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December 11 2011

The best architecture of 2011: Rowan Moore's choice

It was the year of pop-ups and postmodernism – and the playful Frank Gehry went sky high

In New York they managed to complete the vast 9/11 memorial fountains in time for the 10th anniversary of the events of 2001, while around them rises the strange spectacle of commercial skyscrapers sponsored at huge expense from the public purse. Also in New York, Frank Gehry completed his tower of flats in Spruce Street with a playful beauty that has not been seen in skyscraper design for a while. These days, it's fashionable to knock Gehry for being the father of iconic building, but this tower, and his New World Symphony in Miami, shows that he is what has always been: a proper architect who likes to enjoy himself.

Last year the Serpentine Gallery got the turkey award in this space with its pavilion by Jean Nouvel; now it gets into the top 10 with Peter Zumthor's version of its annual commission. Pop-ups, identified as craze of the year in 2010, are still popping up, with Assemble's Folly for a Flyover leading the field. Olympic projects, such as the stadium and the aquatic centre, are getting their final buff and polish. Both are looking good, if you overlook the temporary add-ons on the latter, and the pointless plastic wrapper planned for the former, supplied courtesy of the Bhopal-implicated Dow Chemical Company.

In other news, postmodernism continued its inevitable revival. The magnificent James Stirling was honoured with a show at Tate Britain, and the V&A is currently revisiting the age of Grace Jones and leopard-skin Formica.

In a strong field of turkeys, the catastrophic Museum of Liverpool breasts the tape ahead of Rafael Viñoly's Firstsite in Colchester, the underwhelming new home of the BBC in Salford Quays and the anti-urban Westfield Stratford City.

TOP 10

8 Spruce Street, New York

Dazzling, elegant fun from Frank Gehry.

The Hepworth Wakefield

David Chipperfield completed two of his sober, considered, light-filled art galleries in 2011, in Margate and Wakefield. The one in Wakefield is the more convincing of the two.

New Court, London

Financial prestige meets cultural super-sophistication in Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for Rothschild.

Brockholes Visitor Village, Preston

A very nice place for looking at nature, on the edge of Preston, by Adam Khan. It floats.

Folly for a Flyover, London

Assemble, maker of the 2010 hit Cineroleum, maintained its form with this temporary cinema/bar/performance space under an elevated section of the A12.

Aquatic Centre, London

Breathtaking inside. Will look good outside, after the Olympics, when they have removed the giant water-wings that contain temporary seating.

Olympic Stadium, London

Handsome in its simplicity, until they wreck it with a festive wrapper for the Games.

Lyric theatre, Belfast

Just plain good, by the Dublin practice O'Donnell and Tuomey.

Maggie's Centres

Three more in the series of high-design cancer centres. The one in Glasgow, by OMA, and the one in Nottingham, by Piers Gough and Paul Smith, stand out.

Serpentine Gallery pavilion, London

An arena for watching plants grow, by Peter Zumthor.

TURKEY

Museum of Liverpool

Confused, expensive, misguided and offensive to the adjoining "Three Graces". Otherwise OK.


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October 20 2010

Browned off

It has been designed by Jean Nouvel – but the brown glass walls of this new London shopping centre jar with its City surroundings

One New Change is likely to be called many names in its lifetime, not all of them complimentary. An enormous shopping and office complex thumped down to the immediate east of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, it has been designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

Though Nouvel's bright red Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens made a colourful splash this summer, the architect is not particularly well known in Britain, and this is his first permanent building here. Some of his very best work – like the diaphanous Fondation Cartier and the mesmerising Institut du Monde Arabe with its hi-tech play on traditional Arabic designs, both in Paris – are truly captivating structures. However, One New Change is a very different beast.

The Prince of Wales, who believes the Luftwaffe did less damage to London than modern architects, has been sniping at One New Change since 2005, when he wrote to the developers, Land Securities, hoping to get Nouvel off the job and have him replaced by one of his "traditionalist" chappies. He failed, and One New Change looks like the kind of building that will cause controversy. The computer images on Nouvel's website, especially those showing it lit up at night, are seductive in a cinematic way. They make the building shine darkly, as if it were some unexpected meteorite or giant jewel glinting from the City streets. The reality, in the grey light of London, is far more sombre than this, if not exactly prosaic.

It's already known as the "stealth building" for two good reasons. First, this low, wide £500m behemoth, with its three floors of shops and five floors of offices, has muscled its way into the City while – remarkably – being all but invisible from just a few streets away. Second, its design – or, at least, its faceted facade or skin – really does have something of the look of a US Air Force Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, or stealth bomber, whose folded surface makes it virtually invisible to radar.

However, it's the colours of this bulky new arrival that truly startle. Instead of the military shades of grey one might expect, One New Change is sheathed in acres of largely opaque brown glass. For many centuries the Square Mile has been an enclave of largely white, grey and black buildings with discreet splashes of red brick or marble. Brown? No sir.

In fact, though Land Securities would never admit it – still less the team of architects led by Richard Rogers who chose Nouvel's design in an open competition held in 2003 – the role of One New Change may be to shock. Squeezing such a big building into the City has been a bit like pouring a heavyweight boxer into a city boy's suit. And, rather like a bespoke three-piece, while the exterior of the Nouvel building is essentially formal, its cruise-ship shiny, shop-lined interior is as flash as a loud silk lining.

The big idea is that the building appears to be a single block of material with passageways or "streets" carved through it, so that it feels like at least four separate, yet connected, buildings, turning around a central atrium. These "streets" are lined with shops and cafes, and have sloping walls. The biggest of them leads from the heart of One New Change to St Paul's Cathedral, framing studied views of Wren's enduring monument.

When you reach the atrium, a glass "panoramic" lift takes you up to a zig-zag, sixth-floor roof terrace. Whatever you make of the building as a whole, the experience of standing up here, so close to Wren's haunting dome, is undeniably moving and exciting. "You feel you can reach out and touch St Paul's," says Nouvel. It's true. Sitting here outside the rooftop cafe will be one of the most inspiring everyday experiences the City can offer.

There is little doubt that when it opens next Thursday, One New Change will be jam-packed with City workers and tourists. How can it go wrong? Nouvel sounds so very convincing when he says that "the design of One New Change is about enriching the City with a new sort of modernity. It is a contemporary building which will set up a dialogue with St Paul's and the neighbouring buildings. The design is calm and deferential to St Paul's and provides a unique opportunity to bring the public into the site."

The public will come anyway, such will be the allure of yet another branch of Topshop, H&M and Banana Republic, another outlet of Nando's and Eat; how can they resist a new Gordon Ramsay restaurant or Barbacoa, the latest culinary venture by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang? There are some independent shops, yet these are swamped by the big chains. Meanwhile, any new building on this site – good, bad or indifferent – would inevitably set up a dialogue with St Paul's. This mighty landmark can never be ignored, and the buildings around it must say something to their majestic neighbour if only to the effect that they don't care what it or anyone else feels about the way they look.

There goes the neighbourhood

Two big questions need to be asked about One New Change. One is whether the City of London should follow the path of every other British city centre; the other is whether Nouvel's stealthily bombastic design is the right neighbour for St Paul's. For me, it seems a little sad that the City is unable to follow its own star. Until very recently, it had retained its own special character. Here, a largely medieval street pattern adorned with fairytale names like Threadneedle Street and Pudding Lane is matched with secret, shoulder-wide alleys leading to quietly angelic churches, venerable pubs, ancient livery companies, and even the odd surviving independent shop with some half-remembered name, such as Shivelights and Shadowtackle or Dombey and Son. All this packed into the legendary Square Mile, between monuments to Mammon as traditional as the Bank of England and as a radical as the Gherkin, the up-and-coming Cheesegrater and all the other new towers with equally potty nicknames.

Certainly there have been fine places to shop in the City in the form of covered markets (such as Leadenhall Market, in the shadow of Richard Rogers's Lloyds Building), as well as the noble 1844 Royal Exchange alongside the Bank of England. Yet the City has remained aloof, or simply remote, from the wave of malls inundating Britain.

A cheeky wink to Wren

Until it was demolished to make way for the Nouvel building, St Paul's did have a good, and modest, neighbour in the guise of No 1 New Change, a Portland stone and red-brick office complex designed for the Bank of England by Victor Heal. Completed in 1960, this cautious and polite building was much mocked. And, yet, for all its conservative nature, Heal's building was a careful foil to St Paul's. Where Heal nodded politely to Wren, Nouvel winks at him cheekily as if saying: "Come on, grandpa; get down with the bling, and get shopping."

Assuming the Heal building had to go, I would never have recommended replacing it with the kind of Kentucky Fried Georgian buildings facing the north and west fronts of St Paul's in Paternoster Square. Creatures of the 1990s, these were – mostly – every bit as wrong here as One New Change is. Ultimately, St Paul's was best set off by the tight clusters of streets and buildings that stood almost within touching distance of its Portland stone walls until blitzed by the Luftwaffe. I suppose that today's big-shot developers could never make their money by creating a contemporary take on narrow streets and small independent shops and cafes; because of this, St Paul's was bound to be faced by a building as big as One New Change.

For me, though, it would make no difference whether or not One New Change had been designed by Frank Gehry or Alvaro Siza, or by today's equivalent (should they exist) of Wren or Hawksmoor. It just seems a shame to see the City of London go the way of all other cities. The heavily marketed idea that you can reach out and touch St Paul's from a funky new "stealth" shopping mall is not reward enough for robbing the City of what passes for its soul.


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August 10 2010

Is capitalism killing Moscow's architectural heritage?

The city's avant-garde masterpieces are falling into ruin. It seems only the oligarchs' wives can save them

From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.

I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it's one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow's glamorous media set. If you're thinking that this doesn't sound much like a school, then you'd have a point, but we'll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we've been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it's a more recent phenomenon.

One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn't begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description "raiders"). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.

Any sightseers embarking on a tour of Moscow's avant-garde architecture from the early 20th century had better brace themselves for a catalogue of degradation. The more hallowed the building in the architectural history books, the greater its decrepitude. Take the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milnis in 1928 to house the workers of the commissariat of finance. This radical apartment block, which spearheaded the idea of collective living, is one of the most important surviving constructivist buildings. And it is literally crumbling – indeed it's in such a sorry state that I was amazed to find that people still live in it. Then there is another constructivist masterpiece, Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov workers' club of 1929, with its muscular geometric profile. It's still as dramatic as ever but empty now except for an Azerbaijani restaurant that has attached its own folksy timber entrance (with lurid neon signage) to the unforgettable facade.

But it is not just the early modernist heritage of Moscow that is unloved. Even the pride of a more recent Soviet past is going to seed. The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), the expo site in the north of the city that was a town-sized advertisement of Soviet achievements, is today a rather seedy theme park. None of its grandiose pavilions still contain anything worth seeing. The grandest, announced by a Tupolev rocket in the forecourt, is the 1966 Space Pavilion. It now houses a garden centre that would embarrass your average parish hall, let alone this vaulted cathedral to the Soviet space programme. Under the dome, the giant portrait of Yuri Gagarin has a sheet draped over it. I asked a local why and he answered simply: "Shame." It would dishonour the legendary cosmonaut to look out over this mess.

This is the climate in which the Russian post-industrial project is taking shape. Preservation is not a major preoccupation here, which is ironic considering that much of the post-communist architecture has been built to look old (it's known unofficially as the "Luzhkov style", after Moscow's long-serving mayor). And yet one fifth of Moscow is made up of industrial sites – think of the impact that Tate Modern had on London's cultural scene and then imagine how much potential Moscow has. But destroy-and-rebuild is the model favoured here, with over 1,000 historical buildings knocked down in the last decade. There's no pressure from heritage bodies and no incentives to convert industrial buildings. Indeed, there tend to be disincentives, such as the regulation that only new buildings can qualify for class A office status. It's no wonder that developers have been either demolishing the factories to build luxury apartment blocks or turning them into business parks.

In the last few years, however, things have started to change. For one thing, the recession has put the brakes on developers, allowing nimbler entrepreneurs to slip in. The Red October factory, for instance, was meant to be turned into a luxury residential zone called Golden Island, with buildings by Norman Foster (much beloved of Russia) and Jean Nouvel. Only the credit crunch enabled the Strelka's founders to lease their site. But there is also a new player on the Moscow property scene: the oligarch's wife, who knows only too well from the international circuit how to turn defunct industry into cultural prestige. One such is Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich's wife, who two years ago turned Melnikov's temple-like Bakhmetevsky bus garage of 1927 into an art centre called Garage. Last week it was holding a Rothko retrospective, the kind of show that normally only major museums can handle.

On a grander scale, though less refined architecturally, are the cultural developments in the Kursky industrial area. Here there is Winzavod, a red-brick wine factory built in the 1860s. It was bought by Roman Trotsenko to turn into offices but again his wife, Sofia, saw the potential for a cultural centre. Today it's full of galleries, showrooms and creative studio spaces. And right next door to it is what used to be the Arma gasworks, which supplied the gas for Moscow's streetlights. Now its four brick gasometers are home to a clutch of nightclubs, creative agencies and publishing houses. In a strange hangover from Soviet bureaucracy, you have to show your passport to enter and you're not allowed to take photographs, which somehow is not quite in the spirit of the place.

Here's the question: is it to be left to the oligarchs' wives to deliver on all this potential cultural programming? One Muscovite I met referred to Garage and Vinzavod rather dismissively as "toys for rich people". "Still," he added, "they could just be buying more yachts."

Perhaps the Strelka offers a different model. The founders of this postgraduate design school, with a curriculum designed by Rem Koolhaas, are at least using their wealth to invest in the next generation. And one way that they are making the school's name (while recouping some funds) is as a social hotspot. In fact, the Strelka is the kind of hybrid that could probably only exist in the turbo-capitalist experiment of Moscow: one part ideology, one part philanthropy (the education will be free) and one part the place to be seen. If the school succeeds, then while Russia may have come late to the post-industrial party, it will have contributed something new to the rather predictable formats we know so well in Europe. Meanwhile, locals are paying it a classic Muscovite compliment: "It's so not like Moscow."


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August 02 2010

Sleep and beauty

An all-night event at the Serpentine gallery, featuring experimental films and performance, proves anything but sleep-inducing

It is 9.45pm and I'm lost. I'm supposed to be heading from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London's museum district to the Serpentine gallery for a night-time event simply called Sleepover, a collaboration between the gallery and the museum focusing on the relationship between insomnia and art. But, on exiting the V&A, I have become detached from the rest of the group. Luckily I'm not completely alone: 24-year-old Becky Shirwan and her friend Mariam are with me. Shirwan got tickets to this event after her friend complained of suffering from a week of insomnia. She hopes this event will provide a cure – or, at least, an interesting distraction.

After a few wrong turns we make it to the gallery pavilion in the dark depths of Hyde Park, the place that will be our bed for the night. The pavilion, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, is a large structure with a sloped wall, bright-red and visible through the trees in Hyde Park even in the dead of night. The event has been partly inspired by Tilda Swinton, who famously slept in the gallery in 1995 for a piece of performance art created by Cornelia Parker. But I'm planning to stay awake: the event features experimental films, musical performances, workshops and food displays, based around the idea of sleep, insomnia, art and dreaming, and brings together a varied bunch of artists. Among other things, I'm looking forward to a musical performance by a group called Sending Letters to the Sea, and a film by artist Emilia Izquierdo, in which snoring blends with images of a body moving in bed.

But first I make a beeline for the hot water dispenser. I'll need tea and coffee to get me through the night. The floor is a sea of sleeping bags. There are more women than men here, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The corner of the room is bustling with activity: a printed book about the night is being made and a cluster of women are sewing the initials of everyone taking part on to pillowcases that also bear the repeated mantra "go to sleep". So far, so not a typical Friday night.

It's 11.30pm. Psychoanalyst Darian Leader, the first speaker, appears. He discusses the surrealist movement, the relationship artists have with dreams and Freud's work on dreams. Once he's finished, there's a loud marching sound, one side of the tent-like pavilion opens up and in walks a procession dressed in white, carrying one of their party on a huge serving plate. This elaborate display is the brainchild of Bompass and Parr, a company that makes artistic culinary delights. Two trifles are laid out, one containing a sedative and the other, a stimulant. I try the sedative option, which tastes deliciously sweet and contains valerian.

After the cacophony, German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, who has spent over 30 years sketching his dreams, steps up to speak. His sketches appear on the screen behind him, in black and white, often focusing on death – one on the execution of Mussolini, another featuring a coffin. He explains that he finds it easier to draw dreams than write them out. "I did that first sketch in the 1970s, ran out of the house and when I looked at it that night, it was surprising that I had remembered so much," he says. He adds that what started as a hobby, an aside to his filmmaking, has produced 700 sketches.

By 2.30am, only a few people are still up. The free snacks keep me awake for Laure Prouvost, an artist known for playing with sound and language (her film It, Heat, Hit was recently shown at Tate Britain). Prouvost's voice comes out the mic, her accent a mix of French and English. She coos "You want to sleep, don't you?" to the crowd, repeating the words, reminding us of everyone sleeping right now. The repetition has the desired effect of encouraging my eyelids to close briefly. Then suddenly there is a change in tone. Prouvost starts narrating a story about her grandfather, an insomniac, who dug a tunnel from his house in north London (not strictly legal) and has gone missing. Her voice is loud and frightening. Her words are translated into French by someone on stage. The effect is disorientating, but captivating. I catch up with Prouvost after her performance. Does she have trouble sleeping? "I like working into the night, but I sleep very well," she says. "I'm nothing like the romantic idea of the artist as the insomniac. I love sleeping, I love dreaming."

In between performances, there is time for everyone to have a go at being an artist. On a table in the corner of the room are headphones, a recording and piles of blank paper. The aim of this project, created by artist Cesare Pietroiusti, is to draw objects described in the recordings. They happen to be non-existent. The results are wacky interpretations, images that aren't easy to identify: some are buildings, others just wavy lines. Back in the main area, artist Dale Berning treats us to a lullaby, playing the instruments that hang from her clothes. By 4am, there's a lecture by Dr Angelica Ronald on how a lack of sleep affects us. Ironically, perhaps, most of the audience are slumbering blissfully.

By daybreak, people start stirring. I find Shirwan; she has been awake for most of the night, but her friend successfully fell asleep. We sit up watching a beautiful film made by Stuart Croft, featuring a woman in a car at night, telling the story of a man stranded on a desert island. My eyes are burning and I feel like I'm in a daze. The experience has been interesting: it's forced me to think about dreams and introduced me to artists I hadn't encountered. Most of all, though, it's made me grateful that I don't normally have any problems sleeping.


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July 06 2010

Red all over

Jonathan Glancey talks to the French architect Jean Nouvel about his design for this year's Serpentine pavilion



March 26 2010

Jean Nouvel: 100 11th Avenue, New York

During The Armory Show Week 2010, French architect Jean Nouvel was in New York for the preview of his new and nearly completed residential tower called 100 11th Avenue. The building is located at the intersection of 19th Street and the West Side Highway, along the Hudson River in Manhattan and facing another building by a star architect, Frank Gehry’s headquarters for the IAC. The 23-story tower features a curtain wall that was inspired equally by the famous stained glass window cycle at Saint-Chapelle in Paris and the optical effects of the sun on the Hudson River. It’s a mosaic of nearly 1,700 different-sized panes of colorless glass, each set at a unique angle and torque. At the base of the building, Jean Nouvel placed an additional seven-story street wall of mullioned glass 15 feet from the building’s façade to reflect fleeting images of life beyond the building while creating a semi-enclosed atrium. The north and east façades of 100 11th Avenue are clad in black brick that references the masonry characteristic of West Chelsea’s industrial architecture.

In this video, we have a look at the building’s exterior by day (March 6, 2010), and its interior by night (March 4, 2010). For the VIP party / preview on March 4, 2010, Jean Nouvel created a collaborative installation with the French artist Jean-Charles Blais. The installation involved taking over an apartment and doing a temporary “intervention” in it.

Jean-Nouvel was born in Fumel, France, in 1945. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was founding member of Mars 1976 and Syndicat de l’Architecture. Over the course of his career, he received a number of prestigious awards, including the Pritzker Prize in 2008. Some of his most renowned works are the Arab World Institute, the Musée du quay Branly, and the Fondation Cartier in Paris; the Torre Agbar in Barcelona; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Soféa in Madrid.

Jean Nouvel: 100 11th Avenue, New York. Preview, March 4 and 6, 2010.

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