choosing at least partly on political grounds. And with two schools on the list, I think I could see what the shortlisters are getting at - though I'd be worried that they've managed to split the vote in the process.

Give the prize to a school, and show the public the new schools that the Government won't be letting them have any more (unless they have time to build their own). The trouble is, though, that there are lots of quite good new schools. Is any one of them really the best building in the country this year? Probably not - but I'd be happy to accept it as a bit of point scoring.

I'm sure the real judges just go on merit. But... I see William Hill have Zaha as favourite - bet on her if you want, but I won't be.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Mr Bean builds his dream house

Rowan Atkinson has applied for planning permission for a new Richard Meier-designed house in the Oxfordshire countryside.

The usual suspects are lined up on both sides - locals, as reported in the Mail and the Telegraph, are up in arms; but Lord Rogers and Professor Burdett both think it's great.

Couldn't we, just for once, have a controversial modernist project that Lord Rogers, after careful scrutiny of the drawings, decides isn't quite up to scratch; or one that Colonel Sir Tufton Bufton of the Old Rectory is pleasantly surprised to find doesn't conform to his preconceptions, and actually makes a rather wonderful addition to the landscape - in much the same way, now he comes to think about it, that the late Lord Burlington might have chosen to do, were he still with us.

It appears not.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Prefabs to sprout?

The Nasty Party seem to have done away with the possibility of building many proper new schools for the next few years. But demographic pressures, in London at least, won't go away, and there is a growing need for new school places - never mind rebuilding the existing stock. So we can expect a boom in prefab classrooms.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it would be a good idea for architects to start thinking about the possibilities. Colin Davies's excellent book The Prefabricated Home (Reaktion, 2005) contains an interesting discussion of architects' various hang ups about mass produced buildings, and highlights a number of examples of architects who have grasped the opportunity to turn prefabs from buildings into architecture, and not just in housing projects, by means of a few cheap but ingenious moves (Nicholas Lacey at Trinity Buoy Wharf, Penoyre and Prasad in Bloomsbury).

When materials and money were in short supply in the decades after the end of WW2, the ingenuity of architects gave us the Hertfordshire schools and low budget housing of considerable quality. Good architects are resourceful and ingenious, and good architecure doesn't necessarily flow from plentiful supplies of stainless steel and polished granite. There's no reason why the coming Age of Austerity shouldn't give us better buildings than we got in the Age of Bling. Unless those in charge think that most money spent on architects's fees is wasted.