2 October 2013





1. The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings from the outside in.

2. Architecture where the style and appearance of a building is of ultimate importance

3. The creation of hollow and meaningless iconography which is ultimately inhumane and irrelevant to the concerns of our age.



While studying to be an architect I remember a lecture from Jeremy Lowe, our History tutor, on the evolution of styles in architecture.  It transpires that there are three distinct stages in the evolution of any particular style.  Initially, when a new style is first established it manifests itself in a rather crude manner.  Once people have worked out the underlying rules and principles and mastered their application, the trues and purest manifestation of the style emerges, often referred to as the “high” period; for example “high gothic”.  The final phase in the evolution of a style is characterised by pastiche as characteristics, elements and forms become over-elaborate and exaggerated, often to the point where the original characteristics are caricatured and become almost unrecognisable.

So you may ask, what has all this “arty bollocks” got to do with buildings, architecture and sustainability?  Well, it is my belief that we are on the threshold of a period of rapid and revolutionary change and that when we examine the buildings that we are making now it is clear that we are witnessing the death of modernism, as we make way for a new sustainable architecture.  Many of the most iconic buildings realised over the recent past are caricatures, the architectural equivalent of “gurning”, with designers trying to outdo each other with more complex and contorted form; with ever diminishing relevance.  Take for example, the Olympic swimming pool, the Walkie Talkie or at a smaller scale the ArcelorMittal Orbit.  Each one invests significant money, materials and energy to take a perverse shape which offers little or no additional value to the user experience.

Olympic Swimming Pool:
"Would you like wedges with that"?
The swimming pool was too small during the games, requiring two large wedges to be jammed into its flanks to accommodate the required seating.  While I am sure that it will win the Stirling Prize next year, because it is so achingly beautiful, in a time of austerity, I believe that we should demand more than dumb beauty from a public building costing more than £250 million and let’s not forget that the practice pool is not even naturally lit and the tall, arching north east and south west facades are fully glazed with no external shading and will suffer from both excessive solar gains and thermal losses.

The car melting genius of
the Walkie Talkie building
The Walkie Talkie building, nearing completion in the City, is only distinguished by is bulky deep plan and the random curves of its facades.  There have already been complaints that the fully glazed, concave south elevation is causing some unforeseen impacts on it immediate context, acting as an enormous focusing mirror and cooking cars and people on the surrounding streets!  Just think what could have been achieved if the manipulation of the suns energy had been part of the brief for the development rather than an unfortunate, unintended consequence!  It could have resulted in the design of an office tower where every desk received generous daylight, where glare was prevented by intelligent façade design and where every occupant was within 7 metres of a window and a view.

The contorted, "gurning" nightmare
 that is the Orbit Tower
In many ways I find the Orbit Tower the most disappointing of all; I have a great respect for the work of Anish Kapoor and the way he combines material and form to change our perception of ourselves and the world we inhabit.  I believe that the ability of the artist to make people think differently about the planet and our relationship with it is a powerful weapon in the battle to prevent climate change.  Works like his Cloud Gate in Chicago harness form to change the viewer’s perception of both the city and themselves.  However, the Orbit Tower, in my opinion, lacks any philosophical intent and instead resorts to meaningless shape making.  There is an almost wilful disregard for structural logic and materials efficiency that results in a structure lacking in grace and elegance, looking like it is the aftermath of a catastrophic structural failure.  Surely not the finest work from the team at Arup’s, although it is slightly reassuring to see that engineers are as susceptible to the cult of the meaningless icon as architects are.

So I would like to propose that we create a new category for these stylistically driven projects, “archicouture” and let it embrace any work that places shape making and formal gymnastics at the centre of the design process.  Then let’s make a rule that says, like couture in fashion, it is only acceptable for work of this type to be undertaken for the sole use and occupation by wealthy, private clients and that these buildings are only used by the public on a totally discretionary basis.  Then we can focus our resources on the development of projects that are anti-iconic and instead are focused on the wants, needs and desires of their intended users.  We can insist that proposals are philosophically rather than stylistically driven and that procurement processes judge intent rather than appearance when selecting teams for all publically accessible buildings including schools, hospitals, shops, offices and crucially housing.  The revolution, as Billy Bragg once said, is only a tee shirt away, so let’s make it an organic, fairtrade, unbleached and vegetable dyed one!

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