Friday21 July 2017

Carbuncle Cup winner 2012: Ship in a throttle

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Grimshaw’s disastrously conceived restoration of the Cutty Sark is winner of this year’s BD Carbuncle Cup, tragically defiling the very thing it sets out to save

The world has recently been mesmerised by the case of Cecilia Giménez, the devout octogenarian from Borja in Spain, whose attempts to restore a fresco of Christ in her local cathedral went so terribly awry. We would ordinarily label someone who had committed such an act a vandal but, for all the ineptitude that she brought to her task, Giménez’s intentions were clearly sound. Her actions demand to be viewed as a tragedy rather than a crime.

In previous years the Carbuncle Cup has been handed out to buildings that were the product of horrifying greed or negligence, but neither charge could be fairly levelled against the backers of this year’s winner.

The spectacularly wrongheaded “restoration” of the Cutty Sark is a project that the charitable trust that owns the ship — the greatest and last remaining 19th century tea clipper — has pursued doggedly for the past eight years. It appointed an architect with an international reputation, and has defended its vision. It has overcome funding crises and even the loss of part of the ship’s fabric in a fire during the course of conservation work. It has worked with the best of intentions and yet has tragically succeeded in defiling the very thing it set out to save.

The scheme’s myriad failings stem from one calamitous choice: the decision to hoick the 154-year-old clipper close to three metres into the air on canted steel props. The Cutty Sark Trust assures us that this very invasive surgery was crucial to the ship’s long-term conservation. Its former dry-docked situation had caused the hull to distort but now, elevated and protected from the elements within a fully air-conditioned glass enclosure, it will supposedly maintain its shape. Historic ship experts have, however, been all but united in their disdain for the strategy. Even the Cutty Sark’s own former chief engineer, Peter Mason, resigned from the project in 2009 after seeing computer simulations that suggested the act of lifting would put a dangerous level of stress on the fabric. So why do it?

The Cutty Sark by Grimshaw

The new arrangement creates a space for corporate functions.

One reason is surely that the project’s architect, Grimshaw, found it exciting. It is notable that the practice’s Spine House, completed in Oberkülheim in Germany in 2000, features a remarkably similar section: a timber-clad, boat-like vessel is held aloft on steel legs, while high-level glazing to either side admits toplight to the undercroft. The architect clearly found the chance to restage this drama using an actual boat irresistible.

The arrangement also presented a powerful commercial appeal. With the £12 price of admission fresh in their memory, the visitor entering the volume created beneath the ship’s hull can’t help but be struck by how little it contains. A café huddles at one end, a display of figureheads at the other, but a game of five-a-side football could comfortably be staged in between. The opportunity to inspect the underside of the hull is welcome enough, but the room’s real raison d’être is the lucrative corporate function trade. As the trust has acknowledged, a key ambition was always to create “a corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modern”.

From street level, the once thrilling lines of the ship’s stern and prow have now been obscured behind the new glass enclosure. Misdirected as the strategy was from the start, the early renderings — undertaken when the original concept architect youmeheshe was still involved — did at least suggest a degree of delicacy. Along the way, however, the promised soap-bubble of frameless, double-curved glass has been abandoned in favour of a gawky paraphrase of the roof of Foster’s British Museum Great Court. The issues of how such a thing might meet the ground or how an entrance might be made in it do not appear to have detained the architect for long.

Having found their way past an expansive retail opportunity, visitors are taken into the ship by way of a hole bashed through the side of the hull, before circulating from deck to deck past an exhibition pitched squarely at eight-year-old enthusiasts for Pirates of the Caribbean. On reaching the top, they are taken across a gangway to a huge and startlingly banal lift, stair and air-conditioning tower from which they can access the undercroft.

While the neatness of the circulation diagram can’t be faulted, one is left bewildered by the idea that this jewel of British maritime history should have been subjected to such dramatic adjustment in order to equip it for an age of mass tourism.

The ship demanded the sensitivity afforded to other great small London museums like the Soane, but instead it has been comprehensively reimagined as a theme-park attraction.

The Cutty Sark Trust’s chairman, Maldwin Drummond, has said that the aim was to present the ship “as though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashore” — a worthy goal but one that this tragically ill-conceived project singularly fails to meet.

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London.

Source: Charlton/ODA

Near miss: ArcelorMittal Orbit, London.

The sixth annual Carbuncle Cup winner was selected by a jury composed of BD columnists Hank Dittmar, Gillian Darley and Owen Hatherley, along with executive editor Ellis Woodman.

Grimshaw’s Cutty Sark was unanimously selected over five other distressing contenders:

The ArcelorMittal Orbit, London by Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor; the Titanic Museum, Belfast, by CivicArts and Todd Architects; Firepool Lock housing, Taunton, by Andrew Smith Architects; Shard End Library, Birmingham by IDP Partnership; and Mann Island, Liverpool by Broadway Malyan.

Stronger-stomached readers are directed to the video of this year’s shortlist.






Readers' comments (76)

  • i love this award! Not sure I'd give the carbuncle to this choice though?

    Orbit = true winner

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  • The area beneath the ship is great - when I visited it there was a family activity taking place and my kids had a great time drawing and running about, enjoying the sense of space after the confined spaces on the ship.

    Don't have a problem with the 'banal' lift tower - what do you want, some kind of sub-Calatrava sculpture competing with the boat?

    Hoisting the ship on struts - I don't see how BD journalists are qualified to pass judgement on what is an area of disagreement between expert engineers.

    But then ... the glass skirt. This really is so ghastly that it deserves the Carbuncle Cup on its own. I've got nothing against hovercrafts, but I think the Cutty Sark worked better as a clipper.

    Yes it's a bit negative, but I think the Cup ultimately does a good service by holding us all to account, big name or otherwise.

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  • kamiichi

    The Carbuncle Cup is fine, unfortunately BD now gives unlimited space for troll comments from contributors like Sceptical,Fanny,Zecks and Chris Wilkinson.

    BTW Piers Gough? W eneed answers BD.

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  • Spot on BD. A worthy winner. I was horrified when I first saw the designs and the finished building is even worse than feared. In the past whenever I was near the Cutty Sark I would go and stand near the bow and marvel at her beautiful lines. The oblique frontal view is the classic view of any ship (and any other vehicle come to that). It is the view that always gets photographed for good reason. The building has killed this view stone dead. Now rather than beautiful lines you get lumpen glass - forget transparency it's all frames and reflections - and clumsy fire escapes. For me this one mistake is enough to condemn this building but your article adds several more. The design displays a complete lack of understanding of, or sympathy for, the object it is meant to be serving. It is astonishing that the trustees let it happen.

    One cannot resist the suspicion that Grimshaw favoured the structurally gymnastic solution because that is what turns them on. Have you ever seen a Grimshaw building without pin joints and tension rods?

    What sets this apart from the other entries is the auspiciousness of the circumstances. A unique and beautiful historical object in a stunning location, a generous budget and a premier league architect should all result in something exceptional. Sadly this spectacular project is a spectacular failure.

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  • The mutilations inflicted on the Cutty Sark are a disgrace to architecture. Congratulations to BD for taking such an uncompromising editorial line in this issue and well done the Carbuncle Cup for naming and shaming.

    Perhaps the same design team might like to apply their blue-sky thinking to more of the world's priceless treasures......

    HMS Victory: why not cleave her in two along the keel, pull the two sections apart by, say, 15m and insert a state of the art glass and steel visitor attraction or retail space?

    Stonehenge: why not lot suspend the whole lot by steel cables, anchored through each stone, from a giant viewing gantry above a sunken glass roofed pavilion so that visitors have a choice of either walking around beneath the henge to view the dangling sarsons from below whilst pressing information buttons or eating a burger or something, or enjoying unrivalled views from above?

    The Pantheon: ever wondered what it would be like to pass through the oculus? Why not insert a steel and glass lift shaft positioned directly below giving access to a series of lettable terraces, some for shops, others for meetings or tutorials and so on. After passing through the 2000 year old gape visitor could trample about on the concrete dome protected by a cantilevered glass balustrade beneath a teflon fabric roof.

    This is not about the vanity of a bunch of top designers or the schemes of journalists. The intervention has severely damaged the irreplaceable historic fabric of this once majestic vessel and denied future generations the opportunity of enjoying her unique beauty.


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  • Let's face it, if there were an equivalent award for the architectural press, BD would win every year. Tabloid nonsense.

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  • Right choice, if surprising.

    Museum culture seems to have lost its way here. The ship, once both beautiful and hard evidence from a past era has been reduced to a spectacle and its beauty lost.

    Separating the architecture from the museological failure is ridiculous. They are elements of the same delusion.

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  • The BD should concentrate on celebrating fantastic architecture. I would much rather read a positive informative magazine.

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  • BD its a pity those running this crass competition don't see the damage to all those involved in the construction industry, this is made worse at the time of a terrible world wide recession where UK architects are competing against the world, trust BD to put its effort into damaging British design industry.

    This is not journalism , just bad in always .very sad ..

    Ian Simpson

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  • BD would like to clarify that this comment was not left by Ian Simpson of Ian Simpson Architects. There are a number of architects and design professionals who share the name.

    Anna Winston,
    Online editor

  • The comments here calling for the BD to 'only publish good news' and criticising its journalism for daring to highlight when our industry gets it appallingly wrong via the Carbuncle Cup - in this instance to the extent of disfiguring a piece of history - signals to me the effect changes to the British education system over the past 20 years have had on a large section of our society. In essence: THEY'RE ALL WINNERS! A-stars all round!

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