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.

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