Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Architects' Bake Off - Biscuit or Blancmange?

The scheme for the 'Olympicopolis' project in the Olympic Park, by Allies and Morrison and others, was - along with the continuing saga of the Garden Bridge - a top architectural story of the summer silly season, when the scheme for a new cultural quarter was publicly criticised by Peter Cook and others, basically on the grounds that it is boring.

Rowan Moore's piece in the Observer, well argued as ever, described the spat as 'biscuit vs blancmange' - Cook having characterized the peddlers of the bricky New London Vernacular architecture as the 'biscuit boys'.

This was all argued out in similar terms over a decade ago, in the New Labour heyday of the lottery funded wow-factor 'icon' - the apotheosis of the debate in those days being Graham Morrison's memorable talk at the Royal Academy in 2004, with icon projects such as Will Alsop's Liverpool 'Fourth Grace' in the firing line.

Once upon a time it was obvious which were the important buildings in the city - churches, town halls on so on.  They were the most noticeable, and usually the biggest, buildings, and the best architects got to design them - the 'icons' of their day.

Now the best architects - including the ones who want to do showy buildings - don't generally get churches to do, and even cultural projects are rare - so they give us showy blocks of flats or offices.

The agents and marketing people who are tasked with shifting new office space and flats want pretty much everything to be unique, iconic - or at the very least a landmark or a gateway.

But not everything can be an eye-catching, look-at-me building.  Some architects are much more likely than others to offer you one - but did anyone except the client want one?  Some argue that in an age where consensus about anything is rare and deference is seldom found anywhere, the city is no worse for a few new eye-catchers. And certainly a city where the only things that can go ahead are those to which no one objects is not going to be a very interesting place.

But there is room for a lot more thought, and explicit discussion, at the beginning of a project concerning how far the 'look-at-me' dial is to be turned up in any particular instance.  It is a question that relates to the uses of the building and its place in the city - and the answer might influence the choice of architect, and what the brief asks them to do.

In London, where the cityscape is becoming, in places, a bit of a mess - part glorious mess, part inglorious - there is a clear need for more and better planning - in the sense of ordering the city, through spatial planning, rather than writing more and more and longer and longer documents - and for more quality control.

That means debate both about the basic question of whether building proposals are any good or not, but also questions about what form of expression is appropriate in any given situation: biscuit or blancmange, plain or fancy, straight or curvy.  Both sorts of consideration are important to the future of London's cityscape.

The Olympicopolis Bake Off affair is the reverse of the more common sort of objection that building proposals are showy when they should be quiet.  Peter Cook has a point: if you can't be a bit flash in a cultural project in a regeneration area, where can you?

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