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March 25 2012

Roath Lock studios, Cardiff

The new BBC Wales studios are all about front – as well as Doctor Who

For nearly a century, architects have viewed facades with mistrust, going on fear and loathing. This feature, almost universal in all previous architecture, ever, came to be seen as fake and deceitful, as something like the hypocritical morality of the 19th century, and contrary to the modernist ideal of displaying the inner nature of a building on the outside. In the 1960s the architects and theorists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown led a reaction, praising what they called the "decorated shed", but by the 1980s the revived facade was being abused as a postmodern wrapper for bankers' palaces, which seemed to prove that the fear and mistrust had been justified.

The new Roath Lock studios for BBC Wales in Cardiff are, architecturally speaking, almost all facade. There are 250 metres of it, looking across an old dock to the trophies of Cardiff's 25-year efforts at renewal – the Welsh Assembly Building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and the Wales Millennium Centre on the site where Zaha Hadid's doomed opera house was once planned. Around the studios is empty space awaiting development under a regeneration plan backed by the Welsh government, and behind is a bit of Cardiff's docks that is still in use for shipping.

The studios are built on the success of Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood, just as Cardiff's finest buildings were once founded on coal. The phenomenal popularity of the Time Lord's show, which since its revival in 2005 has been made in Wales, has helped provide the funds and confidence to build a £20m complex where the programme is now made. A corridor in the new building has been named "Russell's Alley", in tribute to the contribution of the Doctor Who executive producer and screenwriter Russell T Davies.

The aim of the new building is to provide ample, well-appointed, highly sustainable production and post-production facilities for the making of Doctor Who, Casualty, Upstairs Downstairs and the BBC's longest running soap opera, the 37-year-old Welsh-language Pobol y Cwm. It means that scattered facilities can be brought together: the downstairs in Upstairs Downstairs, for example, used to be several miles away from the upstairs. Now they are under the same roof.

The complex consists of large sheds interspersed with functional courts and alleys, as in a Hollywood film lot, punctuated with sets of extreme specificity. For Casualty, the mediocre design of a PFI hospital is recreated with uncanny precision, down to the ridiculous public art in the car park. For Pobol y Cwm they have built a chapel front, an estate agent and chippy, and little back gardens with immaculately reconstructed B&Q decking.

Unusual design requirements include corridors wide enough for two Daleks to pass, and a recreation of Holby City hospital's car park in precisely the same orientation as the one in its former location in Bristol. The fear is that meteorologically aware Casualty nerds will bombard the Beeb with complaints if they spot that the shadows are falling in a different way. They also had to make sure that an ambulance could roar into the place without hitting any buildings.

Amid all this stage architecture, what might be called "proper" architecture – as in, designed by architects and written about by architectural critics – doesn't get much of a look in. After all, not even the greatest geniuses in the history of the art, not Palladio nor Wren nor Le Corbusier, have performed spatial magic to match the big-inside-small-outside effect of the Tardis.

Nor is this new building a work of the BBC in Medici mode, as they were in the early days of their expansion of Broadcasting House. It is more like the installation of BBC North at MediaCity in Salford, where a hopefully business-like deal was struck with the developer of a publicly assisted regeneration project. In Cardiff their partner was Igloo, an investment fund dedicated to "socially responsible development", who appointed the architects FAT, whose design seems to have taken the BBC somewhat by surprise.

Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, said it was like a cross between the Doge's Palace and Ikea, which for Sean Griffiths of FAT is mostly a compliment. His practice is, he says, "the UK leader in decorated sheds", which was what was called for here. Or rather, there was no choice but for it to be a shed, only whether to decorate it or not.

The issue, says Griffiths, was "how do you give any life at all to an immensely long elevation with only one door", which looks onto a quayside awaiting development and currently populated only by some hardy black pines, chosen for their ability to survive salty air. It has to deal with a problem common to incomplete regeneration projects, which is how to suggest life that is not yet there. A laughable hotel across the water, with a frantic roof in the style of Santiago Calatrava, shows how not to do it.

The BBC, moreover, are extremely sensitive about giving away future plotlines and details, and don't want people looking into their studios. The windows to the cafeteria are frosted, in case anyone peers in, sees a new Doctor Who alien having a cup of tea and goes viral with phone-snaps of it. Transparency, a favourite trope of modern architects, is therefore not possible.

FAT, who need little encouragement to come up with such things, have responded with a facade that is mannerist, baroque and "sci-fi retro", which has big cross-shaped windows in reference to Casualty, and gothic octofoils in homage to William Burges, the exuberant Victorian who built his greatest works near here. It is, says Griffiths, "a bit mountain-y" and "a bit wave-y", in response to the local landscape. You can detect the shapes of houses like those in Pobol y Cwm that "morph into space invaders", with a centrepiece that is "Doctor Who goes to Las Vegas" or "baroque mixed with what a cyberman looks like".

The aim is to communicate and engage, to escape constricting notions of good taste and create a "narrative" with which people can connect – and whether you get all the references is not entirely the point, as opposed to getting the sense that someone is talking to you. "Most people don't go into most buildings," says Griffiths. "The facade is what they experience. If you mention the Taj Mahal, what people think of is the facade." He wants to address "the experience when you are there", rather than the "doodle seen from 20,000 feet" that some iconic architects provide. The elevation is designed to work at different scales, with its exaggerated gables speaking to the view from across the dock, while a lower level squiggle addresses the eyeline of passersby.

If FAT can sound flip they are actually serious. They study historic architecture in a way that few other contemporary architects do, and try to learn from, for example, the effects of layering and depth you get in 16th- and 17th-century Italy. They compose and seek complexity. They want to make their shed seem substantial and "tactile", so they give an exaggerated thickness to its facade.

That the results are not precisely like those of Florence or Rome is due to the ferocious constraints of time and money under which buildings are now built, and the contracts that limit the architect's role to specific areas. FAT would have liked to spread their influence deeper into the building – to the somewhat basic reception and cafeteria areas, for example – but it was not possible. "Computers and Excel spreadsheets make the world," says Griffiths, "and it's a strange assumption to think that architects have any power to change it." FAT's attitude is rather to make the best of what they've got.

Making the best of it in this case leads to a facade where their escape from good taste has been achieved with exceptional success, but which might fairly be described as stonking. It is bold, engaging, rich, entertaining and complex. It commands its tough site and helps you forget that this zone is still largely wasteland. It achieves something beyond the abilities of many current architects, which is to make a very big facade. Of all the BBC's recent adventures in architectural patronage it is, by accident, one of the most successful.


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March 04 2012

BBC Broadcasting House extension - review

A revamped Broadcasting House lacks cohesion due to the involvement of too many architects

Next Sunday the BBC's Burmese service will deliver the first broadcast from the new, greatly enlarged Broadcasting House. Soon after, the likes of Newsnight and Today will follow, as will all the corporation's global and national news, on TV, radio and online, together with such things as the commissioning and scheduling teams of BBCs 1, 2, 3 and 4. It's a very grand project, at 80,000 square metres the size of one and two-thirds Gherkins, and more than four times the original Broadcasting House. It will house 6,000 staff and its budget of more than £1bn puts it above the Millennium Dome, and would buy two Olympic stadia, although the BBC says it will bring large offsetting savings.

It is safe to say that, when the project was conceived over a decade ago, the corporation was more confident than it is now. The Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly had not yet forced the chairman and director general to leave, and it was not facing the 20% cuts which are following George Osborne's freezing of the licence fee. The finished building, ambitious in concept and compromised in execution, almost exactly reflects the shifting spirit of the corporation. Intended to last 30 years, it is being completed at a time when no one is very sure whether the BBC, or indeed television, will still exist that far into the future.

The original Broadcasting House, completed in 1934, is a London landmark, a work of modernity tempered by classicism, and practicality by dignity, an expression of the civilised values of the corporation in its prime. Eric Gill carved its sculptures, and bright young designers created its interiors. The ghost of Lord Reith is ingrained in its walls, and no doubt flies about its pioneering ventilation systems, ready to be offended by real or imagined transgressions of his principles.

When the decision was made to enlarge it, it was with acute awareness of this heritage. Luminaries like Alan Yentob got involved, an architectural competition was held and an architect was chosen, Richard MacCormac, whose design responded imaginatively both to its historic location and to the BBC's ideas of openness to the public. It teamed up with some experienced developers, Land Securities Trillium, to bring some professionalism to the business of getting it built, which seemed like a good idea at the time. These were decisions made a decade ago, and it seemed that the worst of which the BBC could then be accused was premature self-congratulation.

It published a book called Building the BBC: A Return to Form, which with hindsight looks a little foolish. Costs rose from £991m to a stonking £1.046bn, and a hoped-for completion date of 2008 became 2012. Some blame could be attached to something called Regent Street disease, a condition affecting stone-clad steel-framed buildings, which was discovered when refurbishing the old Broadcasting House, but not all. The National Audit Office would eventually criticise "weak governance and poor change control processes" and a failure to define sufficiently the scope of the project.

Meanwhile something went wrong in the relationship between the developers and contractors and the architect, with the result that MacCormac's practice, MJP, left the project, complaining of "insufferable contempt". Another firm, Sheppard Robson, took over. Exactly what happened is shrouded in confidentiality agreements which mean that MJP does not answer any questions from the press, but the BBC now attributes the break-up to "creative differences". It is customary, when time and money go awry, to blame the architect, but the BBC makes it clear that his departure "was not in any way a reflection on Sir Richard's professional capabilities". It adds that, under the terms of the construction contract, the architect was employed by building contractor Bovis Lend Lease, and so his leaving was not exactly its responsibility. Having started off as a Medici-like patron, in other words, the BBC was now passing the buck to the builders.

On the outside, the building deals gracefully with the liner-like bulge of old Broadcasting House and the colonnaded drum of Nash's church of All Souls, Langham Place. It recedes into a U-shaped court before advancing with a curve that answers those of its two illustrious neighbours. At the same time it forms a backdrop to the vista of the church from Regent Street and creates an interaction between public and corporation. The court that leads to the new front door is a genuinely open and welcoming space, and new pedestrian routes cross the site. MacCormac's detail can tend towards the fussy and the overworked, but in general it's a successful piece of urban place-making.

So far it is mostly as MacCormac intended, but his ideas have been realised more sketchily inside. At the centre is a huge newsroom for 300 people which will be a three-dimensional location for BBC TV's news and weather. Four fat columns hold up the floors above, and two atria rise at either side. There is also a route, available to the public, which leads to the Radio Theatre and to a cafe, from where you can view the workings of the newsroom through glass walls.

All this roughly follows the original plan. What is lacking is the connective tissue that would have joined it happily together. MacCormac's designs have been smoothed down and thinned out, such that a place envisaged as an arcade now feels like a corridor, and the relationships between newsroom, columns and atria are now more rudimentary. An over-reliance on plasterboard and bright colours makes it feel in places like a multiplex. The greatest loss is the arrangement of stairs and galleries that was planned above the entrance, made deliberately generous to encourage chance encounters among the people working in the building. Meanwhile the arts consultancy Modus Operandi, which was asked to assemble a set of artworks in the spirit of Reith, says that the external lighting scheme is not being looked after properly – in particular that a memorial to journalists killed in conflicts, by the artist Jaume Plensa and called Breathing, is not being switched on as often as it should be.

It may be asked how much these changes matter. There will still be a big impressive newsroom for the cameras to swoop around, and glass walls for the public to peer through, and a way of getting to the Radio Theatre. The basic purpose, of centralising and achieving efficiencies, will be met. The BBC's surplus property, such as Bush House and Television Centre, can be disposed of, and savings made, with a benefit of £736m. The location in central London will help in getting important interviewees to visit. The Sheppard Robson office spaces will be perfectly decent and well-detailed, and the building as a whole is still much better than a typical commercial block.

But there was a chance to make it more than this, and for a series of spaces to be made where the workings of the BBC and its relationships to the public would be made positively enjoyable, as opposed to being allowed to happen. There could have been a connected series of experiences, from the street through the court into the interior, but instead there is a disjointed journey through the creations of two different architects. It is one thing at the front, another thing inside, and it is only because of "creative differences" that it is like this.

There is a further practice involved, HOK, who designed the interior fit-out. I may be wrong but I suspect that its work is as irritating to Sheppard Robson as Sheppard Robson's must be to MacCormac. It has an awful lot of red and orange, in order to match the brand colours of BBC news, including many lights the colour and shape of Halloween pumpkins, which I imagine will get a bit wearing after a while. HOK says it wants to achieve "a celebration of people working together", to achieve, in other words, something like the original intention of MacCormac's design, but its main devices are scaled-up coffee stations that intrude clunkily on the architecture. It doesn't seem to be quite up to the job.

HOK also quotes Reith's statement that the BBC is an "organism not an organisation", which inspired them to provide some lights that pulse. These, apparently, "give a heartbeat to the building". The trouble is that, thanks to decisions made long ago, an organism is just what this building is not, and there is nothing that slowed-down disco effects can do to change that.


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Broadcasting House – in pictures

A £1bn extension for the BBC's 1934 headquarters mixes old and new in Portland Place



February 20 2012

December 14 2011

Beauty and the beast: Frozen Planet does not deserve a tabloid mauling

The press has attacked the BBC documentary over its use of zoo footage. But the Beeb has shown us the beauty in the world in a way that puts the ugly side of tabloid journalism to shame

It seems like only yesterday that I was calling for positive images of journalists. But nothing has ever made me as angry with the press as recent attacks on the BBC documentary Frozen Planet.

I can see the horror of the hacking scandal and the revelations it is unleashing at the Leveson inquiry, of course. But I love to see beauty revealed in the world, and that is what Frozen Planet achieved. I find some newspapers' attempts to undermine this televisual masterpiece and its narrator David Attenborough more repulsive than I can say.

To recap: Frozen Planet showed television audiences this autumn a world that 99% of us will never visit. It sent cameras to the volcano Erebus that belches heat into the Antarctic ice, and under the frozen crust of the Arctic seas. It was rightly adored and acclaimed.

Then a completely standard and legitimate technique, openly explained on the BBC website, of filming in zoos, or the studio, images that cannot conceivably be recorded in the wild, was "discovered" (but it wasn't secret) and "exposed" (but it wasn't wrong). Now tabloid papers are full of self-righteous fury against the Beeb and its most legendary broadcaster.

No one who has admired these programmes can take the accusations seriously. They won't damage the programme in the long term, any more than similar claims damaged its predecessor The Blue Planet. The sheer abundance of rare and unprecedented images in these programmes dwarfs the supposed flaws their critics fixate on.

For me it raises a horrible question. Is newspaper journalism a destructive enterprise?

The BBC at its best is a creative force; it adds to people's lives. Some papers' urge to besmirch one of its greatest achievements begs the question – what do such newspapers add to anyone's life? Where is the beauty in their pages? Frozen Planet opens windows in the imagination. The tabloid attacks reveal that some sections of the British press are the enemies of imagination, education, beauty and – yes – truth.


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October 15 2011

Rewind TV: Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair; Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey; Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin – review

The Comic Strip's handsomely made political satire had mischief at its heart, while Joanna Lumley proved that a little charm goes a long way during her adventures in Athens

Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair (C4) | 4oD

Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey (ITV1) | STV Player

Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin (BBC1) | iPlayer

We see so little of the Comic Strip ensemble these days that it's easy to forget how long they've been in the trenches of British spoof, tossing out a grenade every now and then, as if cursed to spend the rest of their days striving to match the perfection of their hilarious first episode, Five Go Mad in Dorset, which introduced high jinks to Channel 4's inaugural broadcast in 1982 and the term "lashings of ginger beer" to the cultural memory.

The Hunt for Tony Blair – a parodic splicing of noughties politics and 1950s British film noir (though what Herman's Hermits were doing on the soundtrack I don't know) – wasn't uproariously funny but it was handsomely made, with melodramatic shadows and enough money for fog, flat-footed policemen and steam trains. The plot, such as it was – a madcap chase across country, with the PM on the run for murder – threw up knockabout humour and vignettes from Blair's WMD fiasco, featuring a cast of the usual suspects: a languid Nigel Planer as Mandelson; Harry Enfield in East End shout mode as "Alastair"; the excellent Jennifer Saunders as Thatcher in her dotage (and full Barbara Cartland drag), watching footage of her Falklands triumphs from a chaise longue.

Director Peter Richardson, whose comic talents aren't seen enough on screen, played George Bush as a rasping B-movie Italian mobster ("I'm gonna get straight to the crotch of the matter here"). With the exception of impressionist Ronni Ancona (whose 10 seconds as Barbara Windsor seemed puzzlingly extraneous), no one went for a direct impersonation. Stephen Mangan didn't make a bad Blair, though he could have worked on the grin, and he couldn't quite make his mind up between feckless and reckless as he capered from one mishap to the next leaving a trail of bodies. Did Blair's moral insouciance ("Yet another unavoidable death, but, hey, shit happens") call for a look of idiocy or slipperiness?

The comedy had mischief at its heart in mooting that Blair had bumped off his predecessor, John Smith, and accidentally pushed Robin Cook off a Scottish mountain, while Robbie Coltrane's Inspector Hutton (aha!) tacitly invoked the spectre of Dr David Kelly (we never found out who Blair was charged with murdering). But it was hard to squeeze fresh satire from the overfamiliar stodge of the politics ("Tell Gordon to run the country and trust the bankers"). Mangan was at his funniest hiding among sheep in the back of a truck or kicking Ross Noble (playing an old socialist) off a speeding train, though there was amusement elsewhere. I had to laugh at variety theatre act Professor Predictor, shoehorned into the story to enable Rik Mayall in a bald wig and boffin glasses to answer questions from the audience. Would the Beatles still be at No 1 in 50 years' time?

"No. The Beatles will no longer exist. But Paul McCartney will marry a woman with one leg."

How the audience roared. "Pull the other one," someone shouted. Arf, arf.

My heart sank a little when Joanna Lumley started her Greek Odyssey with the words: "I'm in Athens, the capital of Greece." Well, OK, I suppose she could have meant the one in Ohio. But it wasn't long before she won me over, not least by climbing what looked like a homemade ladder to the top of the Acropolis to watch restorers scraping away, using toothbrushes and dentists' drills. You wouldn't have got me up there. "Don't look down," said her interpreter. Joanna, bless her, tried to take her mind off her vertigo by telling us about the traumatic day she got stuck on a ladder as a girl and had to be rescued. She was only up here now, she said, out of duty to the viewers. "Because I love you," she said, shooting a toothy smile at the camera.

After a day at the ruins she was ready for a night on the town and was soon heading for a club where it was tradition for the customers to pay 60 euros for a plate of flowers to throw at a singer on stage. Apparently, a wild evening here could cost five grand. Economic crisis? Pah!

"We live only for this day," reasoned one reveller. "Tomorrow, maybe everything boom!" Maybe? Still, it was good to see philosophy alive and kicking in the home of Aristotle and Plato.

There were gods to be worshipped, in particular 1960s bespectacled diva Nana Mouskouri, whom Joanna met at the remains of a huge amphitheatre. She was taken aback when Joanna asked her to sing, but she didn't need asking twice. The tourists were stilled as Nana trilled, as if required to observe a minute's silence. Joanna does make friends easily. She wooed the odd women of Evia who communicated by whistling at each other. They could speak, too, but if you wanted to banter with a goat on a roof – as one did – only whistling would do. Admittedly, the goats could only say "meh" but frankly it's eerie to see one converse in any tongue. Whistling was a dying language, though, with most of the children in the tiny community of 40 unwilling to learn it, perhaps seeing English or Chinese as a more attractive option in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Then on a remote peninsula, Joanna stumbled upon an old woman living in a deserted hill village. Everyone had left, she said, when they built a road in the 70s. What on earth did she live on? For her answer she took Joanna out to forage for wild asparagus, which she cooked with oil and salt, and lemons as "sweet as oranges". Tucking in, Joanna asked if she didn't get lonely out here in this ghost town in the middle of nowhere. "I'm not afraid of anything," she said. Homer would have put her on the itinerary.

Art's tough girl Tracey Emin has spent her career answering the question Who Do You Think You Are?, or at least creating an effigy of who she wants us to think she is. As a medium of revelation itself, WDYTYA? admits no such cunning. After all, you can't choose your own family. Tracey was a nervous wreck. Would she get the ancestors she deserved – gritty swashbucklers, salts of the earth, creative mavericks – or would they turn out to be loss adjusters from the home counties?

It didn't start well, with maternal great-grandfather Henry having been a product of reform school. Tracey's inventive mind fizzed with wishful thinking. Perhaps young Henry had been plucked out of poverty and earmarked for an education by a rich patron, impressed by his native gifts and promise? In fact, he had stolen two brass taps. But, hang on, he had a spotless record during his years there and acquired skills with saw and lathe that would stand him in good stead if he now emigrated to Canada, which was all the rage with former inmates. Tracey's eyes lit up, but no – he burgled a house instead and stole some cocoa, £8 and a violin. Tracey was sad for poor Henry (whose mother had died) but not without hope: "Maybe he wanted the violin to play," she suggested, adding that there had been guitar players in the family.

Perhaps, said the researcher gently. Tracey blamed the father, but then it transpired that he'd done a year's hard labour for thieving in the 1880s, when hard labour meant walking the treadwheel six hours a day – and that was the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis twice, said the narrator, who throughout this fascinating programme talked us through pictures of grimy urchins, old lags and scenes of corrective punishment.

But just as Tracey was losing heart, the next archive provided thrilling evidence of a "besom-maker" in the family and then, blimey, a line of tent-dwellers, pedlars, tinkers and Gypsies as long as your arm – kindred free spirits to the blood and bone! Tracey's face said it all. You couldn't make it up and yet it looked as if someone just had.


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October 14 2011

MediaCityUK wins a building prize

Manchester's MediaCityUK may be unpopular with certain BBC staff required to travel "up north", but the city takes great pride in the place.

Last night the Salford Quays complex was awarded building-of-the-year prize by Greater Manchester chamber of commerce.

That will be more welcome than the trophy it picked up last month, the Carbuncle Cup, which was awarded by the magazine Building Design.

Phil Cusack, chairman of the chamber's property and construction committee, said the development was "of national economic significance."

He added: "MediaCity will contribute to the economic well-being of Salford, Manchester and the region for generations to come. This award recognises its importance in terms of the immense contribution it is already making."

Source: TheBusinessDesk


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September 01 2011

Carbuncle Cup: Britain's ugliest new building

The controversial annual award for the country's worst new building goes to the BBC's new Salford home, with the Museum of Liverpool in hot pursuit

There were other strong contenders, but the 2011 Carbuncle Cup for Britain's "ugliest new building" has been awarded to the £600m MediaCityUK. This concatenation of anaemic buildings is the controversial new regional headquarters of the BBC, and home to the media studies faculty of Salford University. Granada TV also moves in next year, bringing the space a newly reconstructed Coronation Street and the Rovers Return.

From a distance, MediaCityUK looks like one of those sprawling faceless office blocks, shunted alongside bleak city squares, that were common in eastern Europe 50 years ago. Close up, it proves to have less charm than Berlin's Alexanderplatz and, sited at Salford Quays, it also lacks the sunny climate of Dubai, the place whose Media City inspired this Lancashire build by the property company Peel Holdings and its architects, Wilkinson Eyre, Chapman Taylor and Fairhurst Design Group.

The controversial annual award loathed by architects and their clients is compiled by Building Design magazine, a weekly media fix for architects. This year's shortlist, drawn from suggestions by members of the public, included the opulent blocks of flats designed for international multi-millionaires by Richard Rogers for the Candy Brothers at One Hyde Park in London, the Museum of Liverpool by 3XN and AEW, and Newport railway station in South Wales by Nicholas Grimshaw and Atkins.

Several of the schemes, including MediaCityUK, Newport station and the Museum of Liverpool, have been designed by firms of well-known "signature" architects, then executed by much bigger commercial practices that produced the buildings on time and on budget, but without soul and a spirit of place. MediaCityUK might be anywhere from Salford to Shanghai, and the Carbuncle Cup nomination for MediaCityUK reads: "For an organisation with high cultural aspirations, it is hard to see how the BBC could have sunk much lower."

"If you're going to spend £600m on a complete city district that is also the home of one of the nation's leading cultural institutions as well as other high-profile media and university tenants", says Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal and one of the Carbuncle Cup judges, "then it's a bit of a shame not to pay more attention to the quality of the architecture. It would have cost very little more to make this place really special."

In today's issue of Building Design, editor Ellis Woodman writes: "Whatever urban aspiration may be indicated by its name, a city is the last thing one would mistake this development for. There is no urban idea to speak of whatsoever – no space that one might recognise as a street; no common architectural language; no difference between the fronts and backs of buildings. There is no distinction made between civic and private buildings either. Visiting MediaCityUK, it is hard to see how the corporation could set their aspirations any lower. How uncreative can a 'Creative Quarter' be?"

The undoubted runner-up this year is the new Museum of Liverpool. "Liverpool secured the Carbuncle Cup two years ago for Hamilton Architects' ferry terminal", says Woodman. "This ridiculous building won in considerable part because of the damage it did to the view of the Three Graces – the trio of early 20th-century buildings that have long provided Liverpool's defining architectural image. Sadly, this vandalism to the city's waterfront was only the start."

With its ski-slope roof, glaring white walls and bizarre ramps making access awkward, the museum defaces the city's famous Pier Head and cocks a snook at its magnificent neighbours. "Our first reaction", Kim Nielsen, director of 3XN, the Danish practice responsible for the original design (and since fired from the job) has said, "was that you shouldn't build here." A lesson, perhaps, for all potential Carbuncle Cup winners, whether this year or next.


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August 16 2011

TV highlights 17/08/2011

Village SOS | Natural World: Heligan – Secrets Of The Lost Garden | Who Do You Think You Are? | Frank Lloyd Wright | Timothy Spall: Back At Sea | Pendle Witch Child

Village SOS
8pm, BBC1

What could be better than taking ownership of your village pub and trying to make it the hub of the community that so many rural villages now lack? Such is the situation in Honeystreet, Wiltshire, as residents start running ailing hostelry The Barge Inn, hoping to relaunch it with a music festival. This second episode of the Sarah Beeny-fronted Village SOS, in which struggling communities attempt to regenerate with the help of the functionally entitled Big Lottery Fund, sees rows and tears before last orders. Ben Arnold

Natural World: Heligan – Secrets Of The Lost Garden
8pm, BBC2

The historically restored gardens of Heligan in Cornwall are home to myriad animal wildlife. Cameraman Charlie Hamilton James has been taking a look at what goes on behind the scenes throughout the year, revealing a family of badgers that tour the grounds foraging for food; barn owls that are kept busy feeding their chicks; a somewhat lost green heron (it should be in America) and a newborn fox cub exploring its habitat for the first time. There's also a look at the insects attracted by the plants, including bumblebees and a red admiral feeding on flowers. Martin Skegg

Who Do You Think You Are?
9pm, BBC1

Jo Rowling never got to tell her late mother about Harry Potter. Now the author goes in search of her French ancestors on her mother's side. And so begins her fascination with her great-grandfather Louis. He came to England from France at the start of the 20th century to work in the hotel trade and was soon supporting an English wife and child. She gets to see incredible documents, and on one branch of the family tree hangs the possibility of heritage from another country altogether. Julia Raeside

Frank Lloyd Wright
8pm, Sky Arts 1

As part of the Sky Arts architecture season, this two-part documentary delves into the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright who, by his own reckoning, was the greatest architect ever. Wright was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, loosening up the designs of homes and buildings with his "organic" architecture, which culminated in the magnificence of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But his life story is fascinating, if troubled: he scandalised society by running away with his mistress, who, upon their return, was butchered at Wright's self-designed home by an employee. MS

Timothy Spall: Back At Sea
8.30pm, BBC4

Second instalment of Timothy Spall's barge-borne circumnavigation of Britain. Tonight, Spall and his wife, Shane, leave Wales to creep along the coast of England's north-west. The footage shot at sea is quite engaging, as Spall struggles grumpily with the boat, the sea and the bureaucracy of ports. Unfortunately, a lot of the episode is based on land, where the narrative drifts into the cut-and-pasted potted histories of the locations that disfigure many travel programmes. Andrew Mueller

Pendle Witch Child
9pm, BBC4

The 1612 trial of Alizon Device in Lancashire is considered one of the most controversial in British legal history. Device was accused of being a witch, and was ultimately damned by the testimony of her nine-year-old sister, Jennet. Forensically analysing the socio-political context of the trial, poet and playwright Simon Armitage presents a portrait of a pre-modern Britain struggling to balance reason and superstition. Armitage's skilful reading of events makes this another welcome addition to an excellent summer season of documentaries from BBC4. Gwilym Mumford


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June 23 2011

Art of the state project to catalogue UK's paintings

Collaborative scheme called Your Paintings wants to identify all publicly owned oils by end of 2012

It certainly beats the rotas, holiday planners and stern health and safety announcements that many workers stare at on their office walls. In Bristol's archaeology department they have a 28ft-high altarpiece by William Hogarth.

The altarpiece is among a number of works that have emerged in the course of an ambitious project to create a complete catalogue of every single oil painting owned publicly in the UK.

Details were announced on Thursday of Your Paintings, a scheme that aims to identify every single one of the 200,000 works in the national collection, probably the biggest and most diverse in the world. The paintings are in about 3,000 collections, not just galleries and museums, but schools, hospitals, universities, lighthouses and yes, Bristol and Region Archaeology Offices, with its huge Hogarth.

The project is a collaboration between the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC. The PCF's director, Andrew Ellis, called it "the start of an exciting journey".

He said the vast majority of paintings owned publicly were not accessible and, until now, not even photographed. So far, 63,000 had been catalogued and the aim was to have completed all 200,000 by the end of 2012.

The launch was held at the National Gallery. Its director, Nicholas Penny, said the project would "transform people's knowledge of exactly what works of art the state owns and where the works are".

He also expressed the hope that "regional museums and collections generally take great pride in what they have and make it a priority to acquire more and do more with what they have".

The project allows everybody to know that there is a knock–out Tintoretto in Gateshead, an interesting Rousseau in Southampton, and several impressive works by Francis Bacon at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

There is also a big interactive element to the project. With the help of crowdsourcing technology used in Oxford University's astrophysics department to classify galaxies, the website encourages people to tag and classify each painting. The overall aim is to make searching easier. If people are obsessed by cats in art, or want Regency interior design tips then bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings will be the place to go.

There have been many interesting discoveries aside from the Bristol Hogarth, including a Whistler painting called The Regatta, found in Staffordshire council's nuclear fallout shelter.

To accompany the project, the BBC also plans to broadcast a series of programmes this summer under the umbrella title Art Revealed.


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June 15 2011

British Museum wins Art Fund prize

Museum in London takes £100,000 prize for its BBC-partnered A History of the World series and use of new technology

Britain's biggest prize for museums has been awarded to the biggest of them all – the British Museum, which won for its BBC-partnered A History of the World, a series charting the millennia through 100 objects.

The museum, which beat three considerably smaller institutions scattered around the UK also on the Arts Fund prize shortlist, wins £100,000, one of the most lucrative of all arts awards. It was presented by the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, at a ceremony in London on Wednesday night.

Michael Portillo, who chaired the judges, praised the museum's use of new technology. He said: "We were particularly impressed by the truly global scope of the British Museum's project, which combined intellectual rigour and open heartedness, and went far beyond the boundaries of the museum's walls.

"Above all, we felt that this project, which showed a truly pioneering use of digital media, has led the way for museums to interact with their audiences in new and different ways. Without changing the core of the British Museum's purpose, people have and are continuing to engage with objects in an innovative way as a consequence of this project."

It is the first triumph for a London-based national museum in the competition's nine year history. It won over a shortlist that also included the renovated Polar Museum in Cambridge; the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway; and the Roman Baths museum in Bath.

The much-praised A History of the World series was made in partnership with the BBC and included 100 separate 15-minute programmes on Radio 4 detailing objects in the collection by the museum's director, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor said the series was a result of working with museums across the UK and that the prize money would be used to pay for a series of spotlight tours, lending highlights from the museum's collection across the country.

He added: "The British Museum is delighted to win the Art Fund prize on behalf of the extraordinary coalition of UK museums that made A History of the World so successful.

"A History of the World involved 550 heritage partners, from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, who worked hand in hand with the BBC to explore global stories through museum collections of every complexion."

The Art Fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it was an exciting moment for UK museums and galleries: "The British Museum's A History of the World is a museological tour de force and epitomises all that's great about curatorship in the UK today."

The judging panel chaired by Portillo also comprised the Guardian's chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins; the theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili; the artist Jeremy Deller; the heritage consultant Kathy Gee; the Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp; and crossbench peer Lady Young.

A new prize, the Clore award for museum learning, was also night given to joint winners the South London Gallery and a consortium of the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which get £10,000 each.

Previous winners of the award have been much smaller organisations. Last year it was the Ulster Museum in Belfast and before that the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke (2009) and the Lightbox in Woking. Judges this year visited 10 museums in total with the six other long-listed candidates being the Hertford Museum, Leighton House in London, Mostyn in Llandudno, the People's History Museum in Manchester, the V&A and the Yorkshire Museum in York.


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June 13 2011

How Television Centre started with a question mark

Design of iconic building famously drawn on the back of an envelope

Monty Python's Flying Circus was recorded at BBC Television Centre. The comedy featured Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel, a Silly Party candidate in a spoof of the 1970 general election, and Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, a participant in the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest. It also gave us wartime RAF chaps unable to follow one another's banter.

Was it possible the Pythons knew a thing or two about the design history of TV Centre? This impressive broadcasting complex was the architectural brainchild of Graham Dawbarn, a first world war Royal Flying Corps pilot, his business partner Air Commodore Henry Nigel St Valery Norman, 2nd Baronet of Honeyhanger, and the BBC's resident civil engineer, Marmaduke Tudsbery Tudsbery. Sir Nigel, as the baronet was better known, was killed in action in the second world war, but not before he and Dawbarn masterminded a number of civil airports: the BBC White City studios were surely rooted in the design of hangars and other airport buildings as was the easy flow of space between them.

Exactly how the complex should be planned, and what it should look like, however, was still something of a puzzle when Dawbarn and Tudsbery got to grips with the design in the late 1940s. Famously, the architect drew a question mark on an envelope (it still exists) and, one way or another, this punctuation mark formed the basis of the plan offering a circle (or circus) of production spaces and studios penetrated by an access road for the delivery and shifting of scenery, sets and props. The design proved to be outstanding, both functional and instantly recognisable.

Some said TV Centre looked a bit too Soviet for comfort at a time – the 1950s – when Auntie Beeb herself was thought to be sheltering communist sympathisers. As a matter of record, Tudsbery visited the workers' paradise in 1966, publishing a 22-page book, In the Red: Two Weeks in the USSR, on his return.

First shown to the public at the Festival of Britain in 1951, the design was meant to have been added to as and when necessary. Today, though, it will be hard to think of a suitable new purpose for the listed buildings at White City. Sensible, and perhaps even some quite silly, suggestions may well be welcome to ensure a bright and possibly creative future for one of British broadcasting's finest and most memorable circuses.


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April 18 2011

A sea of stories: the British Museum

The British Museum's A History of the World in 100 Objects, one of the projects longlisted for the Art Fund museums prize, continues to make its mark

For the eighth (yes, it's something of a marathon) visit to museums whose projects have been nominated for the Art Fund museums prize, judges Jeremy Deller and I headed just down the road from my office to the British Museum, where (when we were not being evacuated by a fire alarm) we were given a very welcome and interesting reminder of A History of the World in 100 Objects.

It was a project that, I suspect, may prove a watershed in the way museums and galleries work with the public, with each other, and with (and as) broadcasters. Far more than just a BBC radio programme (and a wonderful one at that, with all episodes still available to download), it also harnessed the stories and memories of members of the public, as they were invited to upload details of their own chosen objects to the project's website. So, too, were regional and local museums, 550 of which had their own version of A History of the World, in partnership with local radio. And, even though the project ran in 2010, there are still offshoots continuing now, including A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects. (Satisfyingly, one of the objects is an early surfboard – apparently they were knocked out by Tom Tremewan, the local coffin maker at Perranporth, after the first world war.)

We had a quick whisk round the museum, too, under the benign guidance of the British Museum's head of research, JD Hill. He reminded us of some of the stories that the 100 objects told. For example, we paused at the Rosetta stone, one of the least inspiring-looking objects in the museum. But this plain-looking slab of stone has one of the museum's best stories, since the discovery that its trilingual inscription was in fact the same text thrice over meant that Egyptian hieroglyphs could be decoded for the first time. JD reminded us that, aside from hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek, the stone is also inscribed with a fourth language: English. The stone came to Britain when Napoleon was defeated in Egypt; the fact is commemorated on the broken side of the stone, on which is stencilled "Captured by the British army in 1801. Presented by King George III". So the stone also tells the story of the fight between western powers for dominance of Egypt and the Near East; and, you might say, tells us something rather powerful about the history of the museum itself.

A History of the World was a project that was at the same time rigorous, welcoming and – most importantly – quite simply full of wonderful stories to stir the imagination and pique the intellect.


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April 07 2011

New Afghanistan exhibition offers insight into life on frontline | Nick Hopkins

Troops describe what they have been through during operations in Helmand

One measure of the length of time British forces have been in Afghanistan is that museums are beginning to curate exhibitions about the conflict, and the UK's role within it over the last 10 years.

Perhaps the biggest to date will open this weekend at, of all places, the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.

Its aim is to give people an insight into the conditions faced by troops, and the kind of equipment they are using.

There are no actual tanks in sight, though the museum has put on display other armoured vehicles and equipment that have proved vital for soldiers.

I went to the museum earlier this week to talk the curator David Willey, and he showed me around the exhibition and explained the rationale behind it.

It is not a pro-war exhibition, he said. If anything, he hopes it will surprise and shock people, as well as give children the merest taste of the conditions faced by troops.

"When we did some sampling and asked people why we were in Afghanistan, nobody knew," said Willey. "And they had no idea what the troops were doing when they got there either."

He and his team have mocked up a FOB - forward operating base - just like the ones used by British troops in Helmand province.

The exhibition comprises a number of short films, most of them are introduced by the BBC presenter and former war correspondent, Kate Adie, who offered her services for free.

The real stars of the show, though, are not the vehicles, but the troops from the Royal Armoured Corps, whose experiences are the backbone of the exhibition.

The troops offered expert advice and their own pictures so that the 'set' is as lifelike as possible.

They also contributed short films, in which they explain what they did in Afghanistan - how they identify and then disable IEDs, the ways that they have countered Rocket Propelled Grenade attacks, and the injuries that many of them have sustained out there.

Twelve members of the RAC have died in Afghanistan, and relatives of the dead have been invited to the official launch of the exhibition tonight.

Willey accepts that it will not be to everyone's taste, and that some people will ask why the museum has focused on the British military effort, rather than, say, highlighting civilian casualties.

But the feedback from people who have had an early look at the exhibition has been very positive. "I think some of them found it quite moving," said Willey.

Certainly it would be hard not to feel humbled after watching one of the films, in which the mother of a severely injured soldier, Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson, explains what happened to her son.
This is the transcript..

"Ben was the machine gunner on an armoured open-top vehicle that went over a 30-year-old Russian anti-tank mine.

They were very lucky, if they had been in a bigger vehicle he would have been killed but because it was a smaller vehicle, it was picked up and thrown.

The other two boys mercifully walked away, but Ben's legs were trapped around the gun turret. He lost both his legs above the knee, he broke his back in four places, he lost his spleen, broke his pelvis, broke his coccyx, both his lungs collapsed, every rib shattered, all his fingers were broken, an open fracture of his left elbow and then the real killer injuries - the massive brain injury, five fractures of his skull, five fractures of his cheeks and five fractures of his jaw."

"His life was saved by a young boy barely more than a first aider who kept him breathing and then he was airlifted to Camp Bastion within an hour...Ben was flown back to the UK to be with his family when he died.

"So injured on Tuesday and back in Selly Oak by Thursday, two days. We were preparing for the worst but we thought the worst was the loss of his legs. That's a nothing injury. The bad injury was the head injury."

Ben talks a little too, though it is obviously very difficult for him. Amazingly, with the help of the charity Pilgrim Bandits, he is beginning to rebuild his life.
The exhibition will last for four months.


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February 11 2011

Four short links: 11 February 2012

  1. Phantom of the Flopera (YouTube) -- Bach's Tocata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) as performed by floppy drives. Creative intimacy with one's tools is a sign of mastery. (via Andy Baio)
  2. Save Entire BBC Archive (Ben Goldacre) -- I pointed earlier to the questionable BBC closure of scores of websites in the name of cost-cutting. It's a torrent of an archive of spidered BBC websites. (via Andy Baio)
  3. Android Hidden NFC Capabilities Unlocked -- Gibraltar Software Factory, based in Argentina, went through the source code of Android 2.3 and found that Google has purposefully hidden several NFC related API calls, most likely due to the fact that they’re not quite stable enough for public release. Some minor tweaking of the source code, and boom, they’ve enabled write support for NFC tags. This means mobile phones will not just read RFID tags, but also act like RFID tags. (via Chris Heathcote on Delicious)
  4. Pinboard Creator Maciej Ceglowski (ReadWriteWeb) -- I think many developers (myself included) are easily seduced by new technology and are willing to burn a lot of time rigging it together just for the joy of tinkering. So nowadays we see a lot of fairly uninteresting web apps with very technically sweet implementations. In designing Pinboard, I tried to steer clear of this temptation by picking very familiar, vanilla tools wherever possible so I would have no excuse for architectural wank. The other reason I like the approach is that the tried-and-true stuff is extensively debugged and documented. The chances of you finding a bug in MySQL or PHP as the author of a mid-sized website are microscopic. That's not the case for newer infrastructure like NoSQL or the various web frameworks.

February 08 2011

Four short links: 8 February 2011

  1. Erase and Rewind -- the BBC are planning to close (delete) 172 websites on some kind of cost-cutting measure. i’m very saddened to see the BBC join the ranks of online services that don’t give a damn for posterity. As Simon Willison points out, the British Library will have archived some of the sites (and Internet Archive others, possibly).
  2. Announcing Farebot for Android -- dumps the information stored on transit cards using Android's NFC (near field communication, aka RFID) support. When demonstrating FareBot, many people are surprised to learn that much of the data on their ORCA card is not encrypted or protected. This fact is published by ORCA, but is not commonly known and may be of concern to some people who would rather not broadcast where they’ve been to anyone who can brush against the outside of their wallet. Transit agencies across the board should do a better job explaining to riders how the cards work and what the privacy implications are.
  3. Using Public Data to Fight a War (ReadWriteWeb) -- uncomfortable use of the data you put in public?
  4. CouchOne and Membase Merge -- consolidation in the commercial NoSQL arena. the merger not only results in the joining of two companies, but also combines CouchDB, memcached and Membase technologies. Together, the new company, Couchbase, will offer an end-to-end database solution that can be stored on a single server or spread across hundreds of servers.

January 31 2011

Four short links: 31 January 2011

  1. BBC Web Cuts Show Wider Disconnect (The Guardian) -- I forget that most people still think of the web as a secondary add-on to the traditional way of doing things rather than as the new way. Interesting article which brings home the point in the context of the BBC, but you can tell the same story in almost any business.
  2. 40p Off a Latte (Chris Heathcote) -- One of the bits I enjoyed the most was unpacking the old ubiquitous computing cliche of your phone vibrating with a coupon off a latte when walking past a Starbucks. This whole presentation is brilliant. I'm still zinging off how data can displace actions in time and space: what you buy today on Amazon will trigger a recommendation later for someone else.
  3. Long-Form Reporting Finds Commercial Hope in E-Books -- ProPublica and New York Times have launched long-form reporting in Kindle Singles, Amazon's format for 5k-30k word pieces. On Thursday, he told me his job involved asking the question, “How do you monetize the content when it is not news anymore?” Repackaging and updating the paper’s coverage of specific topics is a common answer.
  4. Why You Should Never Search for Free Wordpress Themes in Google or Anywhere Else -- short answer: free themes are full of SEO rubbish or worse. Every hit on your site boosts someone else's penis pills site, and runs the risk that search engines will decide your site is itself spam.

January 24 2011

What's new at the BBC?

Take a look at the BBC's controversial and dramatic £1bn extension of its central London headquarters



January 23 2011

So what does £1bn buy?

It was 10 years in the making, it cost a fortune and it lost its architect along the way. But the BBC's new Broadcasting House is finally finished. Jonathan Glancey gets an early look inside

This is a daunting, vaulting space. I am standing in the News Room of the BBC's gleaming and much-talked-about new building. With its vast pillars, spiralling staircases, and towering lift shafts painted red and orange, this cavernous, boldly modern space seems more like a submarine dock, the sort of place you might expect a James Bond shoot-out to take place, rather than somewhere for Huw Edwards to calmly read the news.

The News Room may take up most of the basement and ground floor of the main wing of the £1bn new addition to Broadcasting House, but it is a surprisingly bright space, thanks to the fact that its glass ceiling is all but invisible, vanishing into the crevice-like atrium. The effect is striking, although the experience of looking up from a desk might be a little vertiginous: let's hope Jeremy Paxman doesn't develop a crick in his neck. The idea is to induce a sense of drama and urgency into the building and so, I suppose, into the news operation – dramatic and urgent enough, you would have thought, without the need for help from architecture.

Over the last 10 years or so, amid rising controversy, the BBC has spent £1.04bn refurbishing and extending its ocean-liner-like HQ in central London. Although it is still being fitted out, the new-look Broadcasting House, three linked buildings clustered around a new public courtyard, is now pretty much complete. In 2013, some 5,000 journalists, programme-makers, managers and other staff will be shipped here from historic BBC buildings elsewhere, including Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush and Bush House in Aldwych, home of the World Service. The aim of this eye-popping expenditure is to bring TV, radio and online operations together, increasing efficiency while reducing costs, by getting rid of a plethora of properties across town.

As well as being refurbished, the original art deco Broadcasting House, designed by George Val Myer and home to BBC radio since it opened in 1932, has gained a muscular, Portland stone and glass-clad wing. Not only does it house offices and studios, it also faces All Soul's Church, a splendidly elegant Regency creation by John Nash. To the north sits the massive news and studio complex, a dramatic hub containing the News Room; its interior is destined to become highly familiar, as it will serve as a backdrop to the likes of Nick Robinson, Hugh Pym and Stephanie Flanders bringing you the news – and giving you a hint of where at least some of that billion pounds has gone. Visitors will be able to watch news gathering in action from a glazed gallery above.

The News Room certainly packs a punch: tiers of glazed offices surround it from great heights, some floors reached by those balletic spiral stairs crafted in oak, glass and steel. There is direct access from there to six new TV studios, suspended on enormous steel springs, designed to counteract vibrations caused by the Jubilee Line.

The project has quite a history. It had been mooted when John Birt was the BBC's director-general in the 1990s, but finally took shape in 2002, after a much-heralded architectural competition when Greg Dyke was at the helm. Since then, Mark Thompson has taken over, while the original architects – MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP), a medium-sized practice best known for high-quality designs for colleges – were replaced in 2005 by experienced corporate giant Sheppard Robson. Costs have risen, completion dates have been extended, and the BBC's reputation as an architectural client has been damaged.

What happened was that the BBC, reflecting its position as a nurturer of the arts, wanted to spark its very own architectural renaissance. Then, at some point, management decided it had been aiming too high; costs were cut, ambitions lowered. This hit the News Room hardest. MJP's original design was sensational: a magnificent space supported and framed by enormous tree-like columns, with branches spreading around the room, to even out the load of all the floors above. It had the look of the command centre of an intergalactic spaceship, even though MacCormac was making references to revered architects such as John Soane, as well as dreaming up the future. It would have been a thrilling place not just to work in but to look into – from above, or from the comfort of your own living room. The problem was that this was a demanding design. The BBC wanted compromise, and the architect refused. Richard MacCormac went, bound to silence.

The artwork you can walk over

What stands there now may well be practical, and doubtless works, yet it's hard not to feel that the heart of the building was ripped out before it had even started to beat. Still, Sheppard Robson maintain their design sits very much on the shoulders of MacCormac's. Lucy Homer, project architect, says the scheme is essentially MJP's original. But was the loss of MacCormac's News Room, the project's defining space, a way of cutting corners? "No," she says. "I worked on both schemes. The MJP News Room was special. But it would have been a much darker space. It would have needed a lot of artificial lighting. What we've tried to do is concentrate on what works best in terms of construction and in ways staff and visitors will use the buildings."

The look of the News Room, all shining steel and glass with accents of bold colour, spreads out to the floors above and beyond. The overall feeling is of a sleek corporate HQ, but one with a huge technical plant set within, where things – in this case programmes – are made. Bureaucracy and broadcasting: it's a very BBC combination.

Because the public pays for the BBC, the new Broadcasting House has been made accessible, in no uncertain manner. Not only will the public be able to gaze into the News Room, they will also be able to attend concerts, and see an ambitious collection of artworks incorporated into the buildings. In fact, the courtyard is itself an enormous work of art. Called World, and created by Mark Pimlott, an artist loved by architects, the £1.6m piece has a surface that curves gently, like that of the Earth. This is crisscrossed with mosaic lines of longitude and latitude, and engraved with place names from around the world, echoing the BBC's motto: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation."

This is just the start. On top of the new wing facing All Soul's Church is Breathing, by Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist. Costing £900,000, this inverted glass-and-steel cone beams light into the night sky and represents, says the BBC, the spirit of broadcasting, while also serving as a memorial to journalists killed while on assignment.

Although there has been criticism of this arts programme, commissioned for the BBC by the public arts agency Modus Operandi, the corporation believes it has a duty to promote and encourage art, which is why it maintains orchestras as well as buildings such as the original Broadcasting House, adorned with sculpture by Eric Gill. In this, the BBC is very different from rival broadcasters such as BSkyB.

Is it worth £1bn? Well, the whole project could certainly have been conceived with greater style, tact and efficiency. Although not the truly inspirational building the BBC dreamed of, the new Broadcasting House will probably come to be seen as an imposing yet functional HQ. You could argue that the uncertainty of its architecture perfectly reflects the uncertainty of the BBC, as it battles to stay ahead in the digital age.


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September 17 2010

Four short links: 17 September 2010

  1. BBC Jobs -- looking for someone to devise advanced machine intelligence techniques to infer high level classification metadata of audio and video content from low-level features extracted from it. (via mattb on Delicious)
  2. A History of the Iraq War Through Wikipedia Changelogs -- printed and bound volumes of the Wikipedia changelogs during the Iraq war. This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification. And for the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information. Everything should have a history button. We need to talk about historiography, to surface this process, to challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future. (via Flowing Data)
  3. Nuggetize -- pulls highlights out of a page before you visit it. (via titine on Delicious)
  4. Antimov -- SparkFun running contest where a robot violates one of Asimov's three laws (not the one about hurting people though). I am in LOVE with the logo, check it out.

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