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Wednesday23 July 2014

Architects blamed for decline in public’s trust

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Chipperfield: ‘bad modern architecture’ partly responsible for profession’s marginalisation

Architects must accept some responsibility for the poor quality of public debate on architecture because they have designed so many bad buildings, David Chipperfield said this week.

Some post-war architecture and planning “brought tears to the eyes”, he told the audience at the RIBA’s Stirling Prize debate at Portland Place.

Chipperfield, who won the prize in 2007 and is shortlisted this year for the Hepworth Wakefield, said there was a “natural pejorative attitude” towards modern architecture in Britain. But he said architects should not be frightened by this into patronising the public.

Chipperfield was one of six shortlisted architects taking part in Tuesday’s debate. The others were Ellen van Loon from OMA, Alan Stanton and Paul Williams from Stanton Williams, John Tuomey from O’Donnell & Tuomey, and Philip Johnson from Populous.

They presented their projects before being questioned by architecture critic Rowan Moore and the audience.

Chipperfield took the opportunity to expand on well-received remarks he made at a London Design Festival event last week, when he lamented architects’ “shrinking role” in shaping cities, and accused politicians of only being interested in architecture when it was part of a regeneration project.

He also complained that the media had largely exiled architectural debate to the lifestyle pages.

The Stirling debate

Source: Elizabeth Hopkirk

From left: Philip Johnson, David Chipperfield, John Tuomey, Rowan Moore, Ellen van Loon, Paul WIlliams and Alan Stanton.

But speaking at the RIBA event he admitted that architects shared some of the blame.

“We are not very agile in this country at talking about architecture and what it should look like,” he said. “That’s partly the profession’s fault because we’ve built a load of bad modern architecture.”

He said it brought tears to his eyes to see what had happened to Wakefield, whose historic centre is riven by a 1960s motorway.

Yet the fact that 500,000 people had visited his Hepworth gallery in its first year was proof of a public appetite for cultural projects, he argued.

He warned architects to resist the temptation to be overly cautious.

“The problem in England is we have this anxiety about what the public is willing to accept and what its expectations are,” he said.

“There are reasons why there’s a certain natural pejorative attitude towards modern architecture.

It’s a cumulative cultural anxiety that exists in England. It has plenty of justifications but it doesn’t mean people can’t step over that prejudice, and I think Wakefield was [an example of] that.”

Bad modern architecture “doesn’t mean we have to be frightened of doing things that have their own integrity”, he said.

“However, you need to be able to explain and justify… and if you are going to do something radical it should be thoughtful and responsible.”

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Readers' comments (23)

  • It has been clear for a long time that the only way for these problems to be addressed is for architects, and architectural education, to take a leading role in urban and territorial planning. This is a long-term strategy.

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  • zecks_marquise

    the only way this self-congratulatory line-up could look more smug is if they all wore a Chelsea kit.

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  • There are entire television programmes about people wanting a nasty little bedsit in London and a home in the country where they live in a "real" community, not seeing the irony of their proposition.

    The dissection of the town he talks about was done by Councillors acting on the recommendations of Roads Engineers. Roads Engineers have destroyed the heart of our cities.

    The architecture of our cities has been destroyed by Corporate Crap, produced as a function of our modern day Frankensteins, Corporations. They are the manifestations of Corporations and Council Planners and architects whose scale-less design is a compromise forced on them by their programme briefs.

    Take a building much over eight stories and you lose the battle with scale. You need a new paradigm with which to express it. Plant a mega building into any town or city and it takes over its environment. Single use buildings are the worst in that respect.

    Take a walk through the City of London to see the damage pandering to Big Corporate does to any city. The NatWest tower is a prime example of this crap. Contrast this with the relationship between the Houses of Parliament and the cityscape or Buckingham Palace.

    The Victorians understood the appropriate scale of innovation and development. Their work gave the eye things to "hang on" to and identify with. There is no visual treat in a sheet of glass. Its a one trick pony and not a very good one. If buildings do not offer the city something back (and a REFLECTION of other buildings gets old VERY quickly) then they should not be permitted.

    As for the scale-less, reference-less monstrosities produced by OMA, they are a total disaster and will be seen in years to come as being the sterile flag-waving attention-seeking that they are. Shock and Awe masquerading as Architecture. That's a bit like an atomic bomb. It makes a big impression the first time, but no one really wants to see it a second time.

    (Probably not a good day for me to be posting or saying stuff like this but dammit, someone has to say it)

    And while I'm in this humour why does this page - hosted in Britain and about British Architecture - appear to have and American spellchecker?

    Councillors
    programme

    Both "highlighted" - what's that about? The slow takeover of the world by the software exports of a culture that's too lazy to learn to spell properly?

    spellchecker

    Also "highlighted" - not only can they not spell but they cannot stay on top of current developments in the language?

    LAWL.

    (and that's "highlighted" as well!)

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  • Certain architectural periodicals should stop publishing crap projects along with good ones, as though they had equal value.

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  • Michael O'Niell's comment is very interesting, a bit breathless, but what about this: "The Victorians understood the appropriate scale of innovation and development."? Are these the same Victorians who built the Crystal Palace or the Forth Rail Bridge, or who indulged in ludicrous gigantism in such buildings as the Midland Hotel or (albeit abroad) the Palais de Justice in Brussels? 19th century architecture (including the Houses of Parliament) is all about overwhelming, overbearing scale. If he thinks there's some kind of qualitative difference because of the gothic detailing, then I'm sorry but that's bunkum.

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  • @ DM yes, I wish we could just drop the Thatcherite idea that the Victorian age was a golden age. Read your Dickens, for goodness' sake. For most people, the nineteenth century was hell.

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  • Michael - the spellchecker is provided by your own browser, not by a web page.

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  • @M O'Niell, Buckingham Palace has a relationship to the cityscape? Come off it! It turns its back on a 6 lane roadway and roundabout (bigger than anything running through Wakefield), I suppose you wouldn't admit to The Mall being created by 'Road Engineers'

    The points you make are all well and good, but how come Hong Kong and New York can make vibrant decent cityscapes with modern 'corporate' architecture. Its mainly because they rejected to dull, soul-destroying boulevard approach that classical planning is so desperate to enact. London was thankfully saved from Wrens disastrous masterplan, with the corporate city revelling in its ancient street plan.

    Architects need to engage more publicly with the likes of Peter Ackroyd, Tristram Hunt et al, and convince the public about the unspoken good things that are happening.

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  • What 1960's motorway runs through the centre of Wakefield? If Chipperfield is referring to Doncaster Road and Chantry Bridge (adjacent the Hepworth) then this road actually forms a physical and mental barrier between the old Chantry Church and his Gallery. The scheme could've been very different if the road wasn't in the way. Sadly Chipperfield and the Hepworth have missed a trick. The scheme should have an access from the bridge on Doncaster Road as the current entrance is hidden away and does not relate to any pedestrian flows from the city centre. Anyway the 1960s motorways are a fait accomplis.

    If I was Chipperfield, I'd be more concerned about what the more recent interventions have done to Wakefield's city centre such as Marsh Way (commercial retail development in which one of the anchors Sainsburys pulled out of in less than a year's trading and moved back to its old store) and David's Adjaye's marketplace - a standalone 'iconic' building that bears no resemblance to context and more importantly does not function as a good market hall! Yet this disaster of a building that people hate and is not as succesful as the previous 1960s marketplace is considered to be good 'architecture'. Surely good architecture must function as its purpose too. Can you imagine if you bought an ipod because it looked good but then found out it cuoldn't play music?

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  • Funny, I happen to have a rather pejorative attitude towards Chipperfield's work, which I happen to find rather overly cautious...

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