Monday, October 19, 2009

Contre Piloti

Private Eye so often manages to be annoying, even when it's in the right. So with Piloti, the not-particularly-pseudonymous architecture columnist of 'Nooks and Corners'. While I tend to agree that Victorian Board Schools are superior to their PFI replacements, and admire his (rare) insistence on talking about places other than London, there's always something suspicious in his writing, the sense that the past is always worth preserving merely because it's the past. So we find a critic and historian who (unlike, say, Simon Jenkins) is a genuinely erudite authority on architecture acting as if, say, the Bradford Odeon is a unique and notable building, and as if the woeful postmodernist plans for its renovation are preferable to just building something better - the case for its retention is surely environmental rather than architectural. The column was originally called 'Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism', an explicit reference to the New Brutalism, an architectural form which Piloti now appears to think is acceptable, given that so many examples are so regularly threatened with demolition. Meanwhile the column is invariably full of obligatory swipes at 'Milords Foster and Rogers', presumably because, as with the listing rules, an architect's buildings need to have been around for 30-odd years before he can find them acceptable. For this reason I'm eagerly awaiting his eventual conversion to the virtues of, say, the Sainsbury Centre or the INMOS Microprocessor Factory when developers start planning to knock them down. Anyone under 70, such as 'those posturing Swiss pseuds, Herzog & De Meuron', may never be honoured with Piloti's approval.

The reason for my sniping is the latest column from Piloti, on a subject I've already fumed about, Southampton's Titanic Heritage Museum, and again I both agree with and am enormously annoyed by the column. Essentially, the target is not so much the programme itself, which is noted, albeit in passing - the sell-off of one of the best provincial art collections in the country by a 'jauntily philistine', newly-elected Tory council, the bizarre notion that Soton needs to spend millions on a permanent exhibition about the Titanic when it already has one, in a prominent place next to the Cruise Terminals. The real offence is caused by the building which will be housing it, an extension to the 1930s Civic Centre, to be designed by Wilkinson Eyre. It'll also be the first time - after a recent cancelled scheme by 'Milord Rogers' himself - that an architect of note has built in the city since the 1970s. I have a huge, huge problem with the building's function, part of a 'cultural district' for which a swathe of decent early '60s architecture is being demolished, in a pathetic sop to something other than mammon in a city otherwise cravenly devoted to it; with the obsession with this mass death; and with the infantile idea of a 'walk through model of the 1912 dockside' when the compelling mechanised weirdness of a vast container port very nearby is hidden from view. What I'm really not bothered about at all, however, though it exercises nearly all of Piloti's bile, is a mildly interesting extension to a pallid 1930s stripped classical civic centre, which, aside from a mildly interesting clock tower and a sort-of-interesting plan, is mostly notable for a retrograde blandness obvious even at the time (cf Pevsner's unimpressed reaction to it). It's the interwar equivalent of a so-so BDP project. You know, sometimes a conflict between different buildings of different eras and ideologies can be interesting and exciting, rather than a 'desecration' of a 'formal civilised architectural language'. It might imply a city which is living rather than dead. The very worst buildings are too often those that can offer nothing better than being in keeping.


Blogger Nemesis said...

Actually, in this case I agree with him. It's another case (like the thankfully withdrawn plans to spoil the Newark Works for a Dyson Academy) which shows that Wilkinson Eyre should stick to bridges, and sticking odd bits and glass lumps on a building isn't always an improvement. In fact, it rarely is an improvement.

3:17 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Sometimes it is an improvement, though, an intervention into a dull and bombastic building taking it somewhere else entirely without destroying it - cf the Reichstag, and the Tate Modern that Piloti thinks so pseudy.

Not that I think this will be anywhere near as interesting, and I strongly suspect Southampton have only hired W-E because they did the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth - for some people in Southampton, Portsmouth is the only other city in the world. I'm not exactly a huge fan of Wilkinson Eyre, although Magna in Rotherham is fairly astonishing (and is not, incidentally, a bridge). I just take umbrage at the instant dismissal of non-contextual juxtapositions, especially in this case, as none of the Civic Centre is actually going to be demolished to build it (and here, a voice at the back of my head says 'more's the pity').

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