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July 21 2012

Stirling prize shortlist revealed

A theatre, a laboratory, a bank tower, an art gallery, a cancer centre and the Olympic Stadium are in the running for Britain's foremost architectural award

Simple. Restrained. Simple and restrained. Possibly also sober, plain and very much not iconic. This year's RIBA Stirling prize shortlist reflects the zeitgeist of our straitened times, with their mistrust of extravagance and waste, more than any previous. Architects such as David Chipperfield, Stanton Williams and O'Donnell + Tuomey, who never knowingly overdecorate, feature prominently.

Rem Koolhaas's practice, OMA, better known for its amazing cantilevers and improbable collisions of form, offers as its two shortlisted projects assemblies of intelligently arranged boxes. Even the Olympic Stadium, usually an occasion for rhetorical displays of national pride, is notable for what it leaves out and what it is not – it is not the Beijing bird's nest and uses considerably less steel than its Chinese predecessor.

Zaha Hadid, victorious for the last two years and not much interested in restraint, is absent. Her most likely contender, the Olympic Aquatic Centre, was not entered, probably so that it can be submitted in another year when the ungainly wings containing temporary seating – widely agreed to be the building's worst feature – are removed.

None of which means that all the projects are necessarily cheap. The stadium, for one, is not. Nor that they are insipid. Chipperfield's Hepworth Gallery has a rock-like obduracy that is anything but. But they are all works that avoid the sugar rush of instant spectacle and which, by holding back a little, help you better experience the arts, drama, landscape or sport in and around them.

The judges, led by the architect and former Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, will have one or two big decisions. The first is whether to give it to the stadium, which is by far the largest and most significant project – in terms of the worldwide attention it will draw – on the list. It is a handsome thing, hard to ignore, with the interesting idea that it can be partly dismantled after the Games, so as to avoid being the usual post-Olympic white elephant. (Even if, due to political complications, this possibility is unlikely to fully exploited.) The judges may want to recognise the Olympics in some way, and make up for the failure last year to award the prize to the much-admired Velodrome.

If not the stadium, they will have to decide which is the best of the other five simple-and-restrained projects. A bank tower? Ummm, not very now. A Maggie's Cancer Centre? Like the Oscars, the Stirling prize can be attracted to serious illness, so much so that they awarded another Maggie's the prize a few years ago, but they may not feel like repeating themselves.

The judges should, of course, be swayed not at all by questions such as who and what has won before, and whether a bank, a stadium or a refuge for cancer sufferers would make the architectural profession look more lovable. They should simply decide which is the best building. Here, the decision is a tight one, as there are no real turkeys on the list and both the Hepworth Gallery and the Maggie's Centre, for example, do nice things in relating the inner life of the buildings to their surroundings.

My choice would be the Lyric theatre in Belfast, a view slightly tinged by the feeling that it would be good to look beyond the usual names and places, but mostly driven by the belief that its arrangement of materials and space, in the service of the building's purpose, are as good as anybody's. But, in an outstandingly sane year, when there are no outrageous exclusions or inclusions, any of the others would also be a good choice.

My bet is that it will come down to the stadium versus Chipperfield, with the stadium winning.

The RIBA Stirling prize will be awarded on 13 October

The six shortlisted buildings

2012 Olympic Stadium, London Populous
Odds 5/1

The Olympic stadium got some sniffy reviews when its design was unveiled five years ago – too plain, too ordinary was the general view. Now, plainness, simplicity and its economical use of steel are seen as virtues, as is the fact that it is partly demountable. In theory at least, this should make it easier to reuse after the Games. It is also a handsome, confident-looking structure. The only problems are that its price was not quite as plain and ordinary as its appearance implies, while protracted struggles to find a new use after the Games suggest that it is not as adaptable as all that. These struggles are probably more to do with politics than design, however.
Previous form (as HOK Sport, Populous's former name): Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and sliding roof over Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Maggie's centre, Gartnavel, Glasgow OMA
Odds: 9/2

With its other shortlisted project, OMA shows it can do nice. This is one of the series of Maggie's cancer centres, where leading architects design places where patients and their relatives can come for advice, counselling, company or simply peace and quiet. They were conceived by the architecture critic Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer, as antidotes to the architecturally depressing spaces in which most treatment takes place. OMA's centre is less assertive than previous centres such as Zaha Hadid's in Fife, or the Richard Rogers-designed building in London that won the Stirling in 2009. Instead, it focuses attention on the landscaping, which is designed by Jencks's and Keswick's daughter, Lily.

New Court, Rothschild Bank, London OMA (with Allies & Morrison
and Pringle Brandon)
Odds: 4/1

Given that bankers are only slightly more popular than child-abusers, it would take some nerve by the Stirling judges to give this first prize, even though Rothschild likes to protest its difference from the casino banks of ill repute. On architectural merit alone, it is a contender: it seeks to create the headquarters for a powerful financial institution, while also offering the world outside an arresting open space off a narrow City of London street. It is intricate and sometimes playful, even if not entirely politically correct. OMA is the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, which, despite international renown, has not troubled the Stirling judges until now.
Previous form: Central China TV HQ, Beijing; Seattle Central Library

The Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
Stanton Williams
Odds: 7/2

A place where "world-leading" scientists can study plants in the setting of the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. As well as fulfilling taxing technical demands, the architects Stanton Williams aimed to achieve a "collegial" environment conducive to the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The result is an L-shape, like two sides of a cloister or a college court, that is also open to the landscape. The architectural approach is rectilinear, well-built, with sharp, straight lines offsetting the natural surroundings. The structure has a certain solidity, while also creating a series of layers through which light and views are filtered.
Previous form: University of the Arts, King's Cross; Tower Hill Square (public space next to Tower of London)

Lyric Theatre, Belfast O'Donnell + Tuomey
Odds: 4/1

A beautifully considered and well-made theatre by the Dublin-based O'Donnell + Tuomey, who were shortlisted last year for their An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry. The design is about progressing from the city outside through the foyers and bars to the performance space at the heart of the building, with views to a river and greenery. It uses a lot of brick and timber, but avoids the worthiness that sometimes goes with these materials. Belfast doesn't always make headlines for its architectural quality and its new Titanic museum is a contender for the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine's prize for the year's worst building. But the Lyric is on the Stirling list on merit.
Previous form: National Photographic Archive, Dublin; Photographers' Gallery London

The Hepworth, Wakefield David Chipperfield Architects
Odds: 3/1

A sober, impressive art gallery named after the Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is designed by David Chipperfield, who has several Stirling near-misses to his name and one win, in 2007. His strengths are the attention he pays to light, space and material, but the judges usually end up going for something more spectacular or else for projects that are seen to have more social significance, such as schools or housing. Set next to water and to historic industrial buildings, the Hepworth seeks to address its site and emulate their Yorkshire toughness with a structure of pigmented concrete.
Previous form: Neues Museum, Berlin (shortlisted for Stirling in 2010); Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach, Germany (winner 2007) © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2011

The architects who are taking up pulp fiction writing

Architects reach for their comic books, David Chipperfield sets his sights on Venice, and the people of St Leonards-on-Sea get very excited about a diving board

Is the recession causing escapist fantasies in architects? It seems so. This week sees the publication online of the first instalment of Looking for Spinoza: A Shooting Bad Guys Saga. This dark, retro-style comic book by Franco Falconetto is especially enjoyable for lovers of architecture, with its detailed and rather beautiful chiaroscuro studies of Italian baroque churches and piazzas appearing as stage sets for knife-fights and shoot-outs between heroes and villains.

I hear a rumour that Falconetto is none other than Francis Terry, of classical architects Quinlan & Francis Terry. Own up, Terry. "Yes, these are my drawings," he confesses. "Originally, I started them to amuse the children, but it fast became a way of amusing myself." Explain yourself, buster, I snarl. "Architects are natural comic-book writers," says Terry, singing like a canary. "It uses the same skills of imagining people in spaces in different scenarios."

Terry clearly has a second career ahead of him, as an author and illustrator of knowing pulp fiction. So, too, has Peter Murray, former editor of the RIBA Journal and co-founder of Blueprint magazine. Murray calls A Passion to Build, his online novel, "a racy tale of two architects, Harry Jamb and Frederick Shaw, who start out in practice together but, after an acrimonious 'divorce', compete furiously". The denouement is set in the distressed fictional city of Frampton-on-Tees, a coded reference to architect and historian Kenneth Frampton, where the architects slug it out "in the competition to design the buildings for the Olympic-style EuroGames". Plot and sub-plot race along "watched and reported on by the sexually voracious Rachael Dove, architectural correspondent of the Gazette". Blimey. The book will be online next week at

Murray's tongue may well be firmly in his cheek, yet he is following in a literary tradition that portrays fictional architects as egotistical, over-ambitious and perhaps even insane monsters. Think of Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand's blockbuster novel The Fountainhead (more than 6.5m copies sold since first published in 1943). Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the gloriously OTT film of the book, dynamites one of his own buildings after second-rate talents are brought in to complete it without him.

Then there's Malestrazza, the villainous architect in Serge Brussolo's novel Les Emmurés, who concretes his victims into the walls of a very disturbing building. In 2009, it was made into a straight-to-DVD horror starring Mischa Barton, AKA Marissa from The OC.

Venice is an architectural opera. And a soap opera, too. There were fears that Silvio Berlusconi was about to push Paolo Baratta from his role as director of the Venice Biennale in favour of his business buddy Giulio Malgara. Britain's David Chipperfield, apparently, didn't want to curate the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale if Malgara was in charge. Now, with the playboy Italian PM out and Baratta likely to stay, Chipperfield will curate the show, the most glamorous in the international architecture calendar. To date, Chipperfield's work in Venice has been for a renovation and extension to the city's San Michele cemetery. Death in Venice, you might say. He will have to think of something more life-enhancing for next year. And prontissimo too.

Ole Scheeren, former partner of Rem Koolhaas at OMA and project architect of the cinematic CCTV building in Beijing, this week revealed his design for the 268-metre Angkasa Raya tower to be built alongside the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, for Malaysian developers Sunrise Berhard. Images show a theatrical building Hollywood directors might well thrill to, with its air of Metropolis, Things to Come and The Fountainhead, in a tropical setting. The moody photograph of the architect that accompanies the press release is gloriously noir. Or possibly pulp fiction.

Finally, Quixotic Architecture has been commissioned by a group of local business people to design a new lido for St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. With views to the cliffs of Beachy Head, the proposed Lido, currently in the planning stage, is to be clustered around and below a homage to the original diving platform designed by Sidney Little. Striking, sunny images of the project evoke a world of 1930s design and seaside bathing, all brought happily up to date – architectural escapism at its sunniest. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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September 30 2011

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


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. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 28 2011

Eva Rothschild at Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth Wakefield; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

On the banks of the Calder stands our newest museum, its foundations deep in the river. Its patinated surfaces shift from lead to purple to silver-grey according to the altering light. From a certain angle – and it has many – the building looks like an islanded keep, fortified against the enemy and ringed by water. There seems to be no back or front. Even the means of entry appears, initially, secret.

The Hepworth Wakefield (as opposed to the Hepworth St Ives) is not just Britain's newest art museum. That wouldn't be much of a claim given that we have had so many in recent years, from Gateshead's Baltic to the New Art Gallery Walsall to the Turner Contemporary in Margate, also designed by David Chipperfield Architects, which opened only last month.

Nor is it necessarily much of a boast that this is the largest purpose-built gallery since the Hayward, with 5,000 square metres of space, for it looks as if you could put the whole thing into the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, more or less. What really matters is this building's sense of purpose. The Hepworth could be the smallest of our museums and still count as one of Britain's greatest, for the simple reason that it is so well designed for the presentation of art.

Outside, the building is an agglomeration of irregular boxes. The roofs slope, the walls are high and compellingly stark. The windows are of different sizes and so intriguingly distributed they might make you think of a medieval castle. But of course the aesthetic is essentially modernist, all cubist stacking and flattening, with nuances of Picasso's houses at Horta and those geometric cities dreamed up by Paul Klee.

The colour of the exterior is irreconcilably controversial. Nobody has quite found a term for the peculiar mix of grey, brown and bluish-purple (the architects are calling it, simply, "Hepworth brown") with which the concrete is pigmented. But there are plenty of derogatory words in the air: dour, depressing, industrial, dirty. Some of the local people I met genuinely believed that the walls had not yet been painted.

But Hepworth brown changes all the time (and the concrete will presumably mellow). In any case it gives the museum far more gravitas than the glassy sheen of Chipperfield's Turner Contemporary, which suits its different status as a museum with a permanent collection. For the entire contents of the original Wakefield Art Gallery – including works by Giacometti, Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska, as well as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and the eponymous Barbara Hepworth – are here, along with a large group of Hepworth's plaster models, all amplified by additional loans from Tate and the British Council.

In Wakefield it is now possible to see Hepworth and her British peers in the context of European modernist sculpture as almost nowhere else outside Tate Modern – and in better viewing conditions. With its chasmic galleries and high-rise escalators, Tate Modern is all drama and onward thrust. Everything about its design, and very often its orchestration, runs against quiet and steady viewing. It is not always possible even to see the sculptures in the round, given the pressing throng of visitors.

The 10 galleries of the Hepworth are gracious, calm and scaled to human proportions. They rise up for a prototype of Hepworth's enormous Winged Figure, with its clattering anatomy of metal feathers, looking far better here than the original nailed to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and they subside to an intimate size for her more tactile works.

The opening gallery sets the tone with its spacious array of marble ovoids, totems and quasi-human forms. Waist-height, on low pedestals, they seem altogether more approachable in this setting, especially the polished white works, which can appear depilated and sterile.

At a distance, for instance, a hollowed egg such as Spring reveals very little other than Hepworth's signature pierced hole and strings. But up close, with nature through the window beyond, it lives up to its promise of bright new music and when you look inside there is an intimation of fresh blue skies.

Hepworth as carver and caster, working these forms by hand, is the subject of a gallery of tools and prototypes. This is complicated, since she did not regard them as art and there are too few finished works on show by comparison. But anyone who prefers her drawings, as I do, will be delighted to see several of her sensitive and super-fluent images of bodies in motion and at rest.

They express more naturally than the sculptures a characteristic tension between figuration and abstraction, between wings, strings and apertures suggestive of sight and speech, and those strenuous and elliptical solids that block interpretation. But all the works get strength from their proximity, here, to Brancusi's Danaide, for instance, an exquisite golden egg of a head. Or Naum Gabo's marvellous Stone with a Collar that brings together the stone, some cellulose acetate and a whiplash tail in an assemblage that somehow suggests a shoreline of waves, sea creatures, shells and helter-skelters shifting in perpetual motion.

Four galleries of the Hepworth are devoted to contemporary art, so that the museum looks forwards as well as backwards. The inaugural one-woman show is apt, since Eva Rothschild is always taking sidelong glances at modernist sculpture with her own cool and quirky works. Here she shows some humorously apposite pieces – a little Wakefield cloud, scribbled in white wire; a gleaming black doughnut echoing the museum's ring of galleries; and a whole string of works that take Hepworth's art to a contemporary conclusion, involving pebbles, nuts, moons and surfaces of black and gold that bring a nightclub glamour to these comically helpless and eccentric works.

At the gateway between old and new, Rothschild has one of her levitating hoops – a giant circle from which scarlet ribbons descend, apparently held up by nothing whatsoever. It is beautifully conceived, and titled: Sunrise. The gradually sloping angles of each gallery appear as suited to contemporary art as to the balanced geometry of Mondrian or Ben Nicholson's pale reliefs. Partly this is to do with keeping the eye moving, but also because of the superlative use of daylight, which waterfalls down from the edges of suspended ceilings, bathing rather than striking the works of art.

And here and there the windows of the Hepworth show you real water, damming and cascading outside. This is one of the museum's most striking virtues. Rather than hermetically sealed, like so many galleries, it frames occasional images of the world beyond: 19th-century warehouses, the spire of the Chantry Chapel, the magnificent willow that weeps by the river. And each view brings you back to the art once more, to see what it makes of life.

Not 15 minutes away by car, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is showing monumental works by the Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa: a loosely connected family of what he calls his "souls". Large bronze figures, each clutching a cherry tree that rises like a thought, or a prayer; enormous heads, some in translucent resin, lit from within and lettered with anxious ideas, others formed of open lattices spelling out half-caught phrases. A beautiful curtain of capital letters, when gently strung, articulates music out of broken poems.

But best of all is a gallery of vast haunting heads, carved from white alabaster, that seem to be struggling from the rock like Michelangelo's Slaves. Each face is elongated, almost anamorphic and yet at the same time conjuring holograms and computer distortions. Conflating ancient and modern, they are unforgettably strange: new beings half-alive, it seems, in the world.

It is not so far from here to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, or to his open gardens and studio. Indeed, anyone wishing to steep themselves in European sculpture of the 20th and 21st centuries should go to see it at its most condensed, outdoors and in, in a few square miles of Yorkshire. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 07 2011

Turner Contemporary gallery – in pictures

Photographer Richard Bryant gives us a preview of David Chipperfield's new Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, Kent

April 06 2011

Turner Contemporary: 'A pure art space' – video

Turner Contemporary, designed by architect David Chipperfield, is a new cultural centre on Margate's seafront inspired by JMW Turner's legacy in the town. Jonathan Glancey talks to the architect about the imposing structure ahead of its opening

February 06 2011

David Chipperfield: A master of permanence comes home

After decades of success abroad, David Chipperfield is at last winning recognition at home. With two major galleries opening this spring – his first public works in Britain – he tells our critic why he values substance above spectacle

David Chipperfield doesn't fly helicopters. He did not rise from poverty to incredible wealth. He is not famous for flaming rages. He does not design buildings with wild angles, or gravity-defying stunts, or resemblances to fruit, vegetables or household objects. He does not wear Miyake capes, doesn't invite Brad Pitt into his office, and has never been on Oprah. He makes no claims that his work represents the anguish of history, or the dynamic future, or that it will, through sustainability, save the world. In short, he lacks the accoutrements that make some other architects – let's say Foster, Libeskind, Gehry or Hadid – celebrities.

Instead he is English, 57 years old, and has nothing more exotic than a slight West Country burr. He sails small boats a bit, and lives in a pleasant, well-lit central London apartment amid things of culture: a cello, a saxophone, books and DVDs in several languages, objects given by Italian designer friends, some unusual ceramics and mementoes of his children's early years. Many of these are kept in big glass vitrines that form the walls between rooms, forming a personal museum.

For decades, he has proved himself abroad. He is much sought-after for projects that help define cities' modern views of themselves, often in relation to rich or fraught history. He has built Barcelona's law courts, extended Venice's cemetery island, and rebuilt the bombed-out Neues Museum in Berlin, a project with many raw nerves waiting to be touched. He has also helped enhance the identity of cities with less deep roots, with a museum in Anchorage, Alaska, and a library in Des Moines, Iowa. He deals in dignity, in gravitas, in memory and in art.

Until recently British towns proved resistant to him. This year, due to some inexplicable shift in the weather, everything has changed. He has designed two new public galleries, in Margate and Wakefield, which are opening in April and May. He is working on a large development next to Waterloo Station, another near Buckingham Palace, and a residential block in Kensington. He is designing private houses of stupendous but well-tempered poshness in Kensington and Oxfordshire. Next week, as if to consecrate his acceptance by his homeland, he receives the Royal Gold Medal, the country's highest architecture award.

Chipperfield talks insistently and passionately about architecture, about the things that, in his view, actually matter in the design of buildings, and the things that don't. He likes "permanence", "substance" and "meaning", and dislikes designs that are spectacular for the hell of it. "I don't think architecture is radical," he says. "How can something that takes years and costs millions be radical?" He is generally too diplomatic to name names and when he does mention one, Zaha Hadid's, he is careful to praise her "real genius", but it is clear that her buildings are among those he has in mind when he criticises the "application of genius willy-nilly".

He thinks that architecture now tends to alternate between self-indulgent fireworks and acting as a tool of developers. "Architecture has curled up in a ball and it's about itself," he says. "It has found itself either as a freakshow, where you're not sure if it's good or bad but at least it's interesting, or at the behest of forces of commerce." On the one hand, famous architects design exotic-looking museums and towers that hog the attention of the media. On the other, large pieces of city get built without discussion. He cites Paddington Basin, a big development in west London. "Where the hell did that come from? It's just a potato field, just a crop. Its individual buildings might be perfectly good, but shouldn't there be some bigger concept about what it gives to the city, rather than just development?"

Chipperfield likes to compare Germany, the country most congenial to his public-minded seriousness, with Britain. Germany gave him "the experience of a lifetime" in his rebuilding of the Neues Museum in Berlin. Britain gave him BBC Scotland's headquarters in Glasgow, where he was appointed amid grandiose claims about the BBC's Medici-like patronage of architecture, only to be pushed to the side in favour of "executive architects" and see a coarsened version of his design built.

At the Neues Museum Chipperfield took on a grand 19th-century building, much damaged by wartime bombing and then by neglect under the old East German regime, and returned it to its original purpose as the home of ancient treasures including the bust of Nefertiti. His big idea was not to create a perfect simulacrum of the prewar building, nor to juxtapose the wreck with something crystalline and perfect, but to create a fusion of original building, ruin and new work. In places rooms were restored to their prewar state, but more often they were cleaned up, stabilised versions of the spaces as he found them, with fragments of decoration clinging to exposed brick and stone. In places the pockmarks of shrapnel and the scorches of fire were left on view. Where necessary wholly new structures were built, echoing but not copying the old.

Here spaces are made by different layers of time: the making of the original building and its subsequent alterations, the bombing and decay, the restoration, the archaeological time of the exhibits and the faster-moving time of the daily visitors. It took 12 years to make, from Chipperfield's appointment in 1997 to its public opening the autumn before last, years of patient consideration of each fragment and bit of wall, of diplomacy and battles, of dealing with controversy. "The difference between good and bad architecture is the time you spend on it," he says, and here he got to spend plenty.

There was a move to get Unesco to describe the museum and its surroundings as "endangered" because of Chipperfield's approach, and he was publicly accused of fetishising destruction, of harping morbidly on the horrors of the 1940s. He argued that his aim was not "demonstration of damage but demonstration of the beauty that was there". The project eventually opened to almost universal acclaim, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously been cagey, declared it "one of the most important museum buildings in European cultural history." Berliners queued for three hours to see it on its opening weekend, and it has attracted 1.4 million visitors in the 15 months since its opening.

Chipperfield says that he was nervous about taking on the project: "I thought I'd spend 10 years on restoration." His wife Evelyn asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it. "She thought I'd do a lot of work and just end up with an old building that had been there before." Now, he says, "to have done something that means so much, a national object dealing with national emotions: nothing can compete with that."

In Germany, says Chipperfield, there's "an idea that a city should be held together by something; there's an idea of what a city should be like." This something is a matter of public debate, in which "people feel they have the right to comment". In such a debate an architect is "expected to be an intellectual leader", but also has to work hard to articulate his or her position. Sometimes plans are put to referendum. "It can be frustrating," says Chipperfield, "but when people show an emotional attachment to some part of a city you can't be upset."

He says that in Britain "people get up in arms when something is near their house" but are less concerned about cities as a whole. "There is no discussion of the shape or form of a city in our planning system" and architects are seen purely as "service providers" for commercial clients, not as people with a wider duty to society. There's a reluctance to explain cultural work on its own terms. Rather things like museums are justified in terms of regeneration, in other words their supposed economic effect. "I'm uncomfortable with this," says Chipperfield. "It loads a building with responsibilities and expectations which are unfair. You should build a museum because you want a museum."

If an architect tries to express ideas, "you're a ponce, arrogant". Sometimes, when Chipperfield is debating with British clients, he finds himself thinking "hang on, I'm doing this for you guys. I'm trying to make it good. Why am I regarded as an awkward and quirky cog in this process?"

It's clear which of the two countries suits him better, but he tries not to portray them in black and white. Of Berlin he says it's easier to be high-minded about development "when you don't have much of it". You could argue, he says, "that London has been very successful doing things its way. It has amazing energy and vitality." And, finally, clients in Britain are beginning to appreciate him, especially with the two galleries opening in the spring.

One is the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the town where Britain's greatest painter went as a refuge from London, and where the coast inspired many of his greatest seascapes. On a prominent site on the waterfront, there will be temporary exhibitions accompanied by loans of Turner paintings from the Tate.

Here Chipperfield is following a romantic, ambitious, but disastrous attempt to realise a shell-like object placed in the sea, by the Norwegian architects Snøhetta. This ended in lawsuits, eventually settled out of court with a payment to Kent county council.

"The client was shell-shocked, literally," says Chipperfield, "and had less money than they'd started with," so he has responded with "a very secure and wholesome building". It is simple, studio-like, almost shed-like, but still with a robust presence on the waterfront. Most of the designers' energy went into capturing the exceptional daylight on the Kent coast, which Turner described as "the loveliest in all Europe," and taking it indoors. "The light inside is fantastic" says Chipperfield, "it is the best we've done and the best I've seen anywhere for a long time."

The other is the £35m Hepworth gallery in Wakefield. Its highlights include 40 sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, who was born in the city, and works by her contemporaries including Mondrian, Giacometti and Ben Nicholson. It is the sort of unexpected treasury that crops up in British regional cities, where the legacy of industrial wealth funded flurries of artistic patronage, before it disappeared. The gallery is also big, at over 5,000 sq metres. It is being promoted as the largest purpose-built exhibition space outside London.

The Wakefield gallery consists of an irregular grouping of 10 pavilions, sited on a bend in the River Calder, with angled roofs that echo surrounding industrial heritage. The pavilions are fused into a somewhat sombre whole within which luminous interiors open up. As in most of Chipperfield's galleries, the art's the thing, along with the daylight that serves it. The exhibition spaces vary in scale to suit the different exhibits, with carefully modulated light from above and the side. "Artists and museum people think it's fantastic," says Chipperfield, but he is as yet unsure as to the local population's response. "The test will be whether the body of Wakefield receives this transplant."

What all these projects have in common is the desire to bring out the best in the things that Chipperfield finds in the brief or site: the ruins in Berlin, the light in Margate, the art in Wakefield. To this could be added the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, where a great collection of mostly 20th-century art is displayed in a deceptively simple-looking building. Here, he says, the "most important decision was to put all the galleries on one level. It is the most democratic and comfortable way of looking at art, and makes it a really nice museum to be in. No one knows why they enjoy being there, and there's no reason why they should. But it gives me satisfaction."

This is not to say that his buildings are shy and retiring. They tend to have a strong presence, with right angles and straight lines predominant. He likes solid masonry and concrete, where you can see the stuff that is holding a building up, and sense its mass. In this he deliberately opposes the way that the modern construction industry likes to build things, which is to assemble factory-made pieces into flimsy-looking structures. He adheres, arguably too much, to the classical idea that architecture is about naked materials and structure seen in daylight. Mobility, surface, illusion, or the way artificial lighting forms cities at night, are less important to him.

He likes the appearance and reality of permanence, and is sceptical about architects' common fantasy that buildings can be as light and transient as aeroplanes or tents. "You always have to dig a hole in the ground and pour a lot of concrete into it," he says. "How much does your building really weigh, Mr Foster?" he asks, in reference to the hagiographic feature film just released about Norman Foster, which celebrates among other things the lightness of his buildings. "If I thought architecture was nomadic and light-footed I'd be very interested, but it's not true."

He stresses the less glamorous questions, such as "how a building's going to look five or 10 years later. How you do things is profoundly important. The quality of the Neues Museum's construction is extraordinary even by German standards, and people can smell that quality. The concept would not have been so convincing without it."

He opposes the idea that architects are divided into chaotic geniuses who can barely hold their offices together, and the boringly efficient and commercial. He wants to run a business that "pays its staff, has a good time, and enjoys its work". He is fundamentally self-confident and assured of what he is doing, and is not shy of saying when he thinks he has done something well, but he claims to be "very self-conscious that our work is boring. I feel very unoriginal… One feels like a dinosaur sometimes."

He is not the most ingratiating of architects, and some of his buildings make themselves targets of the Prince Charles school of abusive epithets. You might, if you weren't looking very hard, say the green-glass boxes of the Folkwang look like a cold store, and his giant complex of law courts in Barcelona are uncomfortably prison-like, as if defendants were guilty until proven innocent. I can see someone coming up with the word "bunker" in relation to the grey concrete of the Hepworth. Yet he talks to a surprising degree about engaging the public. He likes the way, when he was designing a museum in the seemingly unpromising territory of Anchorage, there were 10 public meetings, with the chance to hear what people did and did not like, and to explain what he was doing.

"When your ideas are robust," he says "and when you're not playing games, it's not that difficult to explain. If it's fantastic to be in a place, or gives a particular experience, people get it. Professionals can make it more complicated than it needs to be. They have to be careful not to get too sulky about parts of a project that are in the end self-indulgent." He describes a shopping mall he's completing in Vienna; the owner, without any specialist knowledge of architecture, loves it. "It's just a department store with big windows and beautiful stone walls. That's all."

David Chipperfield is an architect who reads books. For him a building is never enough on its own, but is always part of a wider culture. At the same time he talks in close detail about the stuff of his art. This combination is rarer than you'd think, and it is to be hoped that it survives his acceptance in Britain. Often it is a condition of recognition here that architects leave their most difficult ideas at Customs. The challenge for Chipperfield is to make sure it doesn't happen to him.

Turner Contemporary will open to the public on 16 April; the Hepworth Wakefield opens on 21 May © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

David Chipperfield's architecture - in pictures

Enjoy a sneak preview of the new galleries, Turner Contemporary in Margate and Yorkshire's Hepworth Wakefield, the acclaimed British architect's first public buildings at home. Plus, a collection of some his finest work elsewhere

January 03 2011

Architecture 2011

Jonathan Glancey looks ahead to a celebration of the architect James Stirling at Tate Britain, as well as the year's other architecture highlights

James Stirling was a man of large appetites. Not for nothing was this bravura architect, born in Glasgow in 1924, known as Big Jim: before his death in 1992, he designed some of the most charismatic British buildings of the second half of the 20th century.

Tate Britain will this year host James Stirling: Notes From the Archive. Don't let the dry title put you off. There will be more than 300 drawings, models and photographs, as eye-opening today as they were when he made them. In sketches on the back of boarding passes, in photos of old buildings, in crammed notebooks, you will witness the mind of a true original.

Stirling was incapable of designing anything bland. My favourite is the Engineering Building at Leicester University (above). It opened in 1963, but remains a shock to the system, a radical design that went against the grain of the genteel modernism that had seeped into these islands like a white mist from the 1930s. Sadly, many of Stirling's early buildings – including Leicester, the History Library at Cambridge, and the Florey Building for Queen's College, Oxford – were shoddily built. They proved too much of a challenge for British contractors, and have all needed major renovation.

It was only when Big Jim got to work in Germany that form, function and construction coalesced: his Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is a masterpiece. This unpretentious man brought passion, adventure and energy into an otherwise dull architectural scene.

At Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888), 5 April to 21 August.

The year's architecture highlights

The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire

Yorkshire gets a brand new art gallery – or, to be more precise, a cleverly intersecting set of 10 new concrete gallery spaces, designed by David Chipperfield Architects. Set on the banks of the River Calder, this will be home to 40 sculptures by the Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth, along with works by her contemporaries, including Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland – and by Brâncusi, Giacometti and Mondrian. Chipperfield is good at knowing how to let art and artists take pride of place, while shaping thoughtful and effective buildings.

Opening in the spring. More details:

Turner Contemporary, Margate

This is shaping up to be Chipperfield's year. Here, the architect's tall and striking galleries, clad in opaque white glass, rise between Margate's Marine Parade and the sea that Turner returned to, time and time again, to paint. The impressive £17.5m gallery replaces an original design, even closer to the sea, by Snøhetta and Spence that was more dramatic, but would have cost a whopping £50m.

Opening in the spring. Details:

Guangzhou Opera House, China

In the 1990s, Zaha Hadid's stirring designs for an opera house on Cardiff Bay were rejected. But now she's seized the chance to build a grand, 1,800-seat opera house overlooking the Pearl River in southern China. It was meant to open in 2009, but was delayed by a fire at the construction site in May that same year.

Opening in February. Details:

Topping out ceremony at the One World Trade Center, New York

One decade after 9/11, the last steel beam in the 1,776ft "Freedom Tower" designed by David Childs of SOM architects, is due to be levered into place just before next Christmas. Although the steel and glass construction won't be ready for occupation until 2013, the topping out ceremony will mark the very visible, and doubtless very emotional, architectural revival of this 16-acre site at the southern tip of Manhattan.

December. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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