Monday, 4 February 2013

Is this what you want? - a blunt instrument from the nimby toolkit

This flyer seen on a recent trip Brussels appears to be a protest about some planned new buildings.  Presumably the buildings won’t actually be bright red, though.  

The ‘protest montage’ is a now familiar ploy of those who oppose projects. Every effort is made to make schemes look as daft and offensive as possible (equal and opposite, of course, to the efforts of the promoters, which can be equally misleading).  The technique was used in London by opponents of the alleged ‘steel and glass tower blocks’ that Richard Rogers planned for the Chelsea Barracks site (for which read: ten storey buildings much the same height as nearby 1930s mansion blocks, with big windows made of that futuristic material ‘glass’ because even rich people deserve daylight). 

I don’t know who started all this, but the architect planner Thomas Sharp was certainly at it in his 1968 book Town and Townscape.  

These intriguing images of an abandoned scheme for university buildings in the centre of Cambridge, images which Sharp prepared and described as not showing ‘any actually proposed architectural treatment’, can be compared with the real designs of Lasdun (whom Sharp, oddly, cannot bring himself to name in his book).  A provocative photomontage provided by Lasdun himself can be found in William Curtis’s monograph.  While the his scheme for the New Museums site (where the buildings by Arup Associates are today) is pretty shocking to today’s sensibilities, they look absolutely nothing like the banal blocks in Sharp’s drawing, being highly articulated into vertical components, like a compressed and over-energetic version of Kahn’s Philadelphia laboratories, to achieve a rich skyline which clearly echoes the older buildings in the foreground – an approach more explicitly responsive to context than many similar projects of that period  including some of Lasdun’s that were built.

Protests of this kind call to mind the catchphrase of one of Harry Enfield’s Middle England moaners: ‘Is that what you want? – because that’s what you’re going to get…’  Usually, what the nimby flier show you is not what you’re going to get. The detail matters – and the difference between a dumb box and a complex, articulated building proposal is a lot more than a matter of detail. 

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