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August 03 2012

European arts cuts: Rome's Maxxi maxes out the ministerial funding

Management of Zaha Hadid-designed hub for modern artists replaced by culture ministry commissioner

When the Maxxi opened in Rome in 2010 it aspired to become a hub for 21st-century artists. The management of the imposing museum - designed by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid - was replaced with a commissioner appointed by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, due to an €11m (£8.6m) budget projection deficit.

Former director Pio Baldi blamed the progressive reduction in ministerial funding. Public funding was cut from €7m in 2010 to €2m by 2012.

The ministerial commissioner Antonia Pasqua Recchia said the initial funds earmarked for the museum were to be considered "extraordinary" as their purpose was to give an initial push to the institution. From 2012, the foundation was intended to rely on ordinary funding. The previous management blamed the ministry for mismanaging resources and setting the self-funding bar too high.


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June 22 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

Ahead of the Olympics, the London Festival of Architecture transforms East End dockland into a giant pleasure garden; and it's Dame on for Zaha Hadid

The Olympics warm-up is in danger of overheating before we even get round to the sports, but alongside the pan-cultural London 2012 festival, which began yesterday, let's not forget the London Festival of Architecture, which takes over the capital for three weeks starting 23 June. Of course, there's an Olympic slant to proceedings, but in a good way. The theme is "The Playful City", and events are mercifully free of either Union Jack-waving or serious international competitiveness. At times it looks more It's a Knockout, with enticingly silly events like an Urban Picnic Contest, a children's game to create public spaces, painting by catapult and urban guerrilla ping pong.

There's still a serious side: some of the LFA's playful, temporary installations have paved the way for permanent changes to the city. Literally in the case of Kensington's Exhibition Road. Dixon Jones's new "shared space" layout there was first road-tested four years ago at the LFA. Some of this year's interventions are here to stay, like Gibbons Rents, an obscured cut-through close to the Shard that has been smartened up with plants and low-cost materials, courtesy of Australian architect Andrew Burns and landscape expert Sarah Eberle.

Here are three more highlights:

London Pleasure Gardens

A 20-acre piece of spare dockland (close to Pontoon Dock DLR) becomes a new communal space for up to 35,000 people, drawing on London's forgotten history of pleasure gardens. There'll be food, drink, music, performance and art to entice crowds from the nearby Olympic site – and facilities including a floating cocktail lounge, performance venues, a nature reserve and an "art hotel". A host of architects have been let loose on follies, pools, "Hanging Gardens" and other installations for the festival. Even the seating has been designed by architecture students. The Pleasure Gardens open properly on 30 June.

International Architecture and Design Showcase 2012

The rest of the world is invited to the festival via this British Council-organised event, which takes place in embassies, galleries and national cultural institutes across London. The exhibitions range from Home, an exploration of Arab notions of housing to the Netherlands' "Nolympics" exhibition of unrealised Dutch Olympic architecture, from prestige Italian designer Pininfarina to lesser seen work from countries like Namibia, Serbia and the Caribbean.

Bureau Spectacular: Three Little Worlds

Not your typical architect, Chicago-based Canadian-Taiwanese Jimenez Lai uses comic-book panels as much as architectural drawing to express his ideas. There's a sci-fi open-mindedness to his work, anchored by an emphasis on human stories. One of his stories speculates a zero-gravity space city, for example, where walls, floors and ceilings are interchangeable – he then built a revolving mock-up of a capsule. Lai will live and work in a trio of capsules he's built in the Architecture Foundation's office, from which he will launch his first graphic novel and host public events. The Sad People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films Slumber Party sounds intriguing.

In other news, it's been a week of awards in British architecture, which means winners and losers. The big news was the announcement of the RIBA's annual awards. The process has been streamlined and the bar set higher this year, with just 50 awards for England and Wales and nine from abroad and no regional awards – as opposed to 100-odd winners in previous years. Big winners include Stanton Williams, who received three awards for their Hackney Marshes Centre, their University of the Arts campus in London, and their Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge. And, inevitably, David Chipperfield, with his Hepworth Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate. Six of the award winners will be selected for the Stirling prize shortlist, announced mid-July.

If there was a big loser, it was Zaha Hadid, who misses out on the chance to make it three Stirling prizes in a row by having no buildings selected. Not even the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, which also failed to make the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's own inaugural architecture awards. Hadid did get a consolation prize though, from the Queen. In the Birthday Honours list last week, she was awarded the title Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to architecture. Is she the first architect to become a dame? Not if you count Rupert Murdoch's 103-year-old mother, who's also an honorary fellow of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

And farewell to Austrian architect Gunther Domenig, who died this week aged 77. He was little known in this country, but he carried the torch for a more theatrical architectural mode through the 1960s and 70s, when many of his European contemporaries were more interested in ultra-rational modernism. His work can be compared to (and might well have influenced) more conspicuous Americans like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne, with its radical geometries and unconventional forms. His compatriot Wolf D Prix, head of Co-Op Himmeblau, praised Domenig and Wallner's astounding, surrealistic Z-Bank branch in Vienna, which looks like something out of an Alien movie. "Long before the convoluted computer architects started using parametric tools to give their lame design a boost, Domenig had not only designed the first three-dimensional facade, but actually built it, too," said Prix. The other pilgrimage site for Domenig fans is his own, fantastically space-age Steinhaus, which he constantly added to over the past 30 years – a testbed for his singular inventiveness, and now a monument to an extraordinary mind.


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June 20 2012

Zaha Hadid says austerity is not an excuse for low-quality housing

Iraqi-born architect says use of the word austerity is a cliche and could be disastrous for the public

Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who designed the Olympic Park aquatic centre, has called on the government not to use the climate of austerity as an excuse for slashing budgets and building low-quality housing and hospitals.

Hadid, speaking in an interview at the Cannes International Festival of Advertising on Wednesday, said the use of the word austerity was a cliche to hide behind which would end up being disastrous for the public.

"I think that [austerity] is used as a cliche because people don't have ideas, they want to crib [old ones] to do bad stuff," she said, in a Q and A session with Guardian deputy editor Kath Viner. "Schools, housing, hospitals – I think the government should invest in good housing."

She added that the skyline of many of the UK's cities were "made horrible" by developments in the 1960s because they government "wanted to be cheap".

"There needs to be investment. We need some sort of quality," Hadid said. "All the privileged can travel, see different worlds, not everyone can. I think it is important for people to have an interesting locale nearby. [Buildings] need to do another job, enlighten people, space enlightens the same way as music art and technology."

Hadid was also asked about the cost of her projects. The Olympic aquatics centre was originally budgeted at £75m but has run to more than £250m.

"My buildings are not particularly expensive," she said. "It is not a tin shed. If you want a tinny car you pay for that."

I don't think it is just fashionable [to want a civic space], I think [buildings] do need that," she said. "The ground as public domain, no longer a perimeter or fortress where you cannot penetrate."


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May 19 2012

The Olympic Park

The Velodrome, the Copper Box, the Energy Centre: some fine buildings will grace London 2012. But tawdry compromise is never far away…

Here's the thing about the Olympics. It's a magnificent event, engaging, as it does, most of the planet in the innocent idea of playing games extremely well, and if it avoids disasters it can make the host nation feel good about itself. But it is also insanely expensive in both money and risk, thanks in part to the tyrannical demands of the International Olympic Committee, and profoundly unsustainable, as it requires an immense amount of construction for a 17-day event plus 12 for the Paralympics.

The numbers don't add up, so the Games are sold to citizens on the basis of promises that turn out to be false. They will increase participation in sport and reduce obesity – they don't. They will boost tourism – actually Olympic cities usually experience a decline in visitors. They will be sustainable, but only in the sense that a space rocket powered by biofuel would be sustainable. They will cost the government £2.37bn, or, rather, £9.3bn; or, if all associated costs are included, even more. So to make the Games work, circles have to be squared, compromises made and deals done. Sponsors become gods, because without them there would be no Games, and the branding police enforce their will. Demands of surveillance and security become boundless. Everything has to be on-message.

The contradictions of the Olympics are ingrained in the built fabric of London 2012, which is now essentially finished, awaiting little more than for the meadow flowers seeded in the site's gardens to flourish in synchrony with the big event, and for the completion of the stadium wrapper sponsored by Dow Chemical. It's an urban effort of a scale and ambition that this country has not managed for a long time. It has so far been smoothly delivered, without the baleful stories of near-disaster that accompanied the construction of the Athens Olympics, or the reports of multiple deaths on the Beijing stadium site.

There are intelligent strategies for dealing with at least some of the problems that usually afflict the Games. There are several well designed structures and not much that is downright terrible. During the recent test events in the Olympic Park there was some sense of community, arising from shared experience among many people, of a kind that was supposedly going out of fashion.

All of which is truly admirable, but it's an achievement that comes with conditions and compromises. The stadium, like all its predecessors, struggles to find a viable future use. The sense of community is for Visa cardholders only and sustained by batteries of Rapier missiles. There is a weird alternation of the profligate and the miserly: to hold the Games at all is absurdly extravagant, and the security budget grows at will, but places such as the athletes' village – where thousands will live in the future – are squeezed hard by time and money, such that they are less wonderful than they might otherwise be. The event is held in the name of the public but its portal is a private shopping mall.

Part of what is good about the Olympics is captured by buildings such as the wood-clad, wavy-roofed Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, a structure beautifully attuned to its purpose, spare in construction, which sits on a little hill with elegant festivity. Also by relatively unsung structures such as the temporary venues for basketball and water polo, which are stylish but relatively straightforward ways of getting the job done. Or the Copper Box, a plain but effective container for handball, which is one of the best works of its architects Make. Or the electrical substation, a handsome brick structure by the Glaswegian practice Nord, and the rust-coloured Energy Centre by John McAslan and Partners. Like Olympic sports, these embody the focused pursuit of the good to exceptional in a precise if limited field.

A lot of what is worst about the Olympics is captured by the Orbit: the grandstanding, the gesture-making, the unholy alliance of politicians and corporations in making expensive but empty statements that miss out any real connection with the human race. The Orbit, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, seems to be something to do with art, as expressed by its red squiggly form, and something to do with access, evidenced by the stairs rising up it, but the two don't seem very happily combined.

The official blather is that it is "very aspirational, in a very appropriately Olympic way": alternatively, you could listen to a man I overhead trying to explain it to his family – "It's what they call sculpture. It's just there to make you ask, 'What is it?' "

It gobbles steel, which ruins the justified boast of the stadium that it was efficient in its use of this high-energy metal, and occupies land in a way that complicates the planning of this bit of the site for the post-Olympic legacy. It makes little attempt at harmony with, or even acknowledgement of, its neighbours, the stadium and the Aquatics Centre. And it will cost £15 to go up to the top. I suggest that residents of nearby council tower blocks charge £14.95 to visit their flats. The view will be just as good and visitors would gain a richer understanding of London and of humanity.

The stadium itself is nicely lean and taut, at least until the arrival of its Dow Chemical-sponsored-don't-mention-Bhopal wrapper. It is not encrusted, as most modern arenas are, with the flummery of franchises and corporate hospitality, much of which is housed in separate pavilions at ground level. It is the perfect model of an austere structure for austere times, or would be if it hadn't come with the un-austere price tag of £486m, with further public subsidy required to support a future use for it. It is also designed to be demountable, which is sensible, except that when Tottenham Hotspur proposed to demount it to build a viable (if hideous) football ground there, Lord Coe screamed blue murder and had it kept.

There is Zaha Hadid's £269m Aquatics Centre, majestic if compromised by gawky temporary extensions to house the seating needed for the Games. There is the athletes' village, where the dogmatic belief that the ideal form for cities is a grid of regular 10-storey blocks concurred with developers' desires to build large, repetitive structures. The result is a robotic approximation of urbanity, in which curves and oblique lines are barely admitted, like a portrait drawn with an Etch A Sketch.

And there is the Westfield shopping centre, which is not strictly an Olympic project and would have happened in due course without the Games, but the 2012 organisers are keen to take credit for it and use it as evidence for their theories about regeneration. This is now a throbbing citadel of retail through which most Olympic visitors will be funnelled, but one that doesn't bother much about the faces, or backsides, it presents to its surroundings.

Between these dollops of construction is green stuff and air: it is the park that has to make everything cohere and smooth the abrupt transitions between the lumps of building. Designed by the American landscape architect George Hargreaves, it does a remarkably good job, starting with the fact that it pays some attention, unlike most things Olympic, to what was already there. This is a watery place, criss-crossed with bits of the river Lea and associated channels, with multiple changes of level and fragments of its industrial past. As Iain Sinclair has pointed out, much was expunged to make way for the Games, but Hargreaves has the sense to use and improve what's left, creating a closeness to water, a wandering, intricate tissue of overlapping layers and loose, shaggy planting.

In places the vegetation is dominated by the expanses of hard surface necessary to cope with Olympic crowds and by the temporary paraphernalia of the Games. At times it resembles rather small pieces of parsley on the large lumps of meat that are the sporting venues. But it's vastly preferable to the arid plazas that usually serve the Olympics, and there is something wonderful about a rustic waterway that winds close to the side of the stadium. After the Games the hard surfaces will shrink, as will the many bridges over the water, and the green will increase.

There is intelligence, investment, talent and hard work in the Olympic park and buildings, albeit not always organised in the most useful way. No one could call the progression on to the site, through the razzle of Westfield towards the blank flank of the Aquatics Centre's temporary seating, a well-considered entry to the greatest show on earth. What's more, the good quality design and planning stop abruptly at the boundaries of the park: you don't have to go very far before the stardust fades into the junkheap of Stratford town centre, where worn but serviceable old buildings are overlain by some of the most grotesque public art known to man and overlooked by exploitative apartment towers of developers' tat.

During the Games, intense effort is put into throwing metal balls and sharp sticks or cycling in circles, and we are invited to admire not the thing itself but the way it is done. The 2012 constructional effort has a little more purpose – in that it creates a park, thousands of homes and a few other things – but it raises similar questions. As with throwing balls and sticks it shows good technique and fantastic delivery, as well as amazing levels of funding. But could they not be applied more directly to places where people actually live, including those a few hundred yards away? These are the kinds of things usually lacking in new schools, hospitals, housing and public space: why should they be found only within the sacred enclosure of the Games?


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March 30 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

It was a good week for women architects – except for the most famous one – while the British design exhibition reveals a couple of gems

It's been a good week for women in architecture in general, except for one female architect in particular.

In the first instance, the Architect's Journal announced the finalists for its inaugural Women in Architecture awards. The magazine's recent championing of female architects, and highlighting of inequalities within the profession, is commendable. Among its findings was that the proportion of female architectural staff in the UK has actually declined since 2009, from 28% to 21% – this despite the proportion of female architecture students being roughly 50%. That work-life balance is evidently hard to strike in a profession many say is still inherently masculine, with its long apprenticeship, long working hours, and emphasis on competition rather than collaboration. No wonder they've called it the WAA – it sounds like a cry of despair, doesn't it?

The shortlists aren't too depressing, though. Eight women are up for the award, including Amanda Levete (formerly of Future Systems, doing well on her own), Roisin Peneghan (of Peneghan Heng, designers of the new London Olympics footbridge) and Sarah Wigglesworth (whose fine Sandal Magna primary school gained her a lot of attention last year). There's also an award for emerging woman architect of the year. The prizes are announced on 20 April. There's a nice (if confusingly Anglo-American) infographic on women in architecture here, by the way.

The woman for whom it has not been such a great week is the first female architect most people would name: Zaha Hadid. She's up for the WAA as well, but first she lost out on the competition to design the prestigious new Bauhaus Museum in Weimer, Germany, for which she was the only British architect in contention. Her absence was conspicuous, too, when it came to another architecture award: the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) announced the 23-strong shortlist for its inaugural national awards this week, and Zaha's Glasgow Riverside Museum for Transport isn't on it, despite being surely the highest-profile new building in Scotland of the past year. It wasn't a unanimously popular project, but its omission has baffled even its critics. Was it because Zaha has won the Stirling prize for two years running? Has she just become too big?

Hadid can at least take consolation from her inclusion in the V&A's new exhibition on British design, which opens today. The exhibition's architecture component includes a model of her Aquatics Centre, the only female-designed building in the show, as far as I could see. There are plenty of the usual architectural suspects here: the postwar Festival of Britain generation; Basil Spence; Denys Lasdun; big models of Foster's Gherkin and Rogers's Lloyds building.

One discovery for me was John Prizeman, about whom I'd known very little. He was an accomplished writer, and his work mainly focused on domestic interiors, particularly kitchens. There are illustrations of two small designs by him that caught my eye. One was his "Soft-Tech House for the 1980s" – an evocative, late-70s vision of "the future" that looks like a cross between Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and a sort of Hobbit-style eco-dwelling. It's somehow simultaneously quaint and ahead of its time.

The other, particularly pertinent in the context of women in architecture, is a cutaway illustration of a neat, compact family home Prizeman designed in 1959. It's bracingly modern, with fitted kitchens, free-flowing living areas and a new Mini in the garage, though its name wasn't exactly progressive: it's called Her House. It says it all that the woman in Prizeman's dream home is depicted bustling around indoors; the man is lounging on the back terrace.

Finally, another new discovery this week was Architects of Invention, a practice that not only has one of the best names in the business but looks to be living up to it. It is headed by Niko Japaridze, a former senior architect at Rem Koolhaas's OMA, who has worked in the UK and also has offices in his native Georgia. Last year, the firm wove a snaking wooden staircase through the new headquarters it designed for Georgia's National Olympic Committee, and has recently finished an imposing new building in Tbilisi with an imposing name: The Prosecutor's Office. It looks like a giant black filing cabinet, with square, glass rooms projecting out like half-opened drawers. Seventy per cent of the building is hung off the ground. The interior is just as startling – its long central staircase with green glass walls looks like something out of The Matrix. Japaridze has a host of other promising-looking buildings going up in Georgia. He also claims to be Tbilisi's one millionth citizen. One to watch.


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February 24 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

A closer look at a cutting-edge cafe in Japan may leave you spluttering into your coffee, Lego aims for the high notes and eggs from outer space land for Fabergé's Big Egg Hunt

Here we go: another enviably cutting edge and yet beautifully crafted and folksy-looking cafe in Japan. The type of thing that seems to happen once in a blue moon over here, but every Tuesday over there. But amid the swirling sea of 2,000 sticks flowing through this one, you might have missed the sign by the door: it's a Starbucks.

The special treatment is justified by the fact that it's on the approach to a famous 1,000-year-old Shinto shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture, but it shows how ubiquitous global brands can occasionally go hand-in-hand with distinctive design. One of the ways Starbucks has been seeking to recaffeinate its flagging empire is through conspicuously environmentally friendly design. Like this one in Tukwila, Washington, made out of recycled shipping containers – though the eco credentials are undercut by the fact that it's a drive-thru.

This Japanese one was the work of the gifted Kengo Kuma, who is also designing the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee. Like many of Kuma's works, such as this restaurant, and his Chidori furniture range, the Starbucks and V&A designs amass small, regular building units into something remarkably sculptural – a traditional Japanese technique, apparently.

Talking of small regular building units, this week also sees the release of Lego's latest architecture kit: the Sydney Opera House. It has to be said, though, Jorn Utzon's sail-like concrete shells are not the easiest thing to replicate in Lego. The result looks more like a dead Transformer than Australia's national icon. It actually shows the limitations of the world's best-loved toy. Lego has doubtless inspired generations of future architects – last year, MVRDV's Winy Maas built 767 Lego skyscrapers for an exhibition – but it's a stubbornly orthogonal system. That's fine for the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and skyscrapers, which make up most of the Lego Architecture series, but when it comes to curves and blobs and irregular forms, it can't handle it. Play-Doh are missing a trick here.

Another form of cheap, cheerful design-collecting comes to Londoners this week in the form of Fabergé's Big Egg Hunt, in which 200-odd outsize eggs have been secreted around the capital for the public to find – but not keep; they're being auctioned off for charity later. They're not actual Fabergé eggs either, so don't get any ideas. Instead they've been decorated by artists of every stripe, from the Chapman Brothers to Vivienne Westwood, MIA to Maggie Smith.

As you'd expect, it's the architects who are really thinking out of the carton. Zaha Hadid's looks like a silver sci-fi space capsule; Wilkinson Eyre's looks like the alien spaceship it came from; and fourfoursixsix's looks like a scale model of an ovoid Death Star. More down to earth, Rogers Stirk Harbour's Chicken Or Egg draws a poultry analogy to the form-function dilemma, and Nicholas Grimshaw fashions his egg out of discarded construction waste. Smashing.

Finally, an unexpectedly playful new photo book from John Pawson: A Visual Inventory. Hitherto considered the high priest of minimalism, Pawson turns out to be a bit of a maximalist when it comes to photography. Since first acquiring a digital camera, he's accumulated over a quarter of a million image files, he reckons. Every architect in his office must take a camera on site visits, and he gets annoyed with them if there are shots out of focus or missing. He even gave one of his clients a camera and told them to send him a picture of their new house every day.

The book is less proscriptive: a series of William Eggleston-like snapshots of the everyday world, laid out in pairs, with little annotations from Pawson explaining what he saw in them. Thus, a snap of an old water tank is unremarkable until you read how it reminds Pawson of Richard Serra's sculptures; or some Swedish farm-buildings become a mini-essay in the framing of views; or a small doorway in Ethiopia contrasts Herculean effort with lax security. It's full of little architectural details most people would never notice: paving stones, walls, windows, but there are also landscapes, semi-abstract shots of the play of light and images from Pawson's travels. You really start to see the world through his eyes – as a place of continual surprise, delight and inspiration. That's not just a lesson architects could benefit from.


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February 12 2012

Passport to the planet

He has 'Give this man every assistance' written in his travel documents – and as the Guardian's architecture critic for 15 years Jonathan Glancey has travelled the world. In his final article for the paper, he reflects on the buildings that have stopped him in his tracks

Fifteen years is not a long time in architecture. It is the slowest as well as the most political of the arts. This much was clear when I joined the Guardian as its architecture and design correspondent, from the Independent, in 1997. I thought the Millennium Experience (the talk of the day) decidedly dimwitted and said so in no uncertain terms; it lacked a big idea and anything like the imagination of, say, the Great Exhibition of 1851, or the Festival of Britain in 1951.

For the macho New Labour government, newly in office and all football and testosterone, criticism of this cherished project was tantamount to sedition. They lashed out like angry cats; there were complaints from 10 Downing Street's press office about negative coverage of the Dome. Hard to believe then, much harder now. That year's London Model Engineer Exhibition was far more exciting; here was an enthusiastic celebration of the making of things, at a time when manufacturing was becoming increasingly looked down on.

New Labour, meanwhile, promised it would do things for architecture and urban design that Roman emperors and Renaissance princes could only have dreamed of. The north Greenwich peninsula was to become a new Florence, with trams and affordable housing. As would the Thames Gateway, that Siberia stretching – marshy, mysterious, semi-industrial – to Southend Pier and the sea. To a new, fast-breeding generation of quangocrats this land looked like a blank space on the London A-Z, ready to fill with "environmentally friendly" development. Precious little has happened there since, save for some below-standard housing, Boris Johnson's proposal for an estuary airport and – a very good thing – an RSPB visitors' centre designed by Van Heyningen and Haward near Purfleet on the Rainham marshes.

Labour's promises turned out to be largely tosh, of course. Architecture and urban planning are usually best when neither hyped nor hurried. Grand plans grow best over time, as serendipity and common sense soften hard edges. In 2002, Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq – not a decision that, on the face of it, has a lot to do with architecture; but one of the articles I am most proud to have written for this paper was the story of a journey I made from one end of Iraq to the other, with Stuart Freedman, an unflappable press photographer. At the time, the Blair government was denying there would be a war, yet every Iraqi we spoke to knew the bombs were about to fall. It was my credentials as a critic and architectural historian that got me my Iraqi visa. Foreign correspondents, including several I met in Baghdad's al-Rashid hotel, were understandably finding the terrain hard-going. But handwritten in my passport was an instruction saying: "Give this man every assistance."

We travelled to Babylon to see Saddam's reconstruction of the fabled walled city, and to Ur, Abraham's home, and its daunting ziggurat and then – wonder of wonders – into the forbidden southern deserts to Eridu. Here I walked on the sand-covered remains of one of the world's first cities. This, if anywhere, is where architecture was born. At Samarra, in northern Iraq, I climbed to the top of the wondrous spiral minaret of what was once the town's Great Mosque. How the sun shone that day. When I got to the top, there was nothing to hang on to. I was confronted by the blazing blue sky and its gods, or God; the architecture itself was all but invisible. Saddam's soldiers, charming recruits in starched and frayed uniforms drilled by a tough and paternal sergeant, led me through the country, through miles of unexploded war material piled high along sandy tracks, and across the paths of Shia militia.

Ten years on, Zaha Hadid, a Baghdad-born architect who has risen to stellar prominence since 2002, has won her first Iraqi commission, a new headquarters for the Iraqi National Bank in Baghdad. With luck, other inspired architects will get to work in Iraq, too, reconnecting the country with its former role as a crucible of great buildings and memorable cities.

Architecture is also the stuff of construction, engineering, maths and science. Of philosophy, sociology, Le Corbusier and who knows what else. It is also, I can't help feeling, harder to create great buildings now than it was in the past. When Eridu or the palaces and piazzas of Renaissance Italy were shaped, architecture was the most expensive and prestigious of all cultural endeavours. Today we spread our wealth more thinly, spending ever more on disposable consumer junk, building more roads to serve ever more grim private housing estates, unsustainable supermarkets and distribution depots (and container ports and their giant ships), and the landfill sites we appear to need to shore up our insatiable, throwaway culture. Architecture has been in danger, like our indefensibly mean and horrid modern housing, of becoming little more than a commodity. Government talk of building a rash of "eco-towns" proved not just unpopular but more hot air. A policy initiative too far, the idea has effectively been dropped.

And, yet, despite all these challenges, the art form survives and even thrives. I have been moved in different ways by the magnificent Neues Museum, Berlin, a 10-year project led by David Chipperfield; by the elemental European Southern Observatory Hotel by Auer + Weber, for scientists in Chile's Atacama Desert; and by Charles Barclay's timber Kielder Observatory, where I spent a night in 2008 watching stars hanging above the Northumbrian forest.

I have been enchanted by the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion, a glimpse into a possible future by Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond; by the inspiring reinvention of St Pancras station by Alastair Lansley and fellow architects; and by Blur, a truly sensational pavilion by Diller + Scofidio set on a steel jetty overlooking Lake Neuchatel at Yverdon-les-Bains. A part of Switzerland's Expo 2002, this cat's cradle of tensile steel was a machine for making clouds. You walked through the clouds as they appeared and, when conditions were right, watched them float away over the lake.

There have been buildings and structures that have stopped me in my tracks because of their beauty or audacity, and sometimes both. I think of watching the Eiffel Tower-high pylons of Le Viaduc de Millau, by Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster, a cable-stayed bridge carrying the A75 autoroute across the Tarn Valley, rising through morning clouds. Foster's restaurant and bar at the top of 30 St Mary Axe, or the Gherkin, in the City of London, which also opened in 2004, resembles the nose-cone of some fabulous airship; it is one of the most spectacular of all modern rooms.

I visited the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird's Nest by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, on a day of relentless rain; it was worth getting drenched to see this dazzling interplay of art, architecture and engineering. As for the Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building, its design, height and ambition reminded me of the Tower of Babel (as well as the minaret at Samarra; the structure nods at its shape). Architects have reached for the sky since the first temple rose from where sand and sea met. Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, I was asked to write a 2,000 word article on whether or not the skyscraper had a future, and could have answered in a single word: yes. Skyscrapers are symbols of economic energy and political self-worth; they will continue to shoot up whenever and wherever a city, a state or an economy has something to shout about.

Architecture remains, rightly, the stuff of heated and passionate debate. It is the backdrop to most of our lives, as well as the stage on which those lives play out. Politicians come and go. Technology advances. Architecture endures. As I leave the Guardian, there is still so much to write about.

Have things improved since I started here, in 1997? It is too short a time span to tell. Good architecture is still being created, but not – as in 1997 – when hype sets and drives the agenda. Then, what mattered most were very glamorous and noisy projects. Some have proved hugely popular, such as Herzog & de Meuron's transformation of the former Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. The completion of the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground, with its fine new stations supervised by Transport for London's architect Roland Paoletti, was a shining example of what the public sector could still achieve in a time of rampant privatisation.

But what really matters today is the creation of good homes for millions of people, and the nurturing of towns and cities that are lovable yet distinct from one another. This means turning the shiny, gimcrack world posited by New Labour on its head. It's time to aim for a world of intelligent, crafted architecture – one that projects a sense of true worth – and to leave the era of limitless aspiration behind.


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February 08 2012

What are the best Designs of the Year?

The Design Museum's new exhibition shows us the last year in 89 objects – and reveals many of our current preoccupations, from virtual grocery shopping to printers that produce glass

When the BBC aired a radio programme last year called A History of the World in 100 Objects, it was a deserved hit. Such anthropological lists are useful story-telling devices. A similar, though more modest, project is underway at the Design Museum's Designs of the Year exhibition, which opens today. Looking through the other end of the telescope, we see the last year in 89 objects; everything from opera houses to typefaces. So what does this panoply of global design tell us about designers' current preoccupations?

Frankly, from these objects you could weave almost any narrative you like. There is media-friendly populism in the shape of the Olympic torch and lacework from Kate Middleton's wedding dress; there are consumer products (but only a few); and there is furniture of the finest craftsmanship. But what stands out is a spirit of innovation – and a growing concern with social issues.

Genuine innovation, of course, is less about inventing new objects than new processes. And so it is with Markus Kayser's Solar Sinter, a 3D printer that prints glass objects. Designed for use in desert environments, the machine draws on their two inexhaustible resources: sun and sand. A lens concentrates sunlight into a laser-strength beam that morphs sand into molten glass. The resulting objects are roughly finished but impressive given what is effectively a homemade machine. Either it's manufacturing Mad Max-style, with the attendant apocalyptic edge, or it's a more optimistic glimpse of sustainable production for the future – you choose.

Experimentation with unorthodox materials runs right through the exhibition. To most people, polystyrene is the white packaging they chuck away after pulling their new computer out of the box. But one young design studio, Silo, has been turning it into furniture. They found that before it's expanded into the weightless white stuff we know so well, it's sturdy enough to make tables and chairs. Similarly, Werner Aisslinger has used moulded hemp to produce a stackable cantilevered chair, ordinarily only made out of plastic. Whether or not these experiments become commercial successes, they are reminders that products will not always look, feel or behave the way they do today.

The same goes for systems that we take for granted. If the journey home from work involves a detour for some grocery shopping, it may not for much longer. Last year, Homeplus, the South Korean arm of Tesco, opened a virtual store in a Seoul underground station. It looks much like the real thing, except the supermarket shelves are an interactive touchscreen, allowing you to choose what you want and have it delivered to your home the same day – it's a vending machine for the internet age. With Tesco's current ubiquity in the UK, it may only be a matter of time before this hits the Tube.

Some systems, however, lag way behind the products they support. Every year, there's a brace of electric cars in this show, but until someone designs a network of rapid refuelling stations they'll remain the next big thing in transport. Ambulances, on the other hand, never get redesigned – they haven't changed for decades, and are still primarily made to deliver patients to hospitals. Yet the prototype exhibited here, designed by a team at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, allows medics to treat patients in situ. It has a more spacious interior, with a central gurney for 360 degree access (instead of crammed against the side of the vehicle) and easy to clean surfaces that prevent cross-infection. The designers estimate that it could reduce hospital admissions by 60 per cent, saving tens of millions of pounds per year. Now it just needs the NHS to invest.

Not everything is marching forward. Graphic design is in a phase of deep conservatism, fighting a rear-guard action against the digital onslaught. But this retreat into traditional values is producing some beautiful work, such as John Morgan's dignified design for the architecture journal AA Files, and reminding us what we always loved about print.

The Design Museum, fresh from unveiling its forthcoming home at the Commonwealth Institute, can dine out on the fact there is no other design exhibition quite like Designs of the Year. For one thing, it's admirably democratic – where else could you see the Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, running against a wooden folly under a flyover in Hackney? But then, to see this as an award scheme is to miss the point. It's true that a jury will have the unenviable task of picking a winner from these 89 contenders. But the real attraction of the exhibition is that it offers an annual snapshot of how the world is changing – how, through the design equivalent of natural selection, today is becoming tomorrow.

You can see the full list of nominations here. Which ones get your vote?


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December 04 2011

Critics' picks

Frank Gehry completed his first Manhattan skyscraper and Mattel Toys launched Architect Barbie, but it was very much Zaha Hadid's year

Frank Gehry completed his first Manhattan skyscraper, 8 Spruce Street, and it proved to be a powerful and robust affair – swirling and muscular. Meanwhile, Mattel Toys launched Architect Barbie, an incarnation of the doll that wears those black-framed glasses so beloved of practitioners, as well as a dress embroidered with a city skyline. She has a pink case for drawings and a model of a pink Dream House to show clients. Is this what inspired Justin Bieber to announce that he would like to have been an architect?

It was very much Zaha Hadid's year. She won the Stirling prize for the Evelyn Grace Academy school in Brixton, London; attended the opening of her opera house in Guangzhou, China, with its grotto-like auditorium; and completed the Riverside Museum, Glasgow's charismatic new transport museum on the banks of the Clyde.

Hadid has been much influenced by radical 20th-century Russian architects, many of them little known elsewhere. So Frédéric Chaubin's revelatory book, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, was a highlight of 2011. Just look at that thrilling Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, a Jenga-like tower of windowed oblongs from the mid-1970s. Such bravura design shows that radical work has continued to emerge from the time of the Russian revolution. Hadid remains its torchbearer.

The architecture world is a poorer place without the Hungarian Imre Makovecz, who crafted haunting, low-budget timber "building beings" in the days of Communist rule, before shaping the glorious Hungarian pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo. Makovecz strived to create buildings that connected heaven and earth in a world increasingly given over to the slick and the inane.

Greenest: Piers Gough's Maggie's Centre in Nottingham, all playful facades and as green as Robin Hood's tights.

Shiniest: Gehry's New York skyscraper, a gleaming prong of stainless steel.

Reddest: The catchily named ArcelorMittal Orbit, Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's tower for the 2012 Olympics.

Finest: Durham Cathedral, more 1111 than 2011, but recently voted Britain's best building by Guardian readers.


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October 21 2011

Architecture blasts off into space

Richard Branson reaches for the stars and Zaha Hadid goes down the toilet

Our dreams of blasting off for a lunar mini-break took another small step towards reality this week (even if the advent of space tourism has been announced and postponed about every six months since, ooh, 1961). In a blaze of publicity that was probably visible from Jupiter, Richard Branson held a "dedication ceremony" for the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, the world's first purpose-built space-tourism launch facility, in the New Mexico desert.

After abseiling down the glass facade spraying champagne, Branson admitted commercial flights were still more than a year away, but guests could at least marvel at the building, designed by Norman Foster in association with local firms URS and SMPC Architects.

The no-frills terminal looks something like the prow of the Starship Enterprise emerging from the desert sands, though the guiding principles were less to do with science fiction than environmental impact. By being half-buried, the terminal blends into the landscape more, and the subterranean section contains 100-metre-long tubes to passively cool air for the building. Recycled materials were used where possible and everything was sourced within a 500-mile radius of the site, Foster says.

How much this will offset the whopping carbon footprint of space tourism remains to be seen. But what architect would pass up the chance to design a building requiring "astronaut changing rooms"?

Back on earth, in a small London gallery, a new exhibition has opened showing the work of Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, called The Abolition of War. This industrial designer turned art provocateur regularly engages with architecture and the city in ingenious, sometimes hilarious ways. He literally brings buildings to life by projecting eyes, ears, hands and other features on to their facades, but there's always a political point. In 1985, for example, he fooled London authorities into allowing him to project images of Pershing missiles on to Nelson's Column and tank tracks on the surrounding lions (he had been given permission to project hands); then, for good measure, he directed a swastika at the South African embassy.

Wodiczko also designed mobile shelters for homeless people (which look like live-in shopping trolleys or props from Doctor Who), and repurposed military vehicles as anti-war propaganda machines, one of which is in the exhibition: War Veteran Vehicle, a Land Rover that projects statements ("Have killed") from British Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on to surfaces, to the sound of cannon fire. Among his more ambitious projects is a fabulous World Institute for the Abolition of War which, he proposes, would be built over and around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Anyone want to buy a museum? Now that the Design Museum is moving to the Commonwealth Institute, with a new fit-out by Rem Koolhaas, its old Thameside building is surplus to requirements, and on the market. It was converted from a 1950s banana warehouse in 1989 and remains a crisp, white modernist presence on the waterfront, ripe for another incarnation. But what should we do with it now? Anyone with a bright idea and a few million quid to spare should contact global estate agents Cushman & Wakefield.

Further proof that Britain has finally learned to love Zaha Hadid: the opening of a new gallery designed by her. This is Hadid's third building in England, following the pool (the London 2012 Aquatic Centre) and the school (the Evelyn Grace Academy, which won the Stirling prize earlier this month). But Roca London Gallery, in Chelsea Harbour, doesn't actually display art; it's, er, a bathroom showroom. Not that you'd guess it from the promotional video.

As showrooms go, it's admittedly outstanding. Zaha's fluid curves fit right in with the watery theme, and the ground-floor space is reminiscent of a riverbed. A smooth, canyon-like corridor winds through irregular spaces with curvy openings, and globules of lighting hang overhead like water droplets. There's barely a straight line in the place, and the palette of pale concrete, glass and white fittings is fittingly futuristic.

When Richard Branson finally gets round to building that lunar hotel, he should give Hadid a call. She could at least help him source a space-age bidet.


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October 01 2011

Hadid's dynamic but disciplined school provides a lesson for Gove

The Evelyn Grace Academy in south London is a worthy winner of the Stirling prize, says Rowan Moore

The choice of Evelyn Grace academy has a political ring to it. At a time when Michael Gove, and his cheerleader Toby Young, are denouncing architects for robbing the public, and denying that good design has anything to do with good education, here is a prize for a school of extreme architectural ambition.

Confusingly for Gove and Young, the school's principal, Peter Walker, has established a regime of discipline and order – neat uniforms, long school days, mobile phone bans – of the kind that they might be expected to like. It is also partly funded by Ark, the charity founded by hedge fund manager Arpad Busson. In other words, its money comes from the same sort of place as much of the Tory party's funding.

The main contribution of Zaha Hadid's architecture to the school ethos is to create an energetic, if sometimes forbidding, atmosphere. It announces that the school is a serious place, not somewhere to slouch into. The design also responds to Walker's requirements for its internal arrangements.

It is not a completely perfect fit: Hadid's dynamic style is in theory more about freedom than order, and there are some crunching details where her demanding geometry encounters the budgetary and technical constraints of state school building. Nor, in straitened times, is it a model of school building that can be repeated too often. Sarah Wigglesworth's Sandal Magna school in Wakefield, which should have been shortlisted but wasn't, is a better example of how to do a lot with a little.

The Olympic velodrome was the bookmakers' favourite and, apart from the fact that it is not yet in full use, I would have agreed with them. The velodrome achieves a better match of concept, detail and purpose. But the academy is an extraordinary achievement, and there have been far dumber choices in the history of the prize.

Rowan Moore is the Observer's architecture critic


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September 30 2011

Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion / Philadelphia Museum of Art

Zaha Hadid is one of the world’s most popular architects and designers. The Iraqi-British architect created landmark buildings such as the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, Austria; the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion; the MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, Italy; the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China; and the London Aquatics Centre in London, UK. In 2004 she beame the first female recipient of the renowned Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The exhibition Form in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the first in the United States that features her product designs. On display are works such as her three-wheeled Z-car I, Swarovski crystal–encrusted necklaces and bracelets, and shoes made for Lacoste and Melissa. The Zephyre sofa and the Z-Chair make their US-debut in this show. The objects are presented in a architectural design by Zaha Hadid.

In this video, Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger (Curator of European Decorative Arts after 1700, Philadelphia Museum of Art) talks about the concept of the exhibition and the exhibition architecture, the significance of Zaha Hadid and her influence on young architects and designers, the evolution of Zaha Hadid’s design language, and the Philadelphia Museum of Artcxca .

On November 19, 2011, Collab, a group of design professionals and enthusiasts who support the Museum’s modern and contemporary design collection, will honor Hadid with the 2011 Design Excellence Award. Collab’s Student Design Competition (offered since 1993) challenges area college students studying architecture and industrial design to be inspired by themes closely associated with the Design Excellence Award winner and the corresponding exhibition.

Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Exhibition walk-through and interview with Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger (Curator of European Decorative Arts after 1700, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building, September 27, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.


Stirling prize 2011: a thrilling race through the shortlist

Jonathan Glancey rounds up the shortlist for the annual architecture prize, which this year ranges from the Olympic Velodrome in London to the Folkwang Museum in Germany



September 17 2011

Firstsite – review

Colchester

I'm puzzled. I am standing in Firstsite, a new building in Colchester, designed by a celebrated architect, and achieved mostly with public money, plus a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears. Its purpose is to display and communicate visual art, and educate about it, yet the more I look, the more it seems designed to make it unusually difficult to mount an exhibition.

A great wall, which might be a nice place to put pictures, not only curves but also slopes outwards as it rises. Other gallery walls also curve or are made of glass. Some spaces are very high, to no purpose. On the rare occasions when a plain, blank piece of wall presents itself, it usually gets punctured by doors. Firstsite will show temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and say that "art practice has changed so much in recent years; artists are creating work in so many different media", so the idea seems to be that flat surfaces for fuddy-duddy paintings would not be needed as much and there would be installations and sculptures instead. Except the slope of the walls narrows the space at ground level, precisely where you would most want room to circulate around large objects. Oh well, perhaps they can project some video pieces. Or would, if a profusion of windows at many levels did not make much of it almost impossible to black out.

The art gallery that is tough on art is not a wholly new experience. Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York demands that you view art from a continuously sloping, curving and none-too-wide ramp. Zaha Hadid's Maxxi in Rome has its share of tricky angles and hard-to-fill spaces. But both these museums have a splendour and conviction which might, and do, inspire curators to rise to the creative challenge of animating the spaces. Firstsite's curves and slopes and variegated volumes have a certain intrigue, but it's hard to see them working like the Guggenheim, not least because Colchester is neither New York nor Rome, and so will find it hard to mount the big-budget productions that could transform these spaces. From time to time, curators will find interesting things to do with a slope or a curve. Their problem will be that the building requires that they do it every time.

My puzzlement is a cousin of a mystification prompted by the extraordinary success of its architect, Rafael Viñoly, especially in this country, over the last decade. He has masterplanned the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter in Oxford, the largest single building project the university has undertaken, plus the design of the Mathematical Institute.

He has created the masterplan for the eternally deferred development around Battersea power station and he seduced Peter Rees, chief planner of the City of London, into enthusiastic support for his "Walkie Talkie" skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, which is now under construction. He has designed Curve, a theatre in Leicester, and Firstsite, and was commissioned to produce an unrealised plan for the South Bank.

This impressive portfolio – more than Zaha Hadid or David Chipperfield, much more than the perennially shunned Frank Gehry has achieved over here – suggests a truly exceptional talent or great powers of organisation and delivery. If you speak to his clients, a tone of awe comes into their voices, as if they are truly privileged to have secured his services, and it is their honour and delight to clear up such technical glitches as have accompanied his projects. The RIBA's awards panel called Curve "genuinely iconic… a new level of ambition in theatre design" and his practice has been called "blazingly successful". Yet, although he has flair, skill and energy, and an international array of completed works, I don't quite understand the extent of his popularity with commercial and cultural clients.

Viñoly was born in Uruguay, then built a successful practice in Argentina in the 1970s, before moving to New York, where he built up a portfolio of substantial, well-received projects. His big break came with the Tokyo International Forum, a $1.5bn complex of auditoriums and exhibitions, completed in 1997. He also led the team chosen to masterplan the rebuilding of Ground Zero, until Governor Pataki overruled his advisory committee and chose Daniel Libeskind instead. It was probably a job it was good not to win.

He is charming and charismatic, and a talented musician whose Steingraeber und Söhne, one of several grand pianos he owns, sits prominently in his New York office. His homepage opens with a film of a magical hand producing a fluent sketch of a tower, to reinforce his creative aura. He makes no claim, as some architects do, that his practice is about teamwork: he is the one and only designer of his buildings. He passionately advocates the importance of spending an extra "20-25%" over a basic building budget to achieve good architecture: "25% is what you need… people don't understand how important good architecture is."

His projects have had blips, although precise responsibility for these, as always in building projects, is a complex subject. Curve cost £61m against an original budget of £26m, opened late, and was roundly condemned as poor value for money by the Audit Commission. Viñoly was sued by the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia over cost overruns and delays, and by the Boston Convention and Exhibition Centre over technical defects, both cases being settled out of court.

At Battersea, he proposed a 1,000ft-high glass funnel, claiming that it was fundamental to achieving a zero-carbon development, when in fact it would have required an immense amount of energy to build, and taken decades to get payback.

In Colchester, the complexity of Firstsite's curves and angles proved too much for its contractor to handle. Building work ground to a halt, creating an embarrassment to the then Tory-run borough council. The Liberal Democrats, with the help of pictures of the half-finished shell on their election literature, then won control of the council. They now say that, "with realigned baselines", the project is on time and budget, which means that it has cost £28m against an original target of £18m and taken five years to build.

There is a pattern to his projects. They have whoosh and sparkle and make direct appeal to the glitter-loving magpie inside us. The exterior of Firstsite is a long, gold-clad crescent, which has inevitably had it nicknamed "the golden banana". When asked to explain his choice of colour, Viñoly shrugs winningly and says: "Why not?" And it is no bad thing if the first view of a building cheers you up.

He also aims to achieve what he calls "the idea that justifies the extra 25%". At Firstsite, this idea is his decision to relocate the building away from the smaller plot set by the brief, so that it could spread over the site and enable interconnection between the education, exhibition and other functions of the building. With the Walkie Talkie, the idea is to bulge outwards at the top – although the alleged beauty of the resulting shape eludes me – so as to maximise floor space where it is most valuable.

But the closer you look at his projects, the less sense they tend to make. At Oxford, he chose a radiating plan of straight avenues, like Parisian boulevards, which have nothing much to do with the existing patterns of the city and the university. At Firstsite, the galleries feel like leftover spaces in a conversion of an existing building, which is quite an achievement when it is a single-storey new structure on an open plot. These designs typify what another architect calls "the view from 30,000ft", by which glamorous gesture triumphs over detail.

This article might seem unduly personal, about an architect who is very far from being the worst. The reason for writing it is not any animus against Viñoly, but for what his rise reveals about the culture of recent British architecture. There has been too much faith in the idea of "iconic" or "world-class" architecture and too much fascination with the big name that will excite funders into giving money, or planners into granting planning permission and too little with the things, such as vertical walls in a gallery, that actually make spaces successful. The result is Firstsite, whose slightly grating name now makes sense: great at first sight, but then less so.


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July 30 2011

Olympic achievement

Zaha Hadid's London 2012 Aquatic Centre hasn't come cheap at £269m, but it is the Olympics' most majestic space

From the outside, it's a car crash. Or a UFO crash. Or, to use the watery metaphors that are de rigueur when talking about Zaha Hadid's £269m Aquatic Centre, it is like a vast turtle waving over-sized flippers. A great roof, whose beauty should come from the way its great weight came down to the ground at three points is engulfed with even bigger temporary structures, blown-up, go-faster versions of what might be seen at a county cattle fair, needed to house the 15,000 temporary seats for the Olympic Games. They will be taken away afterwards, leaving a 2,500 capacity, which is the most that any non-Olympic swimming event is likely to attract.

Then, once spectators have negotiated the crowd management arrangements, which the building accommodates somewhat clumsily, they will enter a space that can only be described as stonking, a room big enough for more than 17,500 people. It is impressive because it is big, and purposeful, and will contain large crowds, but also because the architecture rises to the occasion. The architects' moves are confident and equal to the scale of the place. They don't fumble or tinker. More than that, the interior has a feeling of wholeness. It feels moulded or carved, not assembled. It looks like a body more than something constructed out of pieces.

The big thing is the roof, steel-framed and timber-clad, which floats and undulates, but is also palpably substantial. Officially, it's like a wave, but, with its combination of weight and agility, it's very like a whale. At either end a concrete bowl, containing the pools, the permanent seating and support spaces, rises to meet the roof where it descends. Along each side, in the gaps formed between the bowl and the roof, huge glass walls will be installed after the games, opening the space to the sky and the surrounding park. Now these gaps open to steep banks of temporary seats, contained within the great flippers that are so problematic on the outside. Inside, they are continuous with the rest of the space, and add to its drama.

The work focuses on the two pools, for swimming and diving, coming down to a few human bodies in water, small and fragile relative to the whole, a shift in scale that is somehow achieved smoothly. The diving platforms are moulded out of the same concrete as the rest of the lower structure, making them extensions of the architecture rather than additional pieces of concrete.

Another pool, for practice, would be part of the experience too, visible behind a wide glass wall, but International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations have required an unfortunate temporary partition. It's something to do with keeping athletes and officials apart, which is clearly very important, but it blocks the view. Elsewhere the interplay of architectural and sporting demands is happier. The greys of the structure are offset by strong primary colours: the blue pools, the yellow and red of the lane markers, and an interesting pinkish light filtered from the outside through translucent walls in the temporary extensions.

The Aquatic Centre is the London Olympics' most majestic space: the most potent, the most charged. It is also 2012's most difficult child, the first venue to be designed, the last to be finished. It was accompanied along the way by stories of escalating budgets (nervous builders, and near abandonment of the design). Built, it has compromises, like the view-blocking partition and the flippers, about which Hadid does not even try to pretend to be happy. As originally conceived, the awkward temporary extensions would not have been there, as there was to be a roof big enough to cover both temporary and permanent, but this proved too extravagant.

The obvious comparison is with the £93m, 6,000-seat Velodrome, another wavy-roofed work completed last February, seemingly with the smooth precision of a high-performance bike. The Velodrome's roof required 300 tonnes of steel; the Aquatic Centre's – about the same size but with admittedly more difficult conditions – uses 3,000 tonnes. The Velodrome, trim and taut, is also a handsome building, and promises to be a powerful venue.

Part of the complication comes from the fact that the centre was designed before London won the bid. London was in danger of being seen as the safe-but-boring option, with dull buildings, and Hadid's design could be waved in front of the IOC as evidence of stardust. The problem was that the people who would eventually be the clients for the building, the organisations set up after London won the bid, didn't exist then, and the brief was not as developed as it would be later. When designs come first and clients second, there is often trouble.

But there may also be a mismatch between the processes of something like the Olympics and architecture as conceived by Hadid. Architecture, for her, is something that should make its presence felt, intervene, change things, perhaps get in the way. Her style seems to be about dynamism and weightless modernity, but her buildings are actually massive. They are slow, not fast. They reflect an old idea, common to Palladio and Le Corbusier, that architects sculpt and shape and compose. Hence her roof, which dips down in the middle to suggest two different spaces within in the overall enclosure, one for swimming and the other for diving.

What London 2012 wants is a great whirring delivery machine, driven by the inexorability of the project's deadline, where as many details as possible are determined in advance by specifications and regulations. They want architects to slip into the machine noiselessly, if possible with a bit of elegance, like Hopkins Architects at the Velodrome. With Hadid there is more of a grinding and crashing of gears, but she set out to achieve "a really great spatial experience", and did so.

I am sure that the Aquatic Centre could have been built more cheaply and easily, and without its crashes of permanent and temporary. It is a building that will be at its best after the games, when the flippers have been replaced by the great glass walls, although it will then face a new risk of being too grand for a public pool. The wavy roof risks being too small for the Olympics and too big for its afterlife. It can only be hoped that, whatever plans are made for its future upkeep, they are equal to the ambitions of the structure.

But, given that the whole £9bn Olympic extravaganza spends money that could have had more prudent and practical uses, it does not seem so terrible that a small fraction of its extravagance should go on a space as magnificent as this. Many hundreds of millions will be flushed away on more boring things, such as consultants' fees and security that may or may not be necessary.

Lastly, a note to the IOC. While the Centre offers 17,500 seats for watching swimming, only 10,000 will be able to watch diving events. This is in accordance with IOC specifications, which seem to assume that people find diving a bit boring. Evidently, the specification writers haven't heard of Tom Daley.


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July 26 2011

London 2012: Olympic flame will be lit in one year's time, but still much to do

IOC hail progress as Tom Daley dives into Aquatics Centre pool, completed on time and budget

With 366 days to go, 2012 being a leap year, until the Olympic flame is lit in east London, organisers, the government and the International Olympic Committee are queuing up to hail progress to date.

Wednesday's events to mark the milestone, which will see the £269m Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre formally handed over to organisers by the Olympic Delivery Authority and Tom Daley diving into the pool, will have an air of celebration.

"Marking one year to go, by diving in the Aquatics Centre is an incredible honour. Only a few years ago, this was a distant dream," said Daley, who finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai on Sunday. "I can't wait for next year and the honour of representing Team GB." But although world class athletes are beginning to test the venues, there remains much to do.

Venues

The Aquatics Centre is the sixth and final permanent venue to be handed over to organisers by the ODA, which has spent £7.25bn of public money building them. Chairman John Armitt said the successful completion of the venues had helped boost the image of British contractors around the world.

"It's very satisfying to be handing it over on time and keeping within the budget. It's a great tribute to everybody that has played a part in this," he told the Guardian. "It is something that as a country and an industry we should be proud of and we should try to maximise opportunities in other parts of the world while memories are still fresh about what the industry can do."

Some venues, especially the velodrome that has already been nominated for the Stirling Prize, have garnered more plaudits than others. The clean lines and simplicity of the stadium have also been praised but there has been criticism of the ugly temporary "water wings" that have been attached to the aquatics centre to boost the capacity to 17,500 for the Games. When it was designed, the high cost was justified by the signature design, which will be obscured by the temporary stands. "When you're inside it, it's fabulous," says Armitt, diplomatically.

Despite outward appearances, the London organising committee still has a huge task. Each venue must be "fitted out", a task that includes the laying of the track in the main stadium, and several major temporary venues must be built from scratch. They include a 15,000 capacity hockey stadium, a 23,000 capacity arena for the equestrian events at Greenwich Park and a 15,000 seat bowl on Horseguard's Parade for the beach volleyball.

Tickets

London organising committee chief executive Paul Deighton has confirmed the last batch of 1.2m tickets that will go on sale from December will first be made available exclusively to those who took part in the initial ballot in April and have yet to get a ticket. Around 6m tickets have already been sold, considered unprecedented with a year to go, with only around 1.5m for football matches around the country and those final 1.2m across all sports – to be made available when the final seating configurations are decided – remaining. Next year, Locog also plans to sell "non-event tickets" which will allow entry to the park but not the venues.

Later this year, millions of free tickets for the live sites, with big screens and concerts in Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Potter's Fields will also be made available on a first come, first served basis. The mantra from Locog chairman Lord Coe and other organisers has been that while they understand the "disappointment" created by the huge demand, which saw 22m applications in the initial rush for tickets, they stand by the controversial process.

Transport

Ever since London was awarded the Games in 2005, transport has been considered a potential achilles heel. The ODA passed responsibility for operational matters to Transport for London last year, but retains an overall co-ordination role. The first stirrings of a backlash have already been felt about the so-called "Olympic lanes" that will whisk 18,000 athletes and officials around the capital during the Games.

They make up roughly a third of the 109-mile Olympic Route Network and have already sparked loud protests from London's black cab drivers. Meanwhile, much will rest on the ability of organisers to persuade businesses and individuals to modify their behaviour during the Games.

"The message must be business as unusual," said Armitt. They take some comfort from the variety of routes into Stratford, including the Jubilee Line and the new Javelin train from St Pancras, but will be desperate to avoid a millennium eve style meltdown.

On the nine busiest days of the Games there will be more than 1m Olympics-related journeys, with a report earlier this year warning of "extreme" conditions on a system already "creaking at the seams".

Security

Olympics minister Hugh Robertson said that security plans needed rethinking when the coalition came to power. Before she quit, Lady Neville-Jones led a government review that resulted in the government predicting security at Games time could be delivered for £475m, though the overall £600m envelope will be retained.

Ministers and organisers have sought to play down the significance of the resignation of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, but he said in his own statement that a key reason for it was to allow time to get someone new in place for the Olympics. Locog will spend £282m on security within the venues, chiefly through contractor G4S, but there will also need to call on several thousand non-uniformed military personnel.

'Look and feel'

For all the operational challenges Coe's organising committee will face, in many ways the bigger challenge is building public enthusiasm for the Games to reach a crescendo around 27 July next year when the flame is lit. Coe has talked of Britain being a "slow burn" nation. He hopes the torch relay, which will begin at Land's End on 19 May and visit 74 locations in 70 days via 8,000 runners, will be the point at which cynicism is cast aside and enthusiasm ignites.

Part of the task will be to keep those without tickets engaged, through the big screens planned for cities throughout the country and cultural events that will culminate in Festival 2012. London mayor Boris Johnson has a budget to "dress" key areas of the city, including placing Olympic rings on the capital's landmarks. The BBC, which has promised to broadcast every event from every venue live, will also have a big role to play.

Legacy

Given the relatively smooth progress of organisers to date, much of the controversy has centred on the legacy claims that helped secure the Games in the first place. The Olympic Park Legacy Company has taken on responsibility for the park after the Games and must prove it can make a commercial success of it while meeting the needs of local residents.

The fate of the stadium, the object of a furious row between Spurs and West Ham, is mired in high court litigation and it will face searching scrutiny over the affordability of thousands of homes that will be left behind, partly the athletes village.

One of the biggest challenges for the OPLC will be finding a tenant for the cavernous media centre, although there are renewed hopes that a major broadcaster may take an interest.

But even more of a challenge is the "soft legacy", with figures showing that the number of people playing sport is resolutely refusing to budge and ongoing debate about whether the predicted opportunity to get more young people engaged in sport, build links between clubs and schools and raise the profile and quality of coaching, is really being seized. They were famously planting the trees in Athens the day before the opening ceremony, but the landscaping on the Olympic Park is starting to take shape.

More than 4,000 new trees are planned, with 1,500 already planted. Over 300,000 wetland plants have been planted and there are bold claims for the Park that will be left behind. Eventually, there will be up to 11,000 new homes on the site, in the heart of an area that the Olympic Park Legacy Company hopes will be resurgent. Westfield, the giant shopping mall at the entrance to the Park and on which politicians are relying for many of their legacy claims about jobs and regeneration, opens for business in September.


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July 22 2011

Constructive criticism

The Balancing Barn would have livened up the rather drab Stirling shortlist. Oh well, at least there's the Carbuncle Cup to look forward to

The Olympic Velodrome, by Hopkins Architects, is a handsome building, taut and intelligent in its detail. Delivered on time and on budget, it has lightness, flair and a sense of contained drama, beneath a doubly-curving roof that some irresponsible critics have compared to a giant Pringle. It stands out from a drab-ish list of contenders for this year's Stirling prize, and is the bookmakers' favourite. There's just one problem: it has yet to perform the task for which it was designed, which is to hold Olympic cycling events before capacity crowds. So it's hard to say that it is a truly successful piece of architecture. It's a bit like a bike that's never been ridden.

The Stirling list would be less drab had it included MVRDV's Balancing Barn, a silver beam of a house projected into mid-air and built for Alain de Botton's Living Architecture holiday homes project. Then there's the Wales Institute of Sustainable Education by Pat Borer and David Lea, a work of ingenuity and rammed earth in an old slate quarry. Its inclusion would have been an opportunity to recognise architects outside the London orbit of fashion and schmoozery.

Instead, the list includes works by Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield – both once slighted by the Stirling but now regulars – and Bennetts Associates' efficient but not very exciting Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. There is also AHMM's remodelling of an old office building in Islington. All are decent buildings, but the balance, as too often with the Stirling, is conservative and predictable.

If the velodrome is up for the prize a year too early, then a deserving winner might be O'Donnell and Tuomey's An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry, which (though I confess it is the one work on the list I haven't seen) looks to be a robust, well-wrought and fitting sequence of spaces. Then again, the same architects might be contenders for next year's prize with their more substantial Lyric Theatre in Belfast; it might seem excessive if they won it two years running. Then again (again), they never worried about Norman Foster winning more than once, and maybe architecture, like golf, is something at which Northern Ireland is getting good.

Meanwhile, the Stirling prize's evil twin, Building Design magazine's Carbuncle Cup, is also announcing its shortlist. This award honours the country's worst building and there are some who say that it is unduly negative to pillory individual works in this way. Arguably so, but it is not half so negative to point out bad architecture as it is to put it up in the first place.

I am uninfluenced in this judgment by the fact that, with other critics, I will be an (unpaid) juror for the cup this year. I cannot possibly give an advance indication of our deliberations – mostly because I don't know what they will be – but I am struck by the poignant fact that one of this year's contenders, 3XN's new Museum of Liverpool, is a short distance from the 2009 winner, the Pier Head Terminal, and that both are in the middle of a Unesco World Heritage Site (you can read more about all this in Sunday's Observer). Equally poignant is the inclusion of Rogers Stirk Harbour's One Hyde Park, given that the practice was supported by London's former mayor on the grounds of its supposedly world-class design.


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July 20 2011

Pringle power? The Stirling prize shortlist

The six architects on the Stirling prize shortlist 2011 have all been there before. But could a political dark horse say 'on your bike' to the bookies' Olympic favourite?

It's never worthwhile to reduce the Stirling prize shortlist to some overriding theme, but having said that, there is one thing that unites this year's six architects: they've all been shortlisted before. Some of them several times – this is Zaha Hadid's fourth building, and David Chipperfield's seventh, which puts him in joint second place in the Stirling prize league table alongside Richard Rogers, with Norman Foster just one ahead. Does this suggest there were clear frontrunners in the Stirling race, or that a big name counts for more and smaller practices don't get a look-in?

Anyway, on with the reckless speculation. The traditional Stirling winner is a large public building, but in the current cash-strapped construction environment, there have been few of these to trumpet.

Which makes the absence of two of the main buildings on the London Olympics site conspicuous. No plaudits for the main stadium by US-based architects Populous – understandable in a way since its brief was practically to be as bog standard as possible – at which it succeeds (having a silly name for your practice doesn't help either).

And nothing for Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre – also understandable given its troubled history of redesigns, budget increases, temporary "water wings" imposed on it, and the fact that, er, it still isn't finished.

That leaves Michael Hopkins's Velodrome with the podium all to itself. As expected, it's currently the bookies' favourite and deservedly so. It's a handsome, unfussy building, quietly distinctive (enough to earn it a nickname: "the Pringle") and engineered as efficiently as a track bicycle. It's already had the thumbs-up from the Team GB cyclists, too, who described it as "the best in the world".

Looking at the other contenders, laudable though they are, they're not necessarily game-changing. AHMM's Angel Building reconfigures a 1980s office building with Louis Kahn-style barefaced concrete and a sheen of Mad Men mid-century glamour – very nice but perhaps too conventional to win. Bennetts Associates' Royal Shakespeare Theatre makes new sense of a messy accumulation of older buildings, but it's not a scene-stealer like the Tate Modern. Zaha's Evelyn Grace Academy is a consolation for the Aquatics Centre, and proof that her swooshing parametricism can work within tight budgets and design guidelines (is that Z-shape a touch of covert branding?). The fact that Zaha won the prize last year could hamper her chances, though. Likewise David Chipperfield's Museum Folkwang extension in Essen, another refined, sharp-edged German culture house for his collection.

Chipperfield already won with one of these in 2007, the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, and was shortlisted for another, the Neues Museum, last year. Perhaps he should design a Museum of German Museum Designs.

That leaves a dark horse: An Gaeláras by Dublin-based O'Donnell & Tuomey in Derry, Northern Ireland. It is the first purpose-built Irish-language cultural centre in the UK, a product of the Good Friday agreement, and thus freighted with political relevance (there hasn't been much of that in Stirling world since the Scottish parliament won in 2005). But it's also a beautiful design on a hostile site. Despite being walled in on three sides, it boasts a sculptural four-storey atrium criss-crossed by stairs and galleries, smartly mixing colours and materials – the type of space that stops you in your tracks. Uplifting and finely crafted, it could well tick all the boxes.


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The race is on

From a pringle-shaped designer velodrome to an 80-year-old theatre, take a look at the six spectacular buildings competing for this year's Stirling prize



July 15 2011

The week in architecture

Yuri Gagarin touches down in Britain, the Gherkin paternity battle finally ends, and typhoons strike Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Made from an alloy used in rockets, a statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was unveiled outside the British Council in London this week. Elena Gagarina, daughter of the Russian cosmonaut, did the honours. The casting of the sculpture, a recreation of an original made in 1984, was supervised by the architect Pavel Medvedev, whose statue of Laika the space dog, the first animal to orbit Earth, was erected in Moscow three years ago. Laika died up there.

The Gagarin sculpture is not just a memorial to a brave pioneer. It is also a reminder of a fabulous idea – the notion that space-race technology, both Soviet and American, would transform buildings, everyday goods and machinery, and ways of life. However, although Gagarin's 1961 leap into the unknown did advance design, hopes for a space-age future were nothing new. Science-fiction books, comics and films predate rocket flight, after all.

The space-age look found its way into Soviet buildings of the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, much of Britain's futuristic architecture of recent years – the "high-tech " movement championed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers – has been underpinned by a delight in the sort of space-age design that surfaced when Gagarin made world headlines 50 years ago. Foster's 2004 "Gherkin" is a very modern building that also just happens to look like an old-fashioned space rocket.

Arguments over the authorship of the Gherkin appear to have come an end this week with Ken Shuttleworth of Make architects insisting it was a team effort. In countless articles since 2003, when Shuttleworth left Foster and Partners to set up his own practice, he's been credited as the designer of the London tower. "It's the desire for a figurehead or a single name attached to an individual building that still causes problems," says a spokesperson for Foster and Partners. "Norman has always insisted that his greatest creation is the team around him, and the Gherkin was – once and for all – very definitely designed by a team." Got that everyone?

The idea of a "future memory" in architecture, so dear to Foster, is to be debated in a specially commissioned pavilion for the 2011 Singapore ArchiFest in October. Asif Khan, a young London architect whose work also includes craft, furniture and product design, has been commissioned to create the Future Memory Pavilion on behalf of the British Council, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Preservation of Monuments Board, Singapore.

Khan's sketch reveals an elemental design made of ice and sand that will morph during the course of the festival. It captures the spirit of a fascinating line of architectural enquiry, and a contradiction inherent to futuristic design: no matter how apparently innovative they are, buildings retain powerful memories of past. Even as architects try to construct the future, it slips away and becomes the past – just as Khan's pavilion will slowly dissolve back into the Earth and a state of timelessness.

Zaha Hadid's futuristic buildings, such as the flamboyant new Guangzhou Opera House, are as informed by her love of 1920s Russian constructivism as they are with the future. Sadly, the opera house has been in the news this week because of reports that it's already heading the way of Khan's pavilion and falling to bits.

Simon Yu, project architect of the opera house, called me from China. "I've just been to inspect the building. It's typhoon season and its been pouring with rain, but rain isn't 'seeping relentlessly into the building' as has been reported. Glass panels haven't fallen from windows and no large cracks have appeared. I'm not sure what all this is about. Yes, there's still a lot of snagging to be done; we've demanded a high standard of work from what is often seasonal labour, but the flaws are superficial."

Gas holders, meanwhile, were among the most futuristic structures of the 19th century. If the Victorians had invented space rockets, they would have lifted off from structures like these. Some of the most elegant, including Hornsey No 1 in London (described by English Heritage as "probably the world's first geodesic design"), remain under threat. "This is not just any gas holder," says Heloise Brown, conservation adviser for the Victorian Society. "Hornsey No 1 will soon be the last surviving example of a highly innovative design and it must not be lost." Sadly this particular gas holder, designed by Samuel Cutler, is not listed and may be demolished soon.

Gas, in the form of air, will be used to inflate the giant bags that will hopefully save the stepped pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, near Cairo, from collapse. Cintec, the international engineering firm based in Newport, Wales, has revealed a plan to prop up the central chamber with inflated bags and anchors. Damaged by an earthquake in 1992, this 4,700-year-old structure is the world's first large-scale stone monument. Its revolutionary design was the work of the very first architect we know by name, Imhotep. Because of his visionary work, Imhotep took one giant leap way before Gagarin: he became a god.


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