BIG Ideas

Blog — 16 Jul 2015

'Architecture, once the encompassing mother of the arts, completed by painting, sculpture and carrier of cultural significance and meaning, has become reduced to superfluous spectacle.' Peter Buchanan 'Empty gestures: Starchitecture's Swan Song' Architectural Review, 27 February 2015

The search for an architectural language for the modern era continues, and the challenge of working in the historical city is still at the core of the debate, should our buildings be attention seeking or courteous? Three events in the last few days demonstrate this well.

At the NLA (New London Architecture) awards lunch last week (7July 2015) Zaha Hadid was announced as New Londoner of the year. She used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to criticise the modest and polite architecture that she sees being built in London and to demand a more adventurous and radical approach, saying that London is ready for, and needs, the startling parametric forms that her computers generate.

Bjarke Ingels Royal Academy Annual Architecture Lecture (13 July 2015) offered another window into this world. The youthful Ingels has already amassed a portfolio of commissions and projects that most of us would spend a lifetime dreaming about and few would ever achieve. He is clearly very talented, a master of communication, he has a clear relationship with social media and contemporary communications, an architectural Marshall McLuhan or Andy Warhol perhaps.

Whilst Hadid’s early work was generated through painting, Ingels ambition was to be a cartoonist, he went to architecture school to understand how to draw buildings as a backdrop for his cartoons (ironically a much riskier profession for a Dane these days). With this knowledge it is tempting to suggest that his architecture is often a caricature, a one liner, just a BIG idea?

This would be unfair, there is a lot more than shape making going on, sustainability, collaboration, ethics and context all play their part in his world, and importantly it is witty. At its best his architecture is brilliant.The sports hall Ingels designed for his old school in Copenhagen is somewhere we would all wish we had studied I am sure. It is an economic and spatially inventive solution to a difficult brief. It demonstrates the deftness of touch and modesty of a great designer.

Sports Hall Copenhagen, Bjarke Ingels

I think that this sets him apart from architects such as Hadid, Gehry and Liebeskind, perhaps placing him closer to the early work of Foster & Rogers, a lineage where the public realm and the social dimension are design generators.

In stark contrast this week also saw the publication of the Stirling Prize shortlist, a selection of projects that no doubt Zaha Hadid would find far too modest and polite. The best schemes on the list showcase careful crafted architecture. Buildings where good planning and the choice of materials define the project, and with one exception they are not big budget schemes.

MUMA’s Whitworth Gallery would be a worthy, if unlikely, winner. It is a beautiful project that extends and re plans the original 19th century building, creating a series of spaces that blur the boundaries between the interior and the park landscape. It is impeccably and economically detailed with materials that speak of quality not extravagance. It gets my vote.

Whitworth Gallery Cafe, MUMA
Whitworth Gallery, MUMA