Monday, 31 October 2011

Hepworth Wakefield and Brockholes

A trip to the north of England took in two recent projects, one from each side of the Pennines - each an excellent and widely published building: David Chipperfield's Hepworth gallery at Wakefield, and Adam Khan's Brockholes visitor centre next to junction 31 of the M6.

Le Corbusier called architecture the 'masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light'.  Many projects don't offer much opportunity for that kind of thing, and nor are most clients necessarily seeking it, but here, in both cases, the opportunity has been taken for 'shapemaking' on an impressive scale.

Wakefield and Brockholes both bring together assemblies of variations on a single form - an implied 'house' - to form a powerful and memorable composition. Each has a watery site that is both difficult (gritty regeneration context at Wakefield, reclaimed gravel pits at Brockholes), and also full of promise in the dramatic opportunities offered.

It was particularly pleasing at Wakefield to find that the new footbridge across the river had been delivered as part of the project to provide the main pedestrian link from the town centre, avoiding the horrors of the main road - because there have been countless regeneration projects on cut-off sites all over England that have been predicated on 'aspirational' new bridges over road, railways or rivers,  that are left to someone else to pay for and which never appear.  Brockholes is approached over a bridge too - what was most pleasing here was the lack of guarding to stop you falling in the water - surprising to find in our nervous, cossetted, risk-averse age.  But each of these projects as a whole is challenging and risky compared with what might have been done - the clients deserve prizes as much as the architects. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

At the Olympic park

From the edge of the recently opened Westfield development at Stratford, there is a good view west over the Olympic Park - this will be the direction from which most visitors to the Games will approach it.

As the major structures in the park get close to completion, you'd hope that the visual clutter of the construction site would be starting to resolve itself into a beautiful series of set-piece elements in the landscape.

But that's not what is happening in this view (you can click on the image to enlarge):

1. The original clean lines of the stadium roof are lost below the ill-judged visual clutter of the lighting pylons.  You'd think the lights could be in the main part of the roof as has been done elsewhere (e.g. at Arsenal) but apparently this was not possible. If the lights had to stick up above the roof, it would have been better to make them more clearly independent structures, rather than a confusing continuation of the visual logic of the main structure.

2. The original clean lines of the outside of the 'real', curvy Zaha Hadid aquatics centre are almost impossible to make out amidst the crude and ill-judged visual clutter of the huge wings of bolted-on additional seating that is needed in games mode.  The smaller legacy structure will probably be great - a shame it won't be apparent, from the outside, when the eyes of the whole world are on it next year (although I suppose there's something rather nice about the fact that East Enders will get to enjoy the elegant version and the IOC won't, rather than the other way round as the Olympics normally work out).

3. The original design of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower - arguably a bit of a mess in the first place, but at least all of a piece -  has now been utterly messed up by visual clutter resulting from the addition of stairs, lifts, platforms etc. - a textbook English muddle, adding a post-hoc functional brief to a public sculpture to produce a design challenge that was probably impossible to satisfy successfully.  Not so much Tatlin as tat.

Beginning to see a pattern?  None of these three structures will look remotely like the neat and compelling images that we the public were originally sold.

I'm all in favour of the London Games and I hope they will be a success; I'm pleased that the public money that has gone into it has been spent wisely for the most part; and I believe it will all be good for East London in the long term.  But next summer, I fear that a lot of what you will see in the park - which has been bigged up as a showcase for British design talent - is going to look rather disappointing by comparison with the CGIs.