Thursday, 4 March 2010

Building Blocks

This is a slightly nerdy post, for which I make no apology. But you do deserve a warning.

I like buildings.

There. I said it. I work in property, but really at quite a functional level. It never crossed my mind to be architect and to be able to frame the appearance of a place, but I don't know that I would have had the vision for it anyway. A unique career - deeply technical and scientific, but vastly creative and imaginative. Geniuses, basically.

Modern architecture is a wildly creative thing! A sort of functional art form. I love the idea of an architect sitting down with a blank sheet of paper, and creating a masterpiece which is not only beautiful, but has purpose, and is a feat of engineering.

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

In the 1960's, when the average architect consumed enough mind altering drugs to kill a donkey, some of the most miserable concrete boxes were thrown up. I'm right with Prince Charles on this - the National Theatre DOES look like a nuclear power station. Birmingham Central Library DOES look like an incinerator. Most of all though, they are boring. Bo-oo-ring.

And these architectural blunders put people off concrete buildings entirely, conjuring up images of council estates and crematoriums, and that is a great waste.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (built of concrete!)

The Guggenheim in New York took fifteen years (FIFTEEN YEARS!) to design, specifically for the purpose of displaying modern art, but when the building as opened in 1959, 21 of the worlds most promising modern artists of the time wrote to Mr Guggenheim to say that they wouldn't have their work show there. They were worried, you see, that the building would outshine their own creations. OK, so admittedly, this might mean that the point was temporarily missed, but what a fabulous credit to a building as a work of art. And these days, of course, artists would sell a kidney to have their work shown here. It's all good. And it's all cast in concrete, but not a bunker in sight.

There is no limit now to the lengths that we can go to to create something beautiful and perfectly formed. Architects are willing to design something that requires an extraordinary amount of work to create, purely because it fits their own vision. I love the indulgence of it all!

Beijing National Stadium ("The Bird's Nest") by Herzog & de Meuron

Isn't the Bird's Nest a wonderful thing? It's the biggest steel structure in the world - tonnes of the stuff! (110,000 tonnes, to be precise) and yet it looks like it's been spun; sort of whipped up out of nothing. Amazing, don't you think? The tragedy is that, having seen the 2008 Olympics through, it's hardly been used since. A very occasional opera, a token sports event, and that's really it. The Chinese government are planning, saints preserve us, to turn it into a shopping mall. I like a shopping mall as well as the next chick, but really. What a terrible waste.

The Savill Building at Windsor Great Park by Glenn Howell

The Savill Building is a kind of visitor centre in Windsor Great Park. It's magnificent, but no photo does it credit. Do this for me ... go to Google Images and type in Savill Building and look at them all, from every angle. It is too wide and gliding a structure for any one photo to do it justice. It kind of ripples. Anyway, all the wood for it comes straight from the Crown Estate's Windsor forest, which is a nice touch I think. More pleasing, however, is this fact ... it took twenty carpenters twelve months to make the roof structure for the building, and in that time, they drank, between them, 7,500 cups of tea. I do hope the Queen has a Costco card.

Of course, all of this is made possible by the fact that there is now more flexibility in building materials, and in finishes. I have an idea (probably a woefully inaccurate one) that someone walks into a design office with a lump of mental, concrete or glass and says, "watcha gonna do with THAT?" and someone rises to the challenge.

Selfridges at The Bullring, Birmingham, by Future Systems

It's mesmerisingly wonderful, is the Selfridges store in Birmingham. Don't you think it has a sort of bubble-wrap appeal? I have a deep rooted desire to push the buttons, even though I know they aren't really buttons, and, sadly, wouldn't "toot toot" when pressed. Still. What a great idea! "We've got to make this shopping centre look a bit ... interesting. What shall we cover it in?" "How about loads of upside-down satellite dishes?" "Toot toot".

In the course of thinking about this post, a couple of people have said derisory things about glass buildings, which I think is a little harsh. There are some ace glass structures kicking around, and they are quite lovely.

The British Museum, London by Norman Foster

The central courtyard at the British Museum was meant to be ... well ... a central courtyard. A public space when the museum was first built. But then, in a slight panic, some time in the 19th century, they stuck the Reading Room in the middle of it, and sort of buggered up the long term plans. Towards the end of the last century, therefore, They decided to see if anything could be done to open up what had, essentially become a giant stock room. OK. So Norman Foster's answer to most questions is, "have you thought about covering it in glass?" but I think this is my favourite example of that theme. Aesthetically, it's fairly damned gorgeous, but it's also opened up what was dead space to the public. And I do like the whole old-meets-new bit.

And I haven't even started on my own "Bigger is Better" theory. Let me tell you. Size. Matters.

I'm not talking about tower blocks in rows of dullness. I'm talking about Tall Buildings. There is a certain bias against them, which I can sort of see - I mean, they do rather define the skyline. But that's only a problem if it's big and ugly. If it's big and fabulous, then I give a big double thumbs up to defining the skyline, and we all should. After all, Christopher Wren only did St Paul's like he did because he was on a whopping ego trip and wanted everyone to be able to see it from everywhere. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

The Shard, London by Renzo Piano

Can you imagine, then, how excited I am by The Shard? It's coming out of the ground now, and will be open in 2012. And it's tall. Taaaall! It will be the tallest building in the UK by a margin. The viewing platform will be ish at the same height as the pointy bit at the top of the Canary Wharf tower. That's floor 65. There are seventeen more floors, and a spire above that. Wowee! Oh, and the Shangri-La hotel which will be in the middle of the tower, will have an infinity pool on the 52nd floor. How wicked will that be?! They should give me a job marketing that baby.

Anyway, let's recap. I like buildings which are creative in form, and indulgent in design. I like interesting shapes, fancy finishes, new/old juxtaposition, and have a love of tall buildings that would make Freud blush.

So it might surprise you to know that my favourite London building, and one that I get to see twice a day from the train, is actually none of the above. It's far from the tallest, and certainly not creative. In fact, it's shape is very plain and functional. It's built of bricks. Not too radical. And for all my witterings about new design, my pet building is a wonder of Art Deco loveliness. By all accounts, the fittings inside, although a bit more than shabby, are some of the most lavish in the country.

When it was built in the early 1930's, it cost £2,141,550 to build. To put that into perspective, as, effectively, a derelict site, it was bought by an Irish investor in 2006 for £400,000,000. Four hundred million pounds! It is simply lovely, and it always makes me gawp. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Tooting Squared Good Building Award goes to ...

Battersea Power Station.


  1. Wonderful. I love pretty buildings too - why do they make so many ugly ones?

  2. I'm a bit disappointed you left the Opera House off the list... one of the world's greatest buildings, imho. But I do love the Power Station - what's not to love!

  3. Only one building truly stood above them all -

    Yes it was pig ugly (shame on you for adoring the beautiful when so much ugliness remains abandoned and unloved), impractical and a major health risk towards the end. But I spent a happy childhood of Saturdays shopping in it, playing amongst buckets on shop floors that were there to collect the majority of water dripping though from the rain of the previous days/weeks.

    Last time I looked, the space it used to dominate had been a "temporary" car park (for several years). Portsmouth is no longer a faintly naff city with the least attractive building in the world. It is just a faintly naff city with a big point at the edge - one which tries to carry on a proud record of architectural disaster with some faulty lifts that occasional lift tourists to the sights of a slightly naff city and some water. I am rarely tempted to visit that.

    I have a chunk of the Tricorn at home - a memento of happier times.

    Still, it was totally hideous.


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