Thursday, 25 October 2012

Flânerie in South Molton Street

For what is au courant in the world of architectural ideas, you can visit the degree and diploma shows, and for a view of what journalists find interesting, you can read the journals; but you can't beat a bit of lunchtime flânerie  for spotting trends in what is actually getting built.  The Gutter and the Stars pounds the pavements of London en route between meetings to bring you the latest that is emerging from the hoardings (and indeed the hoardings themselves).

I was a bit disappointed to see the Hog in the Pound pub at the top of South Molton Street demolished -  like the now vanished Swiss Centre, an interesting and rather characterful piece of 1960s architecture of the kind that Westminster City Council seem only too happy to see replaced.  But the new building by DSDHA is, I think, a worthy replacement, clad in luscious glazed terracotta and making the most of its quirky 'prow' site.

Apart from the increasingly fashionable (and entirely welcome) use of glazed terracotta - also seen in spades on Dixon Jones' Regent Palace Hotel project not far from here -  the other trend that DSDHA's building exemplifies is the grouping together of windows in two storey high vertical strips. I'm not sure where this motif came from, but it also features, within a few minutes walk of this one, on Squire and Partners recent building in Hanover Square, and also this rather odd new building in Margaret Street just off Cavendish Square.

For my money, while the device works well on DSDHA's elevations, because there is an implication of a kind of central piano nobile strip with smaller bands above and below, it is rather less successful when repeated vertically, as it is here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Batman: Death by Design

Rebuilding Gotham City's Wayne Central Station, commissioned by the Caped Crusader's dad but now crumbling, was never going to be straightforward, what with crooked union bosses, a femme fatale conservationist set on putting a stop to the demolition, and the disillusioned son of the original architect who is not all he seems - not to mention Kem Roomhaus, a Dutch celebrity architect 'frightened of his own genius'.

Oddly overlooked by the book review pages of the architectural press, this recent graphic novel from DC Comics is a lot of fun.  It is dedicated to Hugh Ferriss, and the look of a lovingly realised Gotham is very much that of 1930s New York - an obvious but successful choice - it's much less easy to imagine Batman swooping around in, for example,  the glassy, 1960s fantasy architecture of Tati's Play Time.   And if you are to stand a chance of making a story involving architects into a page-turner, best not to set it in a multi-disciplinary consultancy, or a Mad Men style corporate environment - the architects in this story are characters more at home in the world of superheroes - lone Nietzschean geniuses in the mould of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark.  Nevertheless, there is room for the odd bit of throwaway professional practice dialogue such as 'the stresses on the structure were improperly calculated' - Paul Newman, as the architect in Towering Inferno, got to deliver comparable lines.

All of which gets one to wondering whether the world isn't ready for a graphic reimagining of The Honeywood File  - surely a Hollywood blockbuster in waiting.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Flat white in New Bond Street

No horror vacui here in New Bond Street, where beautifully made flat white sheeting covers a large scaffold in a single taut piece, interrupted only by a neat vertical slot for hoists on each floor - a refreshing, palate-cleansing change from the banality of those 'instant pastiche' scaffolds that offer you a picture of the building behind.  If only all new buildings had as much care and thought put into them....I hope the thinking included consideration of wind load in a gale, though.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Architecture and dermatology

The architecture of some types of building has become more and more about skin, and less and less about substance.  A rash of recent new buildings in the City of Westminster demonstrates an interest in patterned surface treatments to the elevations.

On this new office building in Buckingham Gate in Victoria (above), sandstone cladding is decorated with swirling patterns of (3D) gouge marks, its inspiration appearing to be somewhere between the abstract and the figurative.

On a weird new building in Oxford Street that is nearing completion (south side, near Marble Arch)  the glass and metal panel cladding system includes decorated panels that seem to have a similar aesthetic intention, this time in 2D only, and heading more towards the world of geometry.

And next to Edgware Road tube station, possibly the apotheosis of this trend, at least in Westminster - this time more purely geometric -  a cut and paste update of random pages of Owen Jones' 'Grammar of Ornament', perhaps.

What's going on?   An interest in surface decoration, now very fashionable, is a respectable aspect of architecture with a long history stretching back via Semper and Owen Jones all the way to prehistory.

That great modernist hard-liner Adolf Loos regarded decoration, exemplified in his mind by tattoos, as the last resort of criminals and degenerate aristocrats. The cerebral delights of abstraction were seen as an advance on the 'horror vacui' (fear of nothingness) of the savage mind.

It's certainly true that some recent patterned buildings must have engendered regrets in the cold light of day, as one assumes many tattoos do, after seeming a good idea at the time.

But you don't have to be a savage to think that the world is a more pleasant place if buildings have 'more to see when you get closer'.  It happens in most traditional architecture, whether high or vernacular.  The lack of it is one of the complaints that has always been levelled at 'modern' buildings, for example in critical reappraisals of the 'International Modernism' that swept the world in the postwar period when aesthetic interests appeared to align with the desire to do things cheaply - which gave us, for example, Victoria Street of the 1960s.  To do a Mies or Corb wasn't cheap, but to do a knock-off was.

The 'more to see' can come from the bits and pieces of the building itself - something you get in the best buildings of Richard Rogers or Michael Hopkins.

But delight in the elaboration of construction is a poor fit with an age of austerity, with unitized construction, with the world of design and build, value engineering and procurement by project manager rather than by client as patron.  

One can't help reflecting, considering some of the recent examples of 'dermatology as elevation', that while sophisticated details are expensive ('No money no detail' - Rem Koolhaas), decoration is cheap.  The trouble is, it often looks it.  But it doesn't have to.  If we are not to get buildings of substance, and visual interest is to come mainly from 2D surface decoration, then it deserves as much attention and talent as might be put it to beautiful details.