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March 18 2012

My favourite British design

In pictures: As the V&A launches a retrospective on great British design, six of Britain's most creative minds choose their favourite object

January 28 2012

Interview: architects Richard Rogers, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour

Celebrated architect Richard Rogers and his partners discuss £140m penthouses, John Prescott's ministerial 'flair' and Prince Charles's strange ideas about architecture

Richard Rogers, at 78, is not about to slow down. "I am enjoying myself, so why would I retire?" says the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd's of London building. "I'd like to think I'll be learning a new language or something when I die."

But even a master builder can't go on for ever, which is why Richard Rogers Partnership discreetly changed its name, some five years ago, to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. "We wanted," explains Rogers, "to avoid the situation where the name of the practice is someone who died 100 years ago. Architecture is a living thing. If I want to leave something to the future, it has to be able to change – but retain something of the ethos that we built up over 50 years."

Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour are here today too, flanking Rogers protectively like affectionate, respectful and, just occasionally, faintly exasperated sons. (If Rogers is known for running his practice like a family, he is also famous among those who know him for a close and warm family life – one into which tragedy came late last year with the unexpected death of one of his sons, Bo.)

Leeds-raised Stirk, 54, is trim and wiry, with a narrow tie, dark suit and spiky hair; he is softly spoken and emphatic. Harbour, 49, is a rangily tall redhead, brought up in the West Country, with an easy grin and friendly manner. Between them is Rogers, whose get-up – turquoise shirt, orange sweater and splendid, canary-coloured socks – reminds me of Madrid airport's brightly coloured Terminal 4, for which Harbour was lead architect, winning the practice the 2006 Stirling prize.

At the moment Harbour is involved in planning Barangaroo, a former container port in Sydney – the biggest piece of city-making the practice has ever undertaken. Stirk, meanwhile, is working on the new exhibition and conservation centre for the British Museum; he also designed the Knightsbridge residential complex One Hyde Park, infamous for its £140m penthouse, thought to be the most expensive apartment ever put on sale. According to Harbour, their emergence as key figures in the firm is not a revolution. "Between Graham and myself, we have put in 55 years at the practice, so we are not new at it. It's an evolution."

Could a practised eye, I wonder, tell a Stirk from a Harbour building? "I hope not," says Harbour. (Though in fact, one might contend that Stirk buildings – such as the Leadenhall Building in the City of London, and Neo Bankside, a new apartment block next to Tate Modern – tend to be somewhat orthogonal; Harbour's buildings, such as Madrid airport, more expressive and sculptural.) This self-effacing attitude to individual style comes in part from that ethos Rogers mentions. The practice is run on idealistic principles; it has a manifesto that asserts the architects' responsibility towards "contributing to the welfare of mankind, the society in which we practise and the team with whom we work". (It is a moot point, of course, whether the creation of a building containing a £140m penthouse contributes to the welfare of society, a point to which we shall return.) Each Monday morning the staff gather for a discussion of current projects, in which everyone from the highest to the lowest can express views – along the lines of an art-school "group crit" session. There is a profit-share system, and the salaries of the directors cannot rise above a certain proportion of the lowest paid in the firm.

Rogers starts waxing lyrical about the profit-share scheme in answer to a question I put to Harbour about why he has never left the practice, which he joined as an architecture graduate in 1985 "to help out on the Lloyd's building for a couple of months". (Stirk joined in 1983, also cutting his teeth on Lloyd's, which was in December accorded Grade I listed status.) After listening patiently for a little bit, Harbour says: "Actually Richard, that's not the primary reason I am still here. The primary reason I am still here is … every Monday morning it is exciting to come into work because you never quite know what's going to happen, and the debate about architecture and the enthusiasm of the people here is infectious. Richard has been fantastic at encouraging us. I have always felt I can go anywhere within the practice, and I am more excited about tomorrow than yesterday. It's the intellectual environment that I have enjoyed. When I was at college I learned about learning. Here I learned about architecture." He suddenly gets modest. "Of course I know very little about architecture, and the older I get the less I know." He makes it sound a little cultish, as the passion burns in his voice.

Rogers tells me that "architecture is about public space held by buildings"; and civic space, both metaphorical and physical, and the architecture that holds it together, is the subject of a lecture the three are giving at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Tuesday. They gesture toward the public square outside the office, on the banks of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge in London, to illustrate what they mean. (Beside it is the famous restaurant, the River Cafe, run by Rogers' wife, Ruth.) It is privately owned land; but the architects take the view that it adds to the sum of human happiness if they don't lock it off from passersby. And that, in microcosm, is Stirk's argument about One Hyde Park. The important thing, he says, is what they didn't do: "We could have slapped up 12 storeys hard against Knightsbridge, and held the line of the street," he says. Instead, they built a series of pavilion-like structures at right angles to Knightsbridge, allowing passersby to glimpse Hyde Park between the buildings as they wander past.

According to Stirk: "We replaced one big slab building that was impermeable. The notion was to say: this is not a citadel. There are retail areas and garden areas at the base of the building. At least people can sit down on extended pavements; there is an area now where people can congregate and breathe." In short, whatever absurdities prevail upstairs, at street level it is still a better public environment than before.

The idea of the city has preoccupied much of Rogers' life as an architect and, in later years, a politician. He was chairman of the Urban Taskforce from 1998-2005, championing high-density cities; brownfield not greenfield for building. The taskforce was appointed by then deputy prime minister John Prescott, about whom Rogers has nothing but good to say. "Contrary to what everyone believed, I thought Prescott was a good minister, because he concentrated, and stuck around, and had a certain flair. It was a very important part of my life." The question of "how one builds at the density required of a city centre, and still achieves the right feel at the street scale", as Harbour puts it, is of urgent concern, they argue. "It's about humane scale in intensified development," adds Stirk. "It's about concentrating, rather than spreading," says Harbour. "You need good design to solve the problems of dense spaces."

Which is why Rogers has been speaking in the Lords about the government's draft National Planning Policy Framework. He agrees that the planning laws are due for rationalisation. But he fears the proposed reforms will loosen planning regulations too much: we could end up "like the south of France or the southern coast of Spain, with the whole south-east peppered with buildings". He agrees with the National Trust's campaign against the reforms, but from the other end of the argument – their potential effect on cities and towns, rather than just on the countryside. Cities that sprawl lose energy, he says. It's not so long ago, he warns, that post-industrial city centres, such as Manchester's, were bleak places, more or less uninhabited. Drawing residents back to the heart of cities has made them more attractive, safer, livelier. Intelligent density is the answer, with old and new buildings cohabiting gracefully, argue the architects. "Cities are about juxtaposition," says Rogers. "In Florence, classical buildings sit against medieval buildings. It's that contrast we like." Harbour adds: "In Bordeaux we built law courts right next door to what is effectively a listed historic building, and that makes it exciting. Can you imagine that in London?" There is some hope that the government will change its position – the MPs of the communities and local government committee have urged ministers, in a report published before Christmas, to drop the notion of the default "yes" to development. But the battle is not yet won, and Rogers will continue to campaign from the Lords.

The question of juxtaposition, of course, is one that has bedevilled modernist British architects in the past, particularly in relation to Prince Charles's views on architecture. In 1987, the prince spoke out against Rogers' plans for Paternoster Square near St Paul's Cathedral in a speech at Mansion House. ("You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.") In 2009, he attacked them again: this time, by warning the Qatari royal family off Stirk's plans for the former Chelsea Barracks in London. The practice was sacked by the Qataris at an hour's notice, and years of work went to waste.

Rogers says: "For a long time we thought we were going to be all right, because Prince Charles had other things to think about, like Princess Diana dying. But he has some strange ideas on medicine, some strange ideas on farming and some very strange ideas on architecture. He believes architecture is something that doesn't change. And the problem is he doesn't discuss things, he makes statements." Harbour adds: "He does believe architecture can make the world a better place, so in the abstract, we have a lot in common. But if you are not prepared to debate your position..."

Rogers continues: "He loves Christopher Wren! But Wren was hated during his life because he was too modern." Harbour expands: "The irony is that his 'monstrous carbuncle' speech was made in Wren's extension to Hampton Court, which was a modern monstrosity compared to the original building." Harbour once visited the prince's pet architecture project, Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorset, "when I was on holiday nearby". He didn't much like it.

His career, says Rogers, has never been easy. "It's been a bloody lot of work to get here. After the Pompidou Centre, my partner was threatening to become a taxi driver. We went through some pretty difficult times. I thought I was going to have to give up architecture at least three times, not because I wanted to leave architecture, but because it seemed to want to leave me." Despite the Prince of Wales's best efforts, though, Rogers has kept at it. And, says Harbour: "He has many years to go." He adds: "I am still younger than Richard was when I joined the practice." I ask why it matters; is it that he will feel truly grown up when he reaches that age? "A deadly concept, growing up," pitches in Rogers. Harbour adds: "What is work? It's part of your life. The idea of stopping work, if you are fortunate enough to love it, is something I don't understand – and I know Richard doesn't."

Rogers, Stirk and Harbour's lecture on Cities and the Language of Architecture is at the RIBA, London W1, on 31 January © 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

December 19 2011

Lloyd's building joins Grade I elite at tender age of 25

Heritage minister's decision puts Richard Rogers's hi-tech design in the top 2.5% of all listed buildings

Richard Rogers's hi-tech, postmodern Lloyd's building, with its pipes, lifts and toilets presented on the outside, has become one of only a few modern buildings to be given Grade I listed status.

The decision, by the heritage minister, John Penrose, puts the building in the top 2.5% of all listed buildings. It now has the sort of protection given to St Paul's Cathedral and Windsor Castle.

The listing was recommended by English Heritage. Its designation director, Roger Bowdler, said it was "fitting recognition of the sheer splendour of Richard Rogers's heroic design. Its dramatic scale and visual dazzle, housing a hyper-efficient commercial complex, is universally recognised as one of the key buildings of the modern epoch."

Bowdler said its listing, which provides substantial protection but did not mean it is "pickled in aspic", had been enthusiastically supported. Penrose said the Lloyd's building "stands the test of time with its awe-inspiring futuristic design, which exemplifies the hi-tech style in Britain. It clearly merits the extra protection against unsuitable alteration or development that listing provides."

The Lloyd's building was opened in 1986, built after the success Rogers, with Renzo Piano, had with that other great inside-outside building, the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Providing a headquarters for Lloyd's of London, it manages to be both head-turningly futuristic and resolutely traditional. It includes the traditions and fabric of earlier Lloyd's buildings, not least the Adam Room, which was moved from Bowood House in Wiltshire, and the Lutine Bell, which was once rang to indicate an "overdue" ship but is these days is only used for ceremonial occasions.

It is one of only a handful of postwar buildings and structures to be given Grade I listing, joining Basil Spence's Coventry Cathedral (listed in 1988) Norman Foster's Willis Corroon Building in Ipswich (listed in 1991) and the Severn Bridge (listed in 1998).

Lloyd's chief executive, Richard Ward, said: "The building remains modern, innovative and unique – it has really stood the test of time just like the market that sits within it. This listing decision will protect the building against unsuitable alteration or development while retaining its flexibility to adapt within the market's needs."

Lord Rogers's practice, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, said in a statement that the listing was an honour: "It is important to conserve buildings of architectural and historical significance, and the work of English Heritage is central to that. It is also of vital importance for buildings to remain flexible spaces which meet the changing needs of those who live or work in them. English Heritage has recognised this, ensuring the spirit of the original design is retained while the building remains adaptable in the future."

At the other end of the heritage timeline, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport also announced that the early Mesolithic settlement Star Carr, near Scarborough – which contains what may be the earliest building in Britain – is being made a scheduled monument because of its rarity and archeological importance. The status gives the site an extra layer of protection against unauthorised change. © 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

How we learned to love the Lloyds building

Richard Rogers' 'bowellist' creation in the heart of London has been Grade-I listed

Twenty-five years young, the Lloyd's building is still shockingly new. Yesterday it was announced that this hi-tech City of London tour-de-force, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, has been listed Grade I by heritage minister John Penrose. The youngest to be granted that special status, it joins company with a select band of postwar buildings including the Royal Festival Hall and Coventry Cathedral.

Lloyds is also the first Grade I-listed building designed specifically for change. While listing protects historic monuments from insensitive alteration, the whole point of this late 20th-century reworking of Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, crossed with a North Sea oil-rig, is the flexible space it offers, and the promise that, one day, it might be re-arranged as easily as if it had been assembled from Meccano.

The inside-out, or "bowellist", look of the 88-metre high concrete structure, with its external wall-climbing glass lifts, exposed pipework and plug-in, stainless steel clad lavatory pods, is graphic evidence of the way this breathtaking ensemble was clipped together like a giant kit of parts.

Naturally, Lloyds has never been to everyone's taste – too much like an oil-refinery thumped down next to Wren's City churches and Neo-Classical banks clad in Portland stone – and its provocative design is all the more remarkable given that it was commissioned by and for apparently conservative, pin-striped City types.

With its soaring central atrium, the radical, open-plan interior is nothing short of sensational. Even then, it abounds in surprises. High up in the building, a door opens to reveal a complete Robert Adam boardroom of the 1760s, representing most people's idea of what Grade I listed buildings look like. Attitudes to modern architecture have clearly changed.

The biggest change of all since then, however, has been among conservationists themselves: in the 1980s, they tended to see Lloyds as a modern monstrosity. Now they love it. © 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

October 01 2011

Panorama: The Lloyd's building

As part of our series exploring Britain's architectural wonders, the Observer's architecture critic Rowan Moore introduces a spectacular interactive 360-degree panoramic photograph of Richard Rogers's Lloyd's building

• Explore the Lloyd's building panoramic here

The Lloyd's building is a case of a venerable institution trying to update its image by hiring an exciting modern architect. In the 1980s Lloyd's of London, then aged 300 or so, commissioned Richard Rogers to design their new headquarters. They were sold on his idea that, by putting pipes, lifts, stairs and toilets on the outside, in theoretically removable capsules, the building could be reconfigured at will. It didn't work out like that: the external shape has barely changed, and it is now likely to be listed as a historic building, which makes it as much a fixed monument as a Wren church. But as an excuse for visual dazzle, for a structure of gothic intricacy variously compared to a motorcycle engine and a coffee percolator, Rogers's concept worked brilliantly. Inside the building is more sober than the outside, but still grand, with an atrium plunging down from a glass barrel vault, criss-crossed by escalators, to a double height trading floor at the bottom. Here, in its incongruous dark wood baldachin, hangs the Lutine Bell, historically rung when a ship went missing. © 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 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

July 12 2011

Lloyd's listed: will it make the Grade?

The Lloyd's of London building may be awarded Grade I status by English Heritage – an honour this modern marvel deserves

Over the years it's been likened to an oil refinery, a North Sea oil rig and part of the set design of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. But 25 years after it was built, the inside-out structure of the Lloyd's building in the City of London still comes as a shock.

If you have never been inside this hi-tech wonder of the modern world, you will either have to become a member of the venerable insurance marketplace the building serves, or else wait for the next London Open House weekend hoping that the doors of this Richard Rogers tour de force will be thrown open to the public.

At once the most private and the most prominent modern building in central London, Lloyd's may well be listed this month. A report being prepared by English Heritage will soon be in the hands of Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. It is expected to recommend Grade I status, an honour accorded to very few post-1945 buildings. These include Coventry Cathedral by Sir Basil Spence and Norman Foster's black glass Willis Faber building in Ipswich, completed in 1975 and listed in 1991.

Normally, a building has to be 30 years old before the government can consider listing, although if a building more than 10 years old is threatened with change (as the Foster design was) English Heritage can recommend instant listing.

"This was originally the case with Lloyd's," says Jon Wright of The Twentieth Century Society (who preserve architecture built since 1914) "when changes were threatened to the interior of the great atrium. The threat has since gone, but we've been pushing English Heritage to recommend listing because who knows what might happen to the building in the future, especially if Lloyd's was ever to move out?"

Assuming that listing will go ahead this month, Lloyd's will join the ranks of Britain's medieval cathedrals, its grandest country houses, most daunting castles and enduring museums. Does it live up to the mark? Yes, very much so. Commissioned in 1978, a year after the opening of the Pompidou centre in Paris – the building that made Richard Rogers and his co-architect, Renzo Piano, famous – Lloyd's was an unexpected, bespoke design for an organisation characterised by stuffed-shirted, pinstriped chaps.

Here is a building with glass lifts rising up its steely exterior. Here are stainless steel-clad service towers housing prefabricated kitchen and washroom modules lifted by cranes into place. Here is one of the most impressive of all 1980s atriums, soaring 60 metres up to a barrel-vaulted glass roof and criss-crossed by yellow-edged escalators. Even today, the mesmeric interior seems out of step with the apparently old-fashioned culture of Lloyd's.

Design shocks follow one another up the building. On the 11th floor, doors from the hi-tech interior open into a perfectly preserved and wholly unforeseen committee room designed by Robert Adam, dating from the 1770s. It reminds me of the final scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronaut, Dr David Bowman, lands – after his mind-bending journey through space – in a semblance of a Louis XVI hotel room: here hi-tech and classicism met face-to-incomprehending-face, just as they do in Lloyd's.

"Listing Lloyd's will be a good thing," says Wright, "although we shouldn't forget that the building was always meant to have been flexible in use, so somehow it has to be granted Grade I status without stopping all future change. That's difficult."

It does seem odd to witness so young and radical a building as Lloyd's joining the ranks of castles and cathedrals, yet this hi-tech interloper is a monument of our times. What's next on the list? Watch out for news of Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (1978). If you haven't been here, it might also come as something of a shock: where else will you find one of the finest collections of primitive art housed in a building that resembles the sleekest possible aircraft hangar? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 24 2011

The shape of things to come?

Westminster's Chelsea Barracks planning decision is the latest in a series of victories for the heritage school of HRH. And there are signs that his views are falling on friendly ears in government

Not so long ago it seemed that Prince Charles, architecture guru and scourge of modernists, was safely shut up in his box. He seemed finally to have listened to shadowy advisers telling him that it would be inappropriate to get involved in public wrangles. The public and political mood had shifted in favour of the new. Contemporary buildings – the Gherkin, for example – were popular. The Prince's old adversary Lord (Richard) Rogers had the ear first of Tony Blair and then of Ken Livingstone, and some version of his theories influenced the planning system.

Furious letters would still spew from the prince's desk, urging developers to sack architects he did not like, or ministers to save an old building that he did, but these were private, and often ignored. The days when he could have multi-million pound developments ripped up and redesigned were seemingly consigned to the era of Wham! and Brideshead Revisited.

Now, however, he is enjoying his greatest influence in two decades. Last week Westminster city council approved prince-backed plans for redeveloping Chelsea Barracks in London, two years after his intervention led to a previous plan, by Rogers, being abandoned. The classicist architects the prince favours are quietly busy producing new country houses for the rich, "urban extensions" to country towns, and rural and suburban housing developments. The government is paying the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment to advise local groups on planning their neighbourhoods. The government's localism bill, currently winding through parliament, is supposed to empower villages and small communities to draw up their own development plans. If it works as intended, the future built environment of Britain, outside the big cities, could be prince-flavoured.

The first version of the architectural prince was launched in 1984 when, invited to mouth platitudes to a dinner celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he shocked his hosts by denouncing them. He famously called a proposed extension to the National Gallery a "monstrous carbuncle", though its architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek were then up-and-coming and, as it happened, noted for their skill with building in historic settings such as Keble College, Oxford. The prince's words dealt them a blow from which they never fully recovered. In further speeches he attacked other projects, and jumpy developers would then install architects, regardless of their ability or experience, blessed by the prince for their use of a classical style.

These architects would not always last the distance, being themselves replaced in due course by practices better able to deliver commercial projects. Often the effect of the Prince's actions was to delay development by many years, while developers worked the planning system to get the most they could out of the site. At Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, he had objected to an initial scheme partly on the grounds that it was too big and greedy. What was eventually built, much later, had a classical look but was even bigger. At London Bridge City, next to Tower Bridge, a prince-friendly, mock-Venetian proposal transmogrified into Norman Foster-designed grey glass blocks around what is now City Hall.

With the National Gallery, however, and some other sites, he got his way, while the mere thought of him could drive developers into a pre-emptive cringe, dressing up their blocks in columns and pediments in case they attracted his displeasure. Not that they were unhappy to do this – the prince captured a common mood, in the Thatcher years, of yearning for past glories and returning to supposedly traditional values. Architects, meanwhile, were still widely reviled for their actual and alleged failures in the 1960s, so their complaints at the prince's highhandedness got short shrift from the press. They objected that his actions were an abuse of his position, that he was ignorant and petulant, and that, while he was only too happy to launch attacks on others, he resolutely refused to engage in any kind of debate himself. But these objections did not get very far.

The prince had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, a book, a TV programme. He founded an architecture school based on the premise that there was an untapped hunger for learning architecture in the traditional way, and in 1994 he launched a magazine, Perspectives, promoting his views. In 1988 he commissioned the visionary urban theorist Leon Krier to produce a plan for developing Poundbury, an area of land outside Dorchester, Dorset, belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. Krier had famously declared ,"I am an architect, therefore I do not build", meaning that the modern world was too benighted to produce good architecture. The prince managed to persuade him otherwise.

There were separate strands to his philosophy, not wholly intertwining. One was populist, arguing that most people liked old-looking buildings, so experts should not impose modernism against their wishes. Another was nostalgic, with a preference for English classical architecture of about 300 years ago. Another was mystical, arguing that there are deep harmonies in the universe which are reflected in the sort of buildings he liked.

Perspectives did not thrill the masses, and closed. Nor did students flock to the architecture school, which was restructured as the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, with a reduced emphasis on education. Meanwhile the prince's architectural court was subject to intrigues that would have delighted the Borgias. Fashion changed, architects became less hated, and a few more people than embittered professionals began to see that there was something wrong with the prince using his fame and status to intervene in debates which he possibly did not understand. Apart from Poundbury, the prince's influence seemed to shrink to the area around Buckingham Palace, where one of his pet architects, John Simpson, rebuilt the Queen's Gallery, and another, Liam O'Connor, designed the Commonwealth Memorial Gates as a reduced-scale version of Lutyens's monuments in New Delhi.

But Poundbury was his lifeline, and his biggest success. Here he was doing what he wanted with his own land rather than meddling in the affairs of others. Although Poundbury got the look – it is a medley of Georgian, Dorset cottage and pointy, Gothicky bits – it also embodied principles which went beyond his stylistic taste, and which were not so different from those of adversaries like Richard Rogers. It mixes uses, putting offices and workshops in among houses, rather than in separate zones. It mixes affordable housing with market housing, such that it is hard to tell the difference. It is built at higher density than typical suburbs, so that it consumes less land and encourages neighbourliness. It promotes pedestrian movement over driving.

Buyers liked it. It achieved above-average values, and properties appreciated. Its periphery is now a whirr of construction, as more and more homes are built to meet the demand to live there. Personally, it makes my flesh creep, with its winsome, confected quality, and with its paranoid insistence on conjuring a bygone world that never existed, which illusion is painfully punctured by the appearance of modern steel frames in the half-built buildings. As even one of the Prince's allies says: "You can't claim it is traditionally Dorset by any stretch of the imagination."

But I wouldn't live in Dorchester anyway, and I can see that it works, and that it is much better than the average housebuilders' wares. I can even see some charm in the winding lanes, now softened by well-established planting.

Similar ideas were applied on other Duchy of Cornwall properties, in places like Shepton Mallet and Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Meanwhile the foundation, repurposed as an advisory, thinktank sort of body, made itself more credible. Its chief executive, Hank Dittmar, was formerly a leading light of the American New Urbanism movement, which has been pumping out walkable, compact residential developments for some time. Its most famous work is Seaside, the holiday town in Florida where The Truman Show was shot. Under Labour the foundation talked the government-approved talk of sustainability, regeneration and public participation. It developed something called Enquiry by Design, where local residents and experts come together in workshops before plans for new development are completed: the idea is that local knowledge and wishes are incorporated into the final designs. The foundation won the attention of John Prescott, and advised on the planning of Upton, an extension of Northampton, on Poundbury-esque principles. Now, in Sunderland, Ayrshire, Swansea, Burnley and elsewhere, there are foundation-led plans in various stages of completion. The foundation has even been hired by the developers First Base, usually known for their use of contemporary design, to advise on a classical-looking development in a conservation area in Highbury, north London.

It has published a book called Tradition and Sustainability, and is building a prototype, called the Natural House, which aims to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not require modern-looking gadgets but can be achieved with something that looks like an approximation of an 1840s villa. The foundation has gone international, with projects in China, the Galapagos, and Haiti, the latter a plan in the heart of Port au Prince, which looks wildly optimistic in its serene orderliness.

The foundation apart, architects from the princely fold are doing well. Robert Adam, of Adam Architecture, has long been the most business-like of traditionalist architects and, having designed some projects for the Duchy of Cornwall, is now masterplanning an extension to Dover with a whopping 5,750 homes, and residential developments in Waterlooville and Aldershot. He also has a nice line in huge, brand new country houses, which he says reflects the fact that "London is a global city". His clients are "Russians, Indians, Middle Eastern: they want the English dream but they want to be able to do what they like with their house, which they can't do if it's old". Adam recently lost a planning inquiry into his enormous £20m Athlone House proposal in Hampstead, but has plenty more opportunities of a similar kind.

At Chelsea Barracks the prince had written a personal letter to the ruler of Qatar, as his family's property company Qatari Diar were owners of the site, urging him to abandon Richard Rogers's plans. His "heart sank" at the sight of what he called "a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city". He punted an alternative scheme by Quinlan Terry, the doyen of modern classicists, and his son Francis. Ultimately the Terrys did not get the job, but Rogers was fired and a collaboration of Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and the landscape architect Kim Wilkie, produced designs which aim to reproduce the virtues of Georgian and Victorian terraces and squares. This was a turning point, a moment of regime change. Lord Rogers's project would, if built, have been the fulfilment of years of campaigning and building influence with the likes of Ken Livingstone in order to realise his vision of the city. Its dumping, supported by Tories like the deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, marked the end of that particular era.

The Chelsea Barracks Action Group, made up of local residents, were vociferous opponents of the Rogers scheme, and were delighted with the prince's actions. Now, however, they are disappointed that a change of style has not changed the fact that the proposed housing blocks are up to 100 feet high. "They will be regarded in history as the beginning of the end of our gracious English city," says the chair of the group, Georgine Thorburn, using prince-like language. She also says that the Qataris have "duped" the council. Alas for the group, unless Boris Johnson can be persuaded to intervene, her words come too late. In the latest version of prince-ism, the pragmatists have won over the mystics and true believers, which means that, as the prince himself inclines to the latter camp, his own input is diluted. His recent contribution to the mystic cause, a book called Harmony, failed to set the world on fire. Quinlan Terry, always the purest of the classicists, is doing perfectly well with country houses, buildings for Downing College, Cambridge, and occasional commercial work, but he is not shaping whole towns.

The Prince's Foundation, according to Elliot Lipton of developers First Base, "is very flexible. It has no preconceptions, which isn't what you might expect if you listened to their leader. They're very good at understanding real world trade-offs."

The foundation gets into bed with developers such as Wimpey in Westoe, South Shields, with the result that they achieve an arguably better version of usual Wimpey fare, rather than a radical alternative. Upton, the extension to Northampton, as Hank Dittmar acknowledges, is a partly compromised version of the original intentions. By being more pragmatic, the foundation gets less distinctive: plenty of others have put forward energy-efficient houses, and public consultation, and walkable, high-density communities. These ideas are "sort of the norm, mainstream", says Robert Adam. Works outside the princely sphere, like the Greenwich Millennium Village, and the Accordia development in Cambridge, put them into practice.

What remains distinctive is the look, the preference for a randomised variety of traditional styles, with Georgian and Country Cottage foremost among them. This is a source of strength, as a lot of people like this – according to Robert Adam, 70% prefer old-looking buildings to new. The competition, in the form of volume housebuilders' standard product, is largely poor. In combination, these factors are effective when it comes to reducing outrage at controversial plans, which, with continuous pressure of development in town and country, will continue to appear. Poundbury itself is the expansion of Dorchester into green fields, and many locals still object to it on those grounds. The Dover expansion, as Adam recognises, met strong opposition on the grounds of its size. The switch of styles got Chelsea Barracks through the planning system, to Georgine Thorburn's dismay.

Under the localism bill, communities and villages will have the power to draw up their own plans for development, in ways that benefit them. There is scepticism as to whether this will really happen, but if it does, communities will face the central problem of rural planning: how to reconcile the pressures for new development, the high values that housing can yield, the need for affordable new homes, and the preservation of villages. The models offered by the Prince's Foundation, with a combination of public consultation, and a style that tries to disguise that change has happened, will be attractive. Even if localised planning does not work, the palliative effect of traditionalist design will still be in demand.

I have long believed that the prince should keep his mouth shut rather than use his inherited status to give weight to views greater than his wisdom alone would merit. He should not change policies, lives and careers with the force of his name. Sometimes he might be right, sometimes wrong, but that is not the point. In 2009 the RIBA, ever masochists, invited him back for their 175th birthday. Sitting through his talk I felt growing rage at his tendentious nonsense – the demonstrably untrue statement that modernist architects were nature-haters, for example – and at the fact that no one was allowed to challenge him directly. He sallies forth to attack others then immediately takes shelter behind the dignity of his position. I also find depressing the idea that a modern house can be no better than a half-convincing photocopy of an old one, or that, as we live in a time when large windows are easy to achieve, we should build small, mean ones, as in Poundbury, just because they look old.

Yet he is entitled to do what he likes, within the constraints applied to any landowner, with his own property, and he and his associates have come up with ways of building new rural developments that have a certain logic. The range of alternative models is not abundant, and architects and developers who would do better should study the reasons for the appeal of the prince's way. As things stand, Poundbury is a glimpse of the future. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 17 2011

Constructive criticism

A week of high-flying British architecture with the launch of Apple's Norman Foster-designed headquarters, the revised Chelsea Barracks plan and an eyecatching east London folly

While everyone was salivating over the launch of Apple's iCloud last week, Steve Jobs's other product launch garnered less attention. This was Apple's colossal new headquarters building in Cupertino, California – a gigantic white UFO sitting in 150 acres of landscaped parkland, designed for 12,000 workers. For obvious reasons, it has already been dubbed the "mothership". Nor has its designer been widely publicised, but we can reveal it's good old Norman Foster – who else?

Foster's people wouldn't reveal any details, but there are some in this video of Jobs presenting the scheme to Cupertino City Council, where it was received just as rapturously as a new iPad. "We do have a shot at building the best office building in the world," Jobs tells the awestruck councillors. "I really do think architecture students will come here to see this."

So what about the design? Foster has obviously taken a leaf out of Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive's book – sorry, iPad. It looks like the circular trackpad of a giant iPod. If you run around the building very quickly, does a giant playlist light up in the sky? Mind you, by the time it's finished in 2015, it could look out of date.

The purity of the four-storey doughnut's impact on the landscape is also slightly compromised, it emerges, by other buildings on the site, including a four-storey car park. But none of the councillors seem to raise any objections; they're too busy geeking out their celebrity guest. "The word spectacular would be an understatement," grovels one of them, Mr Smithers-style. Just to drive the point home, Jobs mentions that Apple is the largest taxpayer in Cupertino, and hints that if he doesn't get his way, Apple will take their business elsewhere. Presumably the whole building will be able to take off and land in New Mexico, or something.

More good news for Foster and other British architects at this year's spurious but intriguing Best Tall Building awards. Foster's 80-storey Dubai tower, known as The Index – an energy-efficient, Italian futurist-looking affair – won in the Middle East and Africa category. Wilkinson Eyre won the Asia award for their colossal but elegant Guangzhou International Finance Centre – all 103 storeys of it. And Anglo-German architects Sauerbruch Hutton won the Europe award for their tasteful, low-energy Frankfurt office building, KfW Westarkade. The other winner was Frank Gehry's stunning Eight Spruce Street, a shimmering, steel-clad skyscraper that looks better than anything we're likely to find on the nearby World Trade Centre site. Though it does go by the pretentious name New York by Gehry, which makes it sound uncomfortably like a perfume.

Richard Rogers probably wishes he'd had Apple-style planning meetings over the Chelsea Barracks redevelopment in London. Instead, his design was controversially rejected when Prince Charles threw a royal spanner in the works last year, complaining about that vulgar hi-techie stuff to the Qatari royals.

No surprise that the revised design for the £3bn scheme is expected to be approved by Westminster council today, although the Qatari developers are said to be trying to reduce the amount of affordable housing in the scheme. No surprise, either, that the new plan, by Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and landscape architect Kim Wilkie, is considerably more "traditional", laid out around London squares. Whoever designs the actual buildings will have to adhere to a preordained design code, which insists they "work in sympathy with surrounding character areas and architectural types without resorting to pastiche". Apparently Prince Charles is pleased.

After all this high-flying power architecture, we finally come right down to earth – to a little spot underneath a motorway flyover in east London. Here, a delightful temporary structure is under construction called Folly for a Flyover, as part of this year's Create festival. As designers Assemble explain, it's almost a stage set of a building, with curtain walls of wooden "bricks" made from salvaged timber, hung from scaffolding and held in place by cords running through the bricks. The pitched roof of the folly will poke out between the two roadways, and next to it are steps that serve as an outdoor seating area.

Not only is the folly ingenious and low-impact, it poetically turns a patch of dead urban space into a living venue. As the romantic engraving suggests, it's intended to feel like a forgotten piece of architecture which existed long before they built the A12 over the top of it – a building with a fictional history. Assemble, a collective of young designers and artists, were also behind last year's Cineroleum, a temporary cinema in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell. This serves a similar function: it'll be a bar/cafe during the day, and in the evening you'll be able to watch films and performances on city themes, while traffic rumbles overhead, the Olympic building site bustles nearby and barges chug past on the canal. Sounds like the quintessential London summer experience. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2011

Back in the bullring: Richard Rogers's Las Arenas – in pictures

A Barcelona bullring – built in 1900 but left to decay as interest in bullfighting faded – has been transformed by architect Richard Rogers into a retail, entertainment and leisure complex

May 24 2011

Las Arenas: Beware of the stampede

The people of Barcelona are flocking back to this once cherished bullring – now that Richard Rogers has turned it into a Pompidou-style mall with a stunning view

Federico García Lorca described bullfighting as "probably Spain's greatest poetic and life-sustaining wealth". So what does it mean now that the corrida is giving way to the rituals of metrosexual grooming? This is what has happened at Las Arenas, formerly Barcelona's second bullring and now its newest shopping mall. The ornate, Moorish-looking circular facade of the original remains; but inside, architect Richard Rogers has inserted a colourful circus of leisure, in an atrium criss-crossed by escalators, walkways and giant structural elements. It's like walking into a giant tin of Quality Street, populated by Spanish fashionistas buying designer shades.

To be fair, it's not just the young and hip who come here. Las Arenas had more than 300,000 visitors in its opening week this March: that's around a tenth of the city. The rooftop public viewing terrace has been a huge hit, offering an unrivalled 360-degree view of the city. Families seem to have incorporated the building into their evening stroll. Senior citizens stare in amazement as they ascend the escalators, perhaps recalling great bullfights they saw at Las Arenas, where fearless matadors once struck poses in the face of charging bovine fury; now, the closest contact between man and beast might be the purchase of a leather manbag.

Next January, Catalonia will become the second Spanish state after the Canary Islands to have abolished bullfighting. Barcelona has been the epicentre of the anti-bullfighting movement; but, despite the fact that an estimated 70% of Spaniards are indifferent to the sport, and much of the outside world regards it with horror, the rest of Spain is unlikely to follow just yet. There is a vociferous minority who regard it as an inseparable part of Spain's identity, starting with King Juan Carlos, who once said: "The day the EU bans bullfighting is the day Spain leaves the EU."

Catalonia's rejection of bullfighting could be seen less as a cultural shift than a political one, part of its long-running beef with central government over issues of autonomy – though it has proved a red rag to nationalists. As a riposte, Madrid last year classified bullfighting as a protected part of the region's cultural patrimony. Valencia and Murcia did the same. "It is an art form that deserves to be protected," said Esperanza Aguirre, leader of Madrid's conservative regional government, adding that it "has been part of Mediterranean and Spanish culture since time immemorial".

Few could argue with Aguirre's latter point. No other country has formed such a complex relationship with an animal. The bull has shaped Spain's art and culture, from cave paintings right up to the famous Osborne brandy bull, the giant black billboard silhouette that looms over landscapes across the country. Goya, in particular, was influential in his enthusiasm for the death, drama and symbolism of the corrida; he even designed costumes for matadors. His 1815 work La Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting) features 33 lithographs that recall – or perhaps imagine – a colourful history of the sport. Men pole-vault over bulls and fight them sitting on chairs or standing on tables; often the bulls get the upper hand. Picasso, who sketched fights as a boy, said the bull in Guernica represented "brutality and darkness" against the people. Bullfighting is still reported on the arts pages in Spanish newspapers.

But, while the corrida might have cemented feelings of Spanish identity elsewhere, the same cannot be said of Catalonia, where it is often seen as the "foreign" sport of the Castilian oppressors. Post-Franco, Spain has successfully settled regional differences using another cultural medium: architecture. The shining example is Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, which not only put the Basque city on the cultural map, but helped bring a precarious peace between the separatist region and the rest of Spain. Now, in Barcelona, the architecture of Las Arenas is doing the opposite: sending out a message of regionalist defiance.

Las Arenas had not hosted a bullfight since 1977. It was built in 1900, on what was then the city's south-western edge. One of three bullrings in Barcelona, it had been a local landmark; but when the architects took possession of it, the building was covered in graffiti, trees were growing in it, and homeless people sheltered in its stalls. "It might have been easier to completely rebuild it," Rogers tells me. "It was a very weak structure with very thin walls. We had to shore the facade, then almost completely rebuild it inside. But the thing they insisted on, and I think they were proven right, was keeping the circular form, the historic form. It's not just a building – it's a piece of Barcelona."

The exterior is in a style known as neo-mudéjar, a 19th-century revival of Moorish architecture, characterised by striped stone arches and ornate tile and brickwork. This style was adopted by many bullrings of the era, including Madrid's Las Ventas, Lisbon's Campo Pequeno (which now has an underground shopping centre), and La Monumental, Barcelona's other surviving bullring, currently holding its final season. After that, chances are it will also undergo a Las Arenas-style transformation.

Having been built before the road outside, Las Arenas sits several metres above street level, a fact that Rogers exploits. A ring of steel supports around the base seems to hold the entire facade up in the air, and one enters the building by walking beneath it. The shopping and cinema levels within are an independent structure, organised around a central atrium, while the top two floors and the roof deck, which jut out over the old facade, are held up by four giant structural arms rising dramatically through the atrium. Where once the area around the bullring was taken up with its facilities – pens for the bulls, plus those two essentials, a chapel and a hospital – now it is all accessible public space, making it once again a piece of the city. "I have to say," says Rogers, "it's turned out better than I ever expected."

The term "hi-tech" now seems a quaint way to describe Rogers's style, especially in a historic refit like this; but, as with his breakthrough design for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the structural and service systems within the building are openly expressed in bright colours, and the joins between old and new are treated with similar honesty. Each service element here is coloured according to function: red for the structural steel; yellow for the giant structure supporting the roof; orange for the toilet cubicles; purple and pink for the fire escape and ventilation. The colours bring to mind the capes and costumes of the matadors, though now we humans are the cattle being coaxed by them.

If bullfighting was never Barcelona's thing, architecture very much is. This is surely the most architecturally exciting and forward-looking city in Europe. Looking out across the city from Las Arenas, it's an enviable spread of enlightened city-making. Ildefons Cerdà's visionary street plan of the 1860s laid the foundations for Catalonia's distinctive modernista movement of the early 20th century, which peppered the city grid with sensuous, organic structures, not least the works of local hero Antoni Gaudì, whose Sagrada Familia is the city's stunning centrepiece.

Back from the dead

There has always been room for foreign architects in Barcelona, too. A stone's throw from Las Arenas, Mies van der Rohe's cool, minimal German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition has been reconstructed, a true jewel of Modern architecture. Today, the city is dotted with works by virtually every great architect of our age. Rogers himself has something of a special relationship with Barcelona. He designed the Hesperia hotel, a little further out, in 2006, but he has also served as an adviser on architecture and urbanism to two Barcelona mayors, Pasqual Maragall and Joan Clos, who are credited with turning the city around.

"Barcelona has had the most amazing success, in terms of urban regeneration, probably in Europe," says Rogers. "They said it would take them 20 years to make a difference, and that's what they did. They connected up the city: it had been terribly cut off from the sea by the old port, which had died and was a no-go area. Now it's five kilometres of beach and city. It's made Barcelona what it is."

Rogers also notes that Barcelona is the only city that has successfully exploited its hosting of the Olympics, in 1992, to improve the city. It was the template for London's 2012 Olympic plans, says Rogers, who was Ken Livingstone's urban adviser. "You can't just spend x billion pounds for 17 days of sport. You must use it as a catalyst to improve the life of the city, and to lever the poorest areas of the city on to a better economic and social footing – which is exactly what we plan to do in London." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

One Hyde Park – review

The best penthouse suite in One Hyde Park will reportedly set you back £140m. But is it worth it?

It is a silo for oligarchs, a warehouse for sheikhs. It has grown up, like a Beckham sprog, in the glare of publicity. The prices of its flats have become, thanks to carefully planted and unverifiable news stories, the stuff of legend: £15m for three bedrooms, £140m for a 3,000sq m triplex penthouse – reportedly the most expensive apartment ever.

This is One Hyde Park, the £500m development of 86 flats in Knightsbridge, west London. It is the brainchild of Nick and Christian Candy, who were to the dizzy world of 00s property what the Gallagher brothers were to 90s music. They were stars, feted in magazine profiles, celebrated for their stylishness and wizardry.

They are now comparatively cash-lite and, although they have managed the development of the project, they do not actually own the building – it belongs to a consortium that includes the prime minister of Qatar. Instead, Candy and Candy are credited for their "exclusive interior design", a shimmering, silvery cream, leather and silk art decoish affair.

They are part of an array of brands intended to lure buyers: design by Candy and Candy, "legendary service" by the Mandarin Oriental hotel, "acclaimed art" by James Turrell, Rolex and McLaren shops, and security by the SAS or, at least, SAS-trained personnel. It is the self-declared "best project in the world" at the "world's most glamorous address".

It is planned so that residents need never put their feet on a pavement or jostle with the general public. Cars can sweep them into the complex and an underground tunnel connects to the neighbouring Mandarin Oriental hotel, enabling its exquisite room service to get to the apartments. There is a 21 metre swimming pool, spa, cinema and golf simulator. It assuages anxieties, including some you never knew you had: there are iris-recognition scanners, while an optional extra is a camera that films your back and plays it out with time delay on a mirror, so that you know you look as immaculate behind as before.

The project's big brands are its architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the practice founded by Lord Rogers of Riverside. Rogers has long proselytised for the "compact city". He argues for high-density development, tempered with "good design" and "high-quality public space", leading to "vibrant" cities. He wants "cohesion". "Unless cities," he wrote, "work constantly to prevent social, racial, physical and economic divisions, their communities will fall apart and the city will not work."

In his day job, as an architect following a brief set by clients, in a climate made by economics and planners, he does not find it easy to achieve everything that, as a seer, he would wish. One Hyde Park, rising to 14 storeys on a narrow site, certainly ticks the density box. Its contribution to social cohesion is less obvious, although its developers have paid for 70 affordable homes in the posh-ish district of Pimlico, as part of the deal necessary to secure planning permission.

One Hyde Park's contribution to public space is to improve a nasty 1960s road layout that came with Bowater House, a big office block formerly on the site. There are routes to Hyde Park on either side of the site, with slightly meagre pavements. Also, in response to some scruples of the planners, some shrubberies facing the street are encased in glass. These are nice enough, a little odd, and don't amount to much, but the architects reasonably point out that they are more than most buildings in the area give to the public. They might have added that, with the 250 hectares of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens close by, creating more open space is not the most pressing need.

The architects' greatest influence on the project comes under the heading of "good design". They have put considerable effort into shaping the new building's volume, which is twice that of Bowater House, so that it doesn't crowd and loom as much as it might. One Hyde Park is broken up into four blocks that are tapered and staggered in plan, which allows views forwards, to the park or across Knightsbridge, but not sideways into neighbours' flats. Glass lift towers are placed between each block, to make the development less fortress-like and monolithic, and allow fragments of sunlight to pierce from the south side to the north. Full-scale mock-ups were made of pieces of the building to see how this would work.

Graham Stirk, the RSHP partner in charge of the design, says that it is "highly crafted", to an extent not matched by the practice since its Lloyd's building of 1986. By this, he means the attention given to each detail and choice of material, from the pristine white concrete frame to the sharp lifts to the pre-patinated copper alloy privacy screens.

He also means that, in the tradition of modernist and arts and crafts architecture, there is nothing cosmetic: everything you see is performing a purpose, as well as trying to look good. He says that One Hyde Park's reddish and off-white colours are designed to echo but not mimic its stone and brick neighbours. Its irregular skyline is intended to be less brutal to views from Hyde Park than Bowater House, which was higher and blunter.

It is still somewhat stark, made tough by its untempered repetitiousness, but it has a quality of conception, proportion and detail that is streets ahead of almost any other new luxury apartment block. The bigger question is whether we should be outraged by this defensive enclave for the super-rich. Or that leftie architects should take modernist architecture, once seen as a tool of social progress, and use it to make such development look respectable.

Actually, I'm not outraged. This is Knightsbridge, a place long made of monuments to exclusivity, and it's better that One Hyde Park should be part of London than behind a fortified fence in some suburb, as it would be in many cities. Last week, I saw an ostentatious, two-tone Bugatti parked nearby, absurdly penile in its folds and curves, supervised by two heavies in a Porsche while its owner went shopping. It was striking, nauseous and funny, but not something to be banned. One Hyde Park is similar, with the difference that its clean-lined design is much better than the Bugatti's. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 06 2011

A Havana cigar for breakfast?

We asked everyone from John Humphrys to Tessa Jowell to Rafael Nadal what they have for breakfast

Helena Bonham Carter, actor

I have muesli – organic Alara, ordinary everyday mix. No sugar. I tend to have it with some yoghurt, Yeo Valley or Rachel's low-fat vanilla. And fresh orange juice, not squeezed – Tropicana. Sometimes I have a frozen banana. I take the skin off the night before and pop it in the freezer. Mmm. Banana ice-cream! On rare occasions, I might have scrambled eggs on toasted soda bread. I do my own breakfast.

Lord Richard Rogers, architect

Breakfast! I love it. It's great to come down to coffee from a really good espresso machine. And a pile of fruit – raspberries, strawberries, peaches, little Pakistani mangoes when they're in season – all cut up with Greek yoghurt. Sometimes I have toast with Marmite. I've been having that since schooldays. Ruthie [Rogers, his wife, the chef and co-founder of the River Café) and I try to have breakfast together, usually in dressing gowns. Often there are people in and out and we are on the hoof. When we are in Italy we have salted anchovies and bruschetta.

Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood; shadow minister for the Olympics

I'm pretty routine about breakfast. I get up at about 6.30 and have hot water to which I add fresh ginger and a slice of lemon – very good for the immune system. Then I go down to the gym. I usually eat at 7.45am. I have porridge – I'll ring the changes – maple syrup, nuts. I went off cappuccino, the soapy taste, but I'm on it again, although now I have more coffee, really strong, and less milk. And I love roibosch with a slice of lemon. I do like breakfast to be the meal of the day. There's no rush. These are private moments of complete pleasure. When I was a young woman I didn't eat breakfast. Now that's as unthinkable as not having a shower.

Rafael Nadal, tennis player

I have to have breakfast. No tea. No coffee. Hot chocolate. And Quelitas (traditional Majorcan crackers made of wheat flour, sunflower oil, yeast, olive oil and sea salt). I have them with Majorcan sheep's cheese, or sometimes marmalade, or with sobrasada (Majorcan pate made from pig meat and paprika). I have oranges and orange juice too. When travelling, I might have a croissant with Nutella, or cornflakes with chocolate. I like breakfast.

John Humphrys, presenter

I have two breakfasts if I'm doing the Today programme. When I get to the office at 4.15am, I have a large bowl of fruit, muesli and yoghurt, and a banana – on the assumption it might help my brain work more efficiently. No tea or coffee till after. I drink gallons of water instead. When I get home I have toast with Marmite or blackcurrant and apple jam made by a nice lady who comes when I do Mastermind. On ordinary days, I have fresh grapefruit, then toast and the papers with a pot of tea made with leaves. Not tea bags.

Marie Helvin, former model

In the summer, fruit; in winter, cheese on toast. I'm addicted to Leerdammer, a mild continental cheese, on rye. I think of eggs as an evening meal food. If I'm really going to town, I use my juicer. There's nothing better than starting the morning with carrot and ginger. I don't drink tea or coffee – I probably have one a year and it always sends me flying to the moon.

Sir Terence Conran, designer

I have a glass of juice. Orange. I'm glad to say proper stuff. And coffee, freshly ground, Gourmet Noir from the Algerian Coffee Store. I've been using it since the age of 20. With milk, warmed of course. Sixty years I've been pouring that into my bladder. And a cigar. A good Havana called Hoya de Monterrey. My wife complains at the smoking. I'm normally dressed at breakfast and we have it in the kitchen-dining room in London, or in our country house. When I'm driving long distances in France, I love having breakfast in lorry drivers' caffs – or crisp croissants in a good hotel.

Carlos Acosta, principal guest artist of the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden

I need carbohydrates, but they have to be digestible. You can't go to a ballet class with a full stomach. Breakfast has to be healthy too. I have coffee, Cuban of course, made by my fiancee, with sugar. I like sugar very much. I have sugar with coffee, not coffee with sugar. I try to have protein – eggs, or an omelette with brown wheat toast. You need this. I hammer my body every day. After ballet class, orange juice. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2010

In praise of Brutalism

The Gateshead car park is being demolished this week. It's a tragedy, and not just for its architect

Owen Luder, twice president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, is Britain's unluckiest architect. In the 60s his firm designed several once-celebrated, subsequently reviled Brutalist buildings – all now either demolished, defaced or derelict.

The latest casualty is Trinity Square in Gateshead, a combined car park and shopping centre most famous for its malevolent, melodramatic presence in Mike Hodges' Get Carter. It's one of a series of commissions that bankrupted their developer, E Alec Colman Investments – along with the (mutilated, clad in white plastic) Eros House in Catford and the (demolished, replaced by a surface car park) Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth.

Though Luder's name was on the contracts and blueprints, the lead designer was Rodney Gordon, a former social architect with the London county council seduced into shopping centres. Trinity Square promised the realisation of his dreams – a metropolis architecture of dramatic skylines, multiple levels and striking forms, on a parsimonious budget. He died last year, entirely unrepentant.

And why should he have been? These are – or rather, were – wrenchingly powerful, physical buildings, in a tradition of dark, looming, twisted architecture that stretches from Newcastle Cathedral to John Vanbrugh. Unfortunately, we have collectively decided that architecture must be either Heritage – only Baroque is allowed to be bulging and overwhelming, only Gothic can be freakish and discordant – or Regeneration, in which case all must be glassy, shiny and colourful. Luder and Gordon's generation were too modern for the former, not patronising enough for the latter.

Luder didn't descend from Hampstead to foist his gigantic concrete buildings on the benighted proletariat, but from the Old Kent Road. "Growing up as I did in rented rooms in tightly built Victorian terrace houses with no inside loo," he said, "I went along with Le Corbusier's vision of beautifully appointed multistorey houses set in big landscaped open spaces." Yet Eros House, the Tricorn and Trinity Square were cranky, strange things, doomed to commercial failure because of their architectural caprices. The Tricorn never had enough retail space to entice an "anchor", was not sufficiently freeze-dried and air-conditioned. Proles for Modernism, a mysterious south-coast group who picketed the Tricorn's redevelopers, praised it for exactly this reason.

The Tricorn's demolition inspired protests, artworks and graffiti ("WARNING – THIS BUILDING MAY PROVOKE INTEREST"). As if to neuter this, Gateshead council has sponsored both Trinity Square's demolition and its commemoration in various art events.

When he was Riba president, Luder famously hailed Richard Rogers' Lloyd's building – essentially a more expensive Tricorn in steel – as "sod you" architecture. But at the same time, he is rare in architectural circles for actually trying to explain his buildings – when Trinity Square popped up on Channel 4's Zhdanovite Demolition, Luder managed to sway some of its haters.

Trinity Square failed to be sufficiently boring. That's not the case with its mooted replacement – a Tesco store with student flats on top, clad in as many materials as possible so as not to offend, concrete-framed but avoiding the dreaded faux pas of showing the material. Rodney Gordon claimed "architecture should appeal to the emotions. It should give you that feeling from your balls to your throat". With this demolition, we're exchanging architecture as a physical experience for buildings as a mute, grinning, lobotomised accompaniment to consumerism. We should lament it, not cheer it on. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2010

Prince Charles, disgusted of Windsor

By meddling in the Chelsea barracks affair, the heir to the British throne has made himself an issue, weakening his own credibility and possibly that of the monarchy as a whole

There are two easily exaggerated ways of interpreting the Prince of Wales's role in the Chelsea barracks development row – and then there's the truth. But the truth is bad enough.

Exaggeration number one is to pretend that nothing of any consequence happened when the heir to the British throne lobbied the Qatari royal family against a Richard Rogers design for a major London development he disliked and then became embroiled in detailed negotiations which included further lobbying to outflank the planning process. Prince Charles's defenders claim the activities, which have been revealed in emails in a high court case, are legitimate campaigning that anyone who feels strongly about such developments might undertake. Such an intervention, though, is hardly an everyday matter – as the prince's anxiety to avoid publicity about the affair underscores. All of us may have the right to make objections to developments we dislike. But a royal objector is infinitely more equal than others.

Equally exaggerated, though, is the pretence that this is the thin end of a large constitutional wedge. This argument casts the prince as an incorrigible interventionist whose concerns about Richard Rogers's architecture, though serious enough in themselves, are an outrider for an extensive conservative agenda which would be given fuller rein if and when the prince ascends the throne. If the prince has no intention of living within the planning rules on the Chelsea barracks while he is heir, goes the argument, think what he might get up to when, unlike most elderly Disgusteds of Windsor, the full prerogative monarchical powers of the late 17th century constitutional settlement are conferred upon him. The problem with this argument is that he simply wouldn't dare. But, if he did, he wouldn't last five minutes.

So is there no problem in the Chelsea barracks affair beyond the fact – undoubtedly an irksome one to those involved – of a titled reactionary interfering in the cityscape and by doing so putting some developers out of pocket? Actually, no, even though this intervention in the London built environment is hardly a small one, or the first of its kind.

The larger issue is that the prince is a meddler. This doesn't mean (probably) that he is keen to press his friend David Cameron to cut this or that project, appoint this or that minister or amend this or that bill, let alone that he regards the prospect of a Labour government as utterly ghastly, although he probably does. The problem is that he has made himself an issue. Whether this merely weakens his own credibility or that of the monarchy as a whole, it is further evidence of someone who is simply not well fitted to the role in which fortune has cast him. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 06 2010

Can architecture cure cancer?

Cancer care doesn't have to mean grim hospital wards, believes Maggie's co-founder Charles Jencks: uplifting buildings benefit both body and soul. But are they just an architectural placebo?

In pictures: Maggie's Centres present and future

Charles Jencks would be the last person to claim that architecture could replace chemotherapy, but he's the first to argue that it can make a difference to cancer patients. As the driving force behind cancer care charity Maggie's, and a well-established architectural writer, Jencks often finds himself having to defend his views. The Maggie's Centre initiative, named after Jencks's wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer in 1993, has grown from a one-off project to a mushrooming nationwide network – six existing buildings with more on the way, and a lengthening list of high-profile designers: Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas. As the idea has taken off, so Jencks has come under fire from both the scientific community, who question the validity of his claims (or media distortions of them); and the design community, who wonder if Maggie's Centres aren't injecting more architecture into small healthcare facilities than they strictly need.

Jencks is not advocating some deterministic equation between architecture and health – as if the sight of a well-detailed staircase could somehow zap away a malignant tumour – but he does believes in what he calls an "architectural placebo effect". "A placebo is a phoney cure that works," he explains. "This is very hard for the medical profession to get their teeth around because they hate placebos but scientifically, placebos work in about 30% of cases that are psychogenic diseases. You have to believe in a placebo or it won't work, but if it works it's obviously working in some indirect way, through feedback in the immune system, let us say, or in the willpower of the patient to take a more strenuous exercise in their own therapy.

"You can imagine all sorts of ways in which architecture adds to the placebo effect," he continues, "and in that sense it's impossible to measure. Here's a funny insight: in a way, the carers are more important than the patients. Because if the carers are cared for, they turn up, they enjoy it and you create this virtuous circle, this mood in a Maggie's Centre which is quite amazing. So architecture helps do that because it looks after the carers. There's a lot of people who would quite rightly attack that notion, and I don't want to claim that we can yet prove it, but we hope to."

Jencks presents his case in a new book whose title succinctly sums up his approach: The Architecture of Hope. "It is my hope, and it was Maggie's hope, to live longer with cancer. And I think any cancer patient, if you dig not too deeply, they want to live. So is there an architecture that helps you live?"

If there is, Jencks argues, it is not to be found in the modern hospital. He describes the space in which Maggie herself received her weekly chemotherapy as a form of "architectural aversion therapy" – a windowless neon-lit corridor of Edinburgh's Western General Hospital. Many of us are familiar with similar spaces. In the industrial age, the design of healthcare buildings has been dictated by the demands of hygiene and efficiency: hard, sterile surfaces; bright, white spaces; long corridors; artificial ventilation systems. The template has been updated a little in the PFI age with atrium lobbies and toothpaste-coloured cladding, but these places are still overwhelmingly alienating.

Jencks and others, such as the Dutch academic Cor Wagenaar, believe that modernism created a rupture in the long, intimate relationship between architecture and health. That history stretches back to ancient Greece, where temple complexes such as Epidauros were about healing the spirit as well as the body, and even Stonehenge, which recent findings suggest may have been a hospital. Its modern roots lie in the Enlightenment, when it was first proposed that good design of the built environment could do more for public health than the medical profession could. In a way, Maggie's Centres reconnect with this "secret tradition", says Jencks. Yes, we need medical environments to cure us, but we also need to feel like people again, rather than patients. He is not alone in this. Witness the Circle group's recent hospital in Bath, designed by Foster and Partners, which feels more like a boutique hotel. They, too, are recruiting architects such as Richard Rogers and Michael Hopkins to rethink hospital design on a more humane scale. Or there's the AHMM's bright, fresh Kentish Town Health Centre, also nominated for last year's Stirling prize, or Gareth Hoskins' civic-minded health centre designs. Things are changing.

There's no great architectural secret at work in the design of Maggie's Centres. They are defined by inarguably positive qualities: light, space, openness, intimacy, views, connectedness to nature – the opposite of a standard-issue hospital environment. They are domestic in scale, centred around the kitchen, a place where you can make yourself a cup of tea and have an informal conversation. In Jencks's words, they are buildings that hug you, but don't pat you on the head. It's not just about giving people architecture, he argues – it's also providing information, relief, psychological, emotional and even financial support – all of which contribute to the urge to go on living. Nor is there any set of instructions for architects as to how to achieve these goals. Frank Gehry's building, for example, combines a crinkly-roofed fairy tale aesthetic with a serene view over Dundee on one side and a garden maze on the other. Zaha Hadid's outlet in Fife has been compared to a Stealth bomber – sharp and black on the outside, but mercifully calm and light inside. More recently, Richard Rogers's London Maggie's Centre shut out the city behind rhubarb-pink walls and opened up an oasis of intimate, domestic-scaled spaces, all capped by a protective roof.

The award of the 2009 Stirling prize to Rogers' building was another gesture of approval for the Maggie's Centre approach, but it also raised the question of whether they really needed such star names to design them. In addition to the six existing Maggie's Centres, there are another six under way, including designs by Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas, the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and some of Britain's best-known names – Piers Gough, Chris Wilkinson, Ted Cullinan and Richard MacCormac. There are plans for as many as 23 buildings further down the line, even outposts in Hong Kong and Barcelona. If the brief is so relatively straightforward, why the starchitects? Is there a danger that Maggie's Centres are becoming more about prizes than patients – a free pass for virtuoso architects to get something built?

In Jencks's defence, Koolhaas and Hadid were fellow students of Maggie's. Gehry and co were lifelong friends of the couple. They just happened to hang out with future superstar architects. Besides which, Jencks says, without the media attention generated by these names, the charity would not have attracted the public donations that are enabling it to expand. Cancer affects up to one in three adults, after all. A great many people have been affected by Maggie's Centres already, and each of the new buildings hopes to serve a catchment area of two million people. "This was not thought of way back, that architecture would make such a difference to raising money," says Jencks. "And it's a double thing: it raises our profile, but it also gives us good buildings which last, so we benefit in the long term. I can't understand why other institutions haven't done the same." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 17 2010

Bring back Victorian values | Architecture

As Britain prepares for possible political change, we ask whether New Labour delivered on its promises of a bright new dawn for architecture

When Labour launched its manifesto last week, it chose a brand new building as a backdrop. This was the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Birmingham, where the first phases of a new £545m super-hospital will open in June. The forecourt where the cabinet gathered to brandish their paperless manifesto memory sticks looked somewhat bleak, but never mind. We were invited to admire the scale of the investment behind the V-formation of grinning ministers.

Labour has been an enthusiastic builder. It has embarked on a huge hospital building programme and has promised "to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school". It has celebrated construction which flourished in the prolonged boom. In his first conference speech as prime minister, Brown promised 240,000 new homes a year, a target that has shrivelled in the merciless drought of recession.

It also, in its early days, proclaimed the importance of architecture and design, to an extent never before heard from a British government.

In 1997, Sir Richard Rogers, soon to be ennobled, had the ear of Tony Blair, and his long, lonely campaign to better and beautify British cities was suddenly favoured. An Urban Task Force, chaired by Rogers, was set up. The government swept away the Royal Fine Arts Commission, a clubby, oak-panelled, leather-upholstered institution led by the fragrant Tory ex-minister Lord St John of Fawsley. In its place, it made the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, or Cabe, an organisation with expanded powers for influencing the quality of British architecture.

Ample construction plus good design should equal a transformation of the country, comparable to the Victorian wave of town halls, libraries and museums, and some of it has happened.

There are indeed parts of British cities better and brighter than they were before. There are some lovely school buildings such as Kingsdale school in south London and examples of decent housing such as Adelaide Wharf in east London.

A generation of young architects has grown up and been given the opportunity to prove their worth. British architecture was stagnant in the early 90s and now it's not, for which some of the credit is due to Labour.

But Labour has also presided over some of the poorest and most ill-considered housing of modern times, thanks mostly to the explosion of buy-to-let developments. In big cities, especially London, it has permitted grossly exploitative development with only the flimsiest pretence of being good architecture or planning.

Many of the new schools and hospitals are at best very ordinary, at worst soul-destroying. Their problem, as in other fields, has been the New Labour belief that you could hand over the delivery of social benefits to the private sector.

And so the ideals of Rogers's urbanism were corrupted. He always argued for a combination of increased urban densities and better designed environments, as in his beau ideal city of Barcelona. More people in cities, he said, would mean a more active and cared-for public realm, better use of public facilities and less use of cars and greenfield sites. Developers gleefully seized on the density part of his argument, always happy to maximise returns on their land. To cram a site could now be portrayed as a public service.

The "good design" part was put in the hands of Cabe and planning authorities, which would often do a good job of mitigating monstrosities and steering proposals in more intelligent directions. But the definition of good design became enfeebled. The concept arose that a development was good if it was "iconic" and was designed by a "world-class architect", with the latter notion being ever more flexibly interpreted. Coteries of consultancies grew up to verify what good design was, while architects of skyscrapers, sitting on Cabe's design review panels, would take it in turns to applaud each other's works.

By the mid-noughties, a type had emerged: an office or residential development straining at the limits of its site, extravagantly styled so as to earn the adjective "iconic", with "public realm", in the form of highly monitored aprons of granite, at its foot. Such developments would rarely work with their neighbours to form coherent urban fabric, which should surely be part of good architecture. They were individualistic and egotistical.

Some of the worst are still unbuilt. These include the Vauxhall Tower in London, pushed through by John Prescott against the advice of his planning inspector. Also the Pinnacle, or Helter-Skelter, the putative tallest building in the City of London, which completely ignores a neighbouring design by Richard Rogers. To get an idea, however, of misdirected urbanism in practice you can go to Stratford High Street in east London. Here, strung along a howling road, you get stacks of undersized, poorly oriented, cheaply built flats, each shrieking with its own design gimmicks and contributing not at all to a shared public space. That they are within spitting distance of the Olympic site, billed as the greatest regenerative gift of all time, is entirely typical.

As for the schools and hospitals, these are mostly being delivered by the infamous private finance initiative, which asks private contractors to carry the debt and risk of public building projects.

The drawback is that the contractors also get to call most of the shots, with the result that they interpret their obligations as minimally as possible. Another drawback is that PFI contracts are vastly complicated, requiring generous payments to lawyers, accountants and other consultants. At the same time, there are paltry margins left to pay architects to use their imaginations or for specifying any finish or detail above the most basic. The end product is places of learning and healing that look like escapees from a business park or Ricky Gervais's domain in The Office.

In the planning of office blocks and blocks of flats, and in the building of schools and offices, the same thing happens. Worthy public aims are stated. Ambitious targets are set. The private sector is entrusted with achieving the aims and targets which, as it will, put its own interests first. So the worthy aims are compromised.

What is lacking is the belief that public authority can state clearly and firmly what it thinks is the public good and then see that it is achieved. This might mean a meaningful plan for places like Stratford High Street or the ability to describe what a beautiful school might be.

British government, national and local, used to be able to do this, for example when the handsome London Board Schools were built in the 19th century. To achieve this again would be a fitting task for the next government, whoever it may be. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 23 2010

Ambassador, you are spoiling our view

British jurors, including Richard Rogers, have argued the building is unfit to represent the US in Britain

With a billion dollar budget and a prime site on the banks of the Thames, the plans for the new US embassy in Britain were intended to cement Washington's "special relationship" with London for decades to come.

But tonight's long-awaited unveiling of designs by US ambassador Louis Susman for one of the most expensive embassies ever built threatened to be overshadowed by a high-level spat.

The Guardian has learned that the only two British members of the seven-strong design jury "fought to the death" against their American counterparts in a failed bid to block a winning design which they argued was not world class and was unfit to represent the US in Britain. Lord Rogers, the architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and Lord Palumbo, the property developer and art collector, felt so strongly about the inadequacies of the winning design, they submitted a "minority report" setting out their case to the US state department in Washington, which commissioned the building.

As Susman unveiled the designs of the Philidephia-based firm of Kieran Timberlake – a 12-storey cube clad in a blastproof glass and plastic façade – it emerged the British jurors believe the Obama administration should have selected a rival design by a Californian designer, Thom Mayne, who won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's version of the Nobel, in 2005. They were overruled by the five Americans on the panel, including former ambassador Clyde Taylor.

Rogers and Palumbo are said to have thought the design was boring and "not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London", said sources familiar with the jury process. By contrast, they considered Mayne's design to be "touched by genius".

After the spat with two of the most prominent figures in British architecture, and both peers, a second diplomatic banana skin looms: the US government has yet to agree with HM Treasury about whether it will pay VAT on the building cost and the $1bn (£650m) price quoted yesterday did not include VAT. Susman said last night talks are continuing.

The embassy is set to become one of the most expensive in the world, cheaper only than America's fortress-like outposts in Baghdad and Islamabad.

In 2008 Washington announced a move out of the Mayfair building occupied since the beginning of the Kennedy era for security reasons. Attempts to fortify the building in such a built-up location proved difficult and the embassy's 1,000 staff had begun to outgrow the space.

But the decision to move to a new home on a vacant semi-industrial site in Wandsworth surrounded by a 30-metre blast zone, sparked fears that it planned a "fortress embassy" in south London. The UK government's own design advisers worried that early designs suggested a building that "turns its back" on the local area and lacks "a sufficiently civilising effect".

The designs unveiled yesterday suggest a medieval keep and even include a moat-like ditch along one side. James Timberlake, the lead architect, said that, inspired by European castles, he had tried to use the landscape to provide a defence against terror attacks and there would be "no fences and no walls".

"We hope the message everyone will see is that it is open and welcoming," he said. "It is a beacon of democracy – light filled and light emitting."

KieranTimberlake, little known outside the UK, was a surprise winner against three of America's most celebrated architects, all of whom have won the Pritzker.

Alongside Mayne were the firm of IM Pei, who designed the Louvre pyramid in Paris, and Richard Meier, who built the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. KieranTimberlake is best known for its buildings for Ivy League universities and environmentally-friendly design.

Contacted last night, Rogers declined to comment on his view of the building. "It was a very well-organised competition and I can't comment on the decision of the jury," he said. Palumbo could not be reached for comment.

Questioned about the row, Susman said simply: "The entire committee signed off on the project."

Paul Finch, the chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will advise on whether the building should be granted planning consent, said the designs appeared to be of a high quality.

"It is a sophisticated cube," he said. "The designers have given a lot of attention to the environmental controls. This will stand out in an area that is due for a huge wave of development."

The plans feature an attempt to integrate defences in a park landscape using grass berms, a man-made lake and even a moat. The most iconic part of the Mayfair building is likely to remain. There are plans to relocate the bronze eagle which sits on the roof of the current embassy as a statue in the gardens.

The Mayfair building is earmarked for development as luxury apartments and a hotel after it was bought for an estimated £350m by the Qatari government.

Expert view: Cool, remote and far from subtle

The new US embassy to the Court of St James's has been designed, says the US state department, to "reflect the values of the American people". Just as well, perhaps, that its architects, KieranTimberlake, aren't being asked to reflect the values of the British people, otherwise we'd probably end up with a building in the guise of a footballer-style Kentucky Fried Georgian luxury mansion with a Cabe-approved Tesco attached and the whole caboodle opened by Justin Timberlake.

Luckily for London, the American people are considerably more sophisticated and less populist than we are. Here in Nine Elms, the new embassy will adopt the form of a giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park, complete with a lake and what appears to be a ha-ha. Seriously.

KieranTimberlake have a well-established track record designing nicely resolved college campuses, including those of Yale and Cornell. Given that the London embassy will be a cross between a secure compound and a political and cultural complex, the Philadelphia practice may well prove to be a sound, if unexciting, choice.

Keen for the building not to be seen as a Bush-era bunker – the vast new US embassy in Baghdad is about as diplomatic as a "shock 'n' awe" strike by the military – the design makes extensive use of glass, although this will be protected by a blast-resistant polymer skin.

Cool, remote and superficially transparent, the winning design does reflect what we can divine of the US political process. Nominally open to all and yet, in practice, tightly controlled, the system of US government and its prevailing culture, aped bad-temperedly in Britain, does indeed inform the brief to KieranTimberlake and their response to it.

Embassies have, however, for good reasons, become an awkward building type today. The days of pottering about in the fine library of the Eero Saarinen-designed US embassy in Grosvenor Square are long gone. All foreigners are suspect. They should keep their distance in future just as this defensive embassy, surrounded by corporate-style office blocks, will from them and, sadly, central London itself.

Jonathan Glancey © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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