The age of ostentation is over

resize_Charles Saumarez Smith, Photo. Benedict Johnson

Source: Benedict Johnson

Scrapping the Centre for Music and tinkering with the National Gallery mark the start of a quieter era, says former director Charles Saumarez Smith

When I first saw the plans for the new Centre for Music on the site of Powell and Moya’s old Museum of London, I thought immediately that the photomontages of the proposed building looked unrealistically utopian, a bit like the plan for an opera house which was going to be built next door to the Houses of Parliament. The project was priced at £288 million, but I have grown sceptical of the first pricing of building projects from long and occasionally bitter experience with capital projects. There is an inevitable tendency for projects to be underpriced at competition stage, possibly because if the real price were named, the project would be stillborn.

Of course, Diller Scofidio & Renfro has a good track record of doing adventurous projects on the other side of the Atlantic, first coming to public attention for its building for the Institute of Contemporary Art (2006) on the edge of the harbour at Boston, a big glass box which cantilevers over the water. An unbuilt proposal for the Clyfford Still Museum (2006) in Denver, Colorado was another project using a bold and radically simplified, projecting box. More recently, the practice has done the Broad (2015) for Eli Broad in Los Angeles, who decided that he wanted his collection housed independently of Peter Zumthor’s new Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Broad is a project which I greatly admire and have featured in my forthcoming book on The Art Museum in Modern Times. But it is a quite a simple project, sheathed in fibreglass-reinforced concrete, designed to attract attention on South Grand Avenue, nearly next door to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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