Monday, August 21, 2006

Sunday August 20, 2006The Observer , Deyan Sudjic

My career as architecture critic at The Observer began shortly after the turn of the millennium with a test flight on the London Eye. I remember cautiously scrutinising the capsules lashed, apparently precariously, like soap bubbles, to the elegant white structure. But rather than marvelling at its jewellery-like precision, uppermost in my mind was the question of how was I going to get down if the thing got stuck a couple of hundred feet up in the air.
The Eye was an object that had all the makings of a fiasco. The word was that it would be brash, ugly and vulgar, which just goes to show the danger of rushing to judgement. In an effort to strangle it at birth, Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the soon-to-be-abolished Royal Fine Art Commission, had been quite astonishingly rude to its architects, Julia Barfield and David Marks, when their plans came to him for scrutiny. And even after it had finally been floated down the Thames to its site opposite the Palace of Westminster, the first attempt to lift it from its prostrate position ended in highly public failure. But despite all the flak, it was on the verge of turning into one of the world's instantly recognisable and most popular landmarks.

On the brink of a once-in-a-century transformation of London, it was also the best vantage point to take a look at the new shape that architecture was taking in Britain. Back in 2000, you could still glimpse Canary Wharf's original tower, standing in solitary state. The thicket of new structures that now hems it in on every side was still taking shape. The Swiss Re tower was no more than a planning application. There was no new City Hall.
The success of the Eye has certainly been hugely important in making Britain far more receptive to the idea of radical new architectural intrusions than it has been at any time since the early Sixties. For me, it was the point of departure for a white-knuckle ride that has ended up taking me far beyond London. In the past six years, I've been to see Novy Dvur, the first new monastery built in eastern Europe for half a century, to watch a Cistercian abbot celebrate mass in John Pawson's exquisite chapel there.
I've trudged over the sand and dust of the building sites of Beijing with their tens of thousands of migrant labourers looking like warring medieval armies working under their ragged flying banners. I've boggled at the sprouting skyscrapers of Shanghai, with tops that look like giant pineapples.
I have been to Porto's concert hall, Seattle's public library and the new Dutch embassy in Berlin, all in the company of their architect, Rem Koolhaas. It was only in the embassy that I found myself in any actual physical danger from an architect who uses 'brutal' as a term of praise. Temporarily overwhelmed by his eloquence, I managed to walk straight into one of his razor-edged steel staircases and narrowly escaped becoming a casualty of a man unsure whether being a mere architect is enough for his degree of intellectual ambition.
I have met Albert Speer's son, also an architect and equally addicted to making grand architectural gestures. I have wondered at his friendship with Peter Eisenman, the American architect of Berlin's Holocaust memorial built on top of his father's wartime bunker.
Thomas Krens, the egregious director of the Guggenheim, has fed me brandy and profiteroles in his favourite Bilbao restaurant and explained the limitations of certain of his trustees. In Tokyo's glossiest shopping streets, I've seen the way that the fashion world is building rival architectural trophies: Herzog and de Meuron for Prada, Renzo Piano for Hermes, Toyo Ito for Tods, Kazuo Sejima for Dior.
Britain's burst of high-profile architecture has spilled across the whole country, from the Eden Centre in Cornwall to the transformation of both banks of the Tyne with the Baltic Gallery and Norman Foster's concert halls in Newcastle. Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds have all started being interested in building skyscrapers. I have wandered through the toughest suburbs of Manchester exploring post-modern housing and listening to the wind whistling through Thomas Heatherwick's vast steel monument, B of the Bang. I have looked at de Rijke Marsh Morgan's work helping turn around a failing school in Dulwich. I have been to Birmingham to see Future Systems' extraordinary department store for Selfridges and explored the even more extraordinarily costly Scottish parliament.
I have peered over the lip of Ground Zero and cautiously ventured into the tip of the Swiss Re tower while the last sheets of glass were being inched into place. The latter was an experience even more troubling to those uncomfortable with heights than the Eye. 'Is there,' you can't help wondering, 'some sort of predisposition among architects to vertigo, and a compensating tendency to design buildings that force them to confront their fears?'
What makes architecture such an all-absorbing, endlessly fascinating subject to write about is that it is so intimately connected with the hard stuff of power, politics and city building. Architectural creative energy is irresistibly drawn to those places in the globe that are going through the fastest transformations. It reflects ambitious cities and individuals determined to make a mark and the birth of new economic and political systems in a sometimes-lurid glow.
If you had followed the flying circus of the perpetually jetlagged tiny group of architects that built so much high-profile architecture two decades ago, you would have found yourself in Tokyo. Now it is in Beijing, Moscow, Dubai and, perhaps most unexpectedly, London that they are spending most of their time.
To talk about what architecture has been about in the last few years has meant focusing more on the 'why' rather than the 'how'. Which is to say that exploring what is making a building happen is sometimes a more challenging - but also more rewarding - issue to address than what the results look like. The five schemes for 1,000ft skyscrapers that have been approved for central London since Ken Livingstone went to Shanghai and decided that Britain's financial centre needed to replicate its skyline have their own aesthetic issues. Richard Rogers's high-rise wedge overlooking the Swiss Re will be a more interesting building than Rafael Vinoly's, which resembles a giant telephone handset. If it is built, it will offer more social space to the city around it.
But to focus just on how these towers will look is to miss much of the point. What really matters is to try to understand why people would suddenly think that building tall in London is a good idea after so many years in which it seemed like exactly the opposite. While appreciating Renzo Piano's craft-based approach to design is obviously an issue in evaluating the quality of his so-called Shard of Glass, Europe's tallest tower, approved for a site at London Bridge, perhaps even more critical to understanding its meaning is to explore the significance of a situation in which Livingstone is prepared to act with all the imperial majesty of a Francois Mitterrand or a Nelson Rockefeller.
Like Rockefeller, who, as governor of New York State made the Twin Towers possible by renting space in them for his civil servants, Livingstone has not only pushed the tower through the planning system because he liked the look of it, but he has also enormously boosted its chances of actually being built by signing a contract to house Transport for London's hundreds of employees there, even though its construction timetable is still far from clear.
In terms of the language of contemporary architecture, we have seen the battle of the Eighties between the Prince of Wales and those members of the architectural profession not interested in adopting period fancy dress transmogrify into an even more vicious internecine fight between the blob builders and the box designers. The new technical freedom to adopt virtually any shape for a building has made architecture closer to pattern-cutting a computer-generated skin to clothe a structure than to traditional building.
You can see the phenomenon in the work of a generation of architectural talent that in some cases took a long time to start building. Zaha Hadid, for example, collected the Pritzker Prize before her major projects started opening their doors. David Chipperfield has finally started to pick up commissions at home. While Hadid and Chipperfield have developed distinctive personal voices in their work, it is Herzog and de Meuron which has emerged as perhaps the most creative, large-scale architectural practice in the world, precisely because it approaches each project as if it were its first.
At the same time, we have lost some architects who should have lived longer, in particular Enric Miralles who died cruelly young without seeing his Scottish Parliament completed.
Writing for a newspaper is an exhilarating, distracting drug. It gives you the illusion of achievement simply by meeting the deadline and getting into print. It also gives you every opportunity to make embarrassingly elementary mistakes and the kind of errors of judgement that happen when you are in a hurry. And newspapers give critics the illusion of influence. I understand that I might once have mildly upset John Prescott by something I had written, but I have no delusions that criticism can do much more. Thankfully, British papers are not burdened with the massive self-regard of certain American newspapers, which labour under the misapprehension that their architecture critic's words amount to law. What you can do is record, entertain and, occasionally, abuse.
Has architecture improved in the past six years? We certainly like to think it has. And certainly there is a lot more of it and, in particular, a lot more conspicuous architecture than there used to be. Some architects have emerged in better shape than expected. Norman Foster's growth, for example, has proved unstoppable. He is now talking about maintaining an office of 1,000 people in the near future.
On the other hand, Daniel Libeskind has shown himself to be a less interesting architect than we hoped he would be at the time he won the Ground Zero competition that turned out to be neither a genuine competition, nor a real victory. Santiago Calatrava has been given the rope to hang himself, building not just the soaring bridges that made his name, but a series of buildings that has come out far the wrong side of kitsch.
Will Alsop has proved himself to be uncrushable in the face of being forced to sell his practice twice in two years to keep his creditors at bay, and unembarrassable in his wilfulness, even after his biggest British project to date, the community arts centre in West Bromwich known as the Public, had to call in the receivers before it opened and despite soaking up £40m in public money.
But perhaps the most remarkable development is the sudden popularity of contemporary architecture, which is no longer limited to insiders and government departments. Ikea persuaded us all to chuck out our chintz. Grand Designs and Wallpaper* have transformed the look of the contemporary kitchen extension. Developers such as Urban Splash, with its plans to turn rotting brutalist hulks of social housing into fashionable apartments, have made Sixties style the new Art Deco. And John Pawson got a name check on The Archers
Being able to spend so much time looking at extraordinary, memorable and occasionally beautiful architecture has been a continual pleasure. It is a slightly unreal bubble from which to look at buildings. Nobody but an architecture critic sees such a vast range of buildings with such a huge geographic spread in quite such a short space of time. Users can occupy a building for a lifetime and they stop seeing the architecture almost immediately. The critic sucks a building dry of material and moves on in 25 minutes.

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