Monday, 30 January 2012

Architecture at the BBC

Broadcasting House, the iconic Art Deco building at the top end of Regent Street, has undergone a transformation over the past few years. Where there was once a collection of down-at-heel nondescript buildings housing the overflow from Broadcasting House, there is now an architect-designed group of buildings arranged around a public plaza (still not quite finished) and the BBC has just moved it to the big new extension at the back of the site.

All well and good: the BBC needed modernising and it's good to see them keeping their main centre of operations right in the centre of London. There is a the problem though. Broadcasting House sits right next to the delicate and unusual church of All Souls, designed by John Nash and completed in 1824. Those nondescript buildings provided a bland backdrop to the church, and the calm solidity of the BBC building, with its curved front and small windows, somehow complemented rather than competed with the curved portico. Its dramatic spire was echoed by the dummy radio arial on top of the BBC but, since it was the home of British broadcasting, that was entirely appropriate in itself and not just a silly architectural echo. The new Egton Wing, on the other hand, shouts for attention. It has a perfectly sensible floor plan but the outside plays every trick it can think of to tell you, this is modern architecture with attitude, not just some anonymous office building. The curves are perfectly appropriate, but there is too much going on, apparently at random. The surfaces seem to be paper thin, even the stone parts, and variously peeling away or held at a distance off the facade by stainless steel arms, a sort of deconstructivist layered effect that is exactly the opposite of the original Portland stone BBC building. The glass facade around the courtyard is just a hovering layer with bits missing, enclosing nothing and apparently without any purpose. It's completely wrong for this site. From the side view, standing outside the Langham Hotel or passing in a bus, it's no so bad - if you stand in the right place you can get a view of the Telecom Tower too - but the view up Regent Street (pictured) is simply a mess.

So what would be an appropriate way to design a new building in that setting? Would you want to make something calm and solid - a neutral and dignified backdrop, built to last - or would you try to outdo both landmarks by creating something more in-your-face that you hope will itself become 'iconic'? The first course is safe, but the other approach is difficult, so hard to get right that it's not easy to see how it could have been done successfully in this instance. None the less that's what the BBC and their architects have attempted with the Egton Wing. On a site with not just one but two minor architectural masterpieces, what it doesn't need is some architect trying to compete.

As far back as 2000 the BBC saw the need to expand and modernise, and held an an architectural competition, which is the way major projects are often awarded: you get to see a design before choosing your architect. The competition was won by Richard MacCormac and his architectural practice MacCormac Jamieson Prichard who did the plans for the whole site. Broadcasting House itself was completely refurbished and the new Egton Wing opened in back in 2006. MJP have stated "the partnership looked at complementing the iconic status of Broadcasting House with an emblematic work of architecture which would sit elegantly and appropriately at the heart of historic Regent Street". Judge for yourself how well they have succeeded.

After that phase, some serious value engineering (architect speak for cost cutting) so incensed MacCormac that he stepped down, to be replaced by all-purpose mega architects Sheppard Robson - who in fact followed the MacCormac's design for the exterior, making the necessary budget cuts on the inside. Now, the BBC has moved into its enormous new extension at the back of the site. Unlike the front, it's a big and bland, expensive-looking building: just about right really.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Briefly, London's twin constructivist towers

On the left, the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower as constructed on the 2012 Olympics site. On the right, the Tatlin Tower, as re-created in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. Two steel structures, large scale structures built at roughly the same time, both painted bright red: so do they really have anything in common?

They are not the same size but look more closely, and you can see more design principles in common - expressive curved shapes kept rigid by triangulated steelwork. Both were made with the aid of sophisticated computer modelling, although you can see how the Tatlin Tower could have been made with a bit of trial and error rather than computers. The Orbit could not have been built without 3D modelling. The exact length and angle of each length of steel tube was worked out on a computer model, so that when the site assembly team put it together, the last few pieces fitted together exactly to close the loop at the top.

As abstract expression, though, the Tatlin stands out. It's a scale model of the tower designed in 1920 by Russian architect and engineer Vladimir Tatlin, but never built. The model was made for an exhibition on Russian Constructivism, so it's not a permanent structure, but it does allow you to experience something of the optimism of the early Communist state, before it became a repressive regime. The Orbit was designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor, who has done some exceptionally successful public sculptures, for example the Cloud Gate in Chicago, or the stretched funnel he installed in Tate Modern, but this isn't convincing on the same level. Answers on an e-postcard if you can tell me what it expresses.

Notes (21 April 2012)
The Tatlin Tower has now been taken down, and there don't seem to be any plans to erect it elsewhere. It was designed by architect Jeremy Dixon who interpreted the original drawings and photographs of the small model made by Tatlin.
The Orbit is 115 metres high and when the Olympics open it will have a lift and viewing platform overlooking east London.
See also, earlier posts about the Tatlin Tower and about an early visit to the the Olympics Site.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A place in the country

"In some countries, the large cities absorb the wealth and fashion of the nation; they are the only fixed abodes of elegant and intelligent society, and the country is inhabited almost entirely by boorish peasantry. In England, on the contrary, the metropolis is a mere gathering-place, or general rendezvous, of the polite classes, where they devote a small portion of the year to a hurry of gayety and dissipation, and, having indulged this kind of carnival, return again to the apparently more congenial habits of rural life. The various orders of society are therefore diffused over the whole surface of the kingdom, and the more retired neighborhoods afford specimens of the different ranks.
The English, in fact, are strongly gifted with the rural feeling. They possess a quick sensibility to the beauties of nature, and a keen relish for the pleasures and employments of the country. This passion seems inherent in them. Even the inhabitants of cities, born and brought up among brick walls and bustling streets, enter with facility into rural habits, and evince a tact for rural occupation. The merchant has his snug retreat in the vicinity of the metropolis, where he often displays as much pride and zeal in the cultivation of his flower- garden, and the maturing of his fruits, as he does in the conduct of his business, and the success of a commercial enterprise. Even those less fortunate individuals, who are doomed to pass their lives in the midst of din and traffic, contrive to have something that shall remind them of the green aspect of nature. In the most dark and dingy quarters of the city, the drawing-room window resembles frequently a bank of flowers; every spot capable of vegetation has its grass-plot and flower-bed; and every square its mimic park, laid out with picturesque taste, and gleaming with refreshing verdure."

A lot of us are fresh back from calmer places at this time of year. Doomed to pass their lives in the midst of din and traffic: that seems about right, sometimes.

Quotation from 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent' by Washington Irving, published 1819 and long out of copyright.