Monday, 13 October 2008

the last signatect

lately in my self appointed quest to understand the dynamics of the modern city i have been struggling with the notion of icons. its all i seem to write about at the moment but its hardly surprising given the times we live in. we are obsessed with icons, awash with icons, surrounded by icons. whereas once they were few, a famous handful, a glittering constellation of legendary or historic landmarks, giants of the silver screen or natural geological wonders, today they are virtually ubiquitous, a constant stream hurtling out of our televisions, newspapers and city streets, battling for our attention. be it celebrity or architectural, these are iconotastic times…

this iconic obsession has reached fever pitch in the field of architecture with seemingly every new building burdened with being iconic, of making a town or city’s global reputation rather than the more everyday task of quality or efficiency. these signature buildings, the centrepiece of every city vision or masterplan for urban renewal, certainly make the headlines and seem to court controversy, being loved and loathed in equal measure.

yesterday saw the release of yet another list of the nations most ugly buildings, with our own arndale centre only topped by the curvy aluminium clad birmingham bullring creation and the angel of the north taking third place.

the real significance is not so much which buildings appear on this rather predictable list but wider questions about the nature of our cities and the delicate balancing act involved in urban regeneration. heritage, familiarity, regional and local pride all play a part in how we feel about specific locations and landmarks in our cities. the latest ugly list is the usual mix of ultra modern and traditional - the liver building makes a unexpected appearance - but the surprise is the range of emotions the built environments evokes. there’s clearly no formula for what makes an iconic building, rather an elusive brew of affection, aesthetics and nostalgia. planners and developers take note.

the complexity of our emotional and intellectual relationship with the visual iconography of our cities and the monuments and landmarks within our wider landscape has long been understood by students of material culture, archaeologists, sociologists, even architects but seems to have been temporarily forgotten by those who are currently reshaping our cities. the recent prevalence for globally recognised iconitecture, the essential signifier of the spectacularised city, is marketed and packaged for commercial and business investment and tourism rather than reflecting and accommodating the needs, interests and history of its inhabitants. this limited model of internationally recognisable images, amenities and buildings is perfectly understandable in terms of the global brand, but it’s a model that can omit people from the vision, that can forget de certeau's contention that it is people who give life and meaning to the city in their daily activities and routines across its topography.

last week whilst grappling with a submission for a one day newspaper for the liverpool biennial i was reminded of that cliche of urban regeneration, the signatect – an elite, celebrity breed of architect drafted in to provide the requisite iconic centrepiece to replace an older, discarded ‘eyesore’. derided as ‘blobs’ or desired as cultural kick-starters to economic renewal, iconitastic architecture, as its been dubbed, has featured in every city masterplan from the days of baudrillard’s blistering indictment of the phenomena in his 1982 critique of the supermarketing of culture as the beaubourg effect. nearer to home will alsop's proposed fourth grace for liverpool's waterfront, the cloud, was voted simply one icon too many and plans to realise the project in time for this years capital of culture were scrapped.

with hindsight, as recession bites and the building industry slows down, it seems liverpool’s decision to halt the cloud signals the end of an era, the death knell for what owen hatherley recently called ‘an orgy of greed and architectural frivolity — shoddy “luxury” housing, big business skyscrapers’, and an ushering in of more integrated, innovative but everyday architecture. his call for a new green deal carries perhaps more weight in these new serious times than they would have only a year ago -

watching the live televising of the riba sterling prize 2008 on channel 4 the other night seemed to reiterate this new mood, a more sober language discernable from the start. the equivalent of the turner prize, the RIBA Building of the Year event is prestigious and glitzy, chosen from six buildings shortlisted from the winners of the National and European Awards. this years winner was accordia, by recent standards a rather modest vision of modern sustainable city living and the first ever residential scheme to receive the top prize.

the riba website says: This is high density housing at its very best. Beautifully thought-through houses are linked by a series of public, semi-public and private but visible open spaces, making the whole development a joy to walk through. Houses and flats have good-sized, well-proportioned rooms with views out ranging from the urban views to rural pasture. This development proves that good modern housing sells, that a committed local authority can have a very positive influence on the design, that a masterplan with a range of architects can be successful and that the very best architecture does not need to rely on gimmicks. This will be a project that will be much referred to and used as a future case study.

'the very best architecture does not need to rely on gimmicks' - this from a body criticised only two years ago for a tendency to reward the spectacular rather than the special! (amanda baillieu, bd magazine). iconic architecture it seems is dead and its po-faced maiden aunt sustainable architecture is losing no time in taking up the challenge left in the gap.

all too often our love affair with iconic architecture has led to buildings bigger on style than substance with an emphasis more on the impact of the building’s image than its integration into its surroundings or even its userbility, with preference given to interesting buildings over 'good' buildings. this is not meant as some reactionary anti-modernist rant against excellence and contemporaneity, merely a suggestion that good design and the built environment has to be more about sensitive interventions into all of our urban and rural environments than city centre wow factors. adrian welch’s essay Iconotastic Reflections - Signatecture on e-architect’s open forum makes for an interesting and informative insight into recent debates within the profession -

so does a return to bread and butter design signal a backlash against innovation and a new conservatism? i hope not. the site of former government offices, accordia has more than 700 existing mature trees, from productive gardens with fruit trees, herbs and berries, to formal lawns, reedbeds and meadows, the existing mature landscape being enhanced with new and diverse green spaces between the mews courts, greens and squares. each home has been designed to overlook one of these green spaces whilst each space is linked to the next by a network of footpaths, cycleways and low key streets, homezones and subtle traffic calming measures reducing the prominence of the car and creating a safe 20 mph zone. accordia also comprises a mix of houses and apartments including 30% mixed-tenure accommodation evenly split between housing for rent and low cost housing for sale.

architecturally the scheme attempts to blend contemporary with traditional and eco-aware sustainability, such as low maintenance green roofs on the apartment blocks to maximise solar access and provide a natural and safe environment for wildlife with the added benefit that everyone residing on higher floors will enjoy a living green view! the light filled modern facades so adored by the kevin mcleod brigade have been achieved using familiar cambridge materials such as stock brick, copper and timber. the result does seem to be a soft, everyday, user friendly modernism.

furthermore, the scheme sits within eight acres of mature landscaping providing the framework for a residential layout themed around the idea of 'living in a garden', providing an oasis of calm for its inhabitants. accordia boasts those 700 established trees, open lawns and play areas while additional landscaping includes the creation of a wildlife corridor adjacent to Hobson's Brook, an important area for wildlife, with further ecological measures proposed to enhance the biodiversity of the site.

i look forward to this fledgling community’s future with interest, hoping that this thoughtful approach, rejected three times by the local authority over concerns that it wasn’t good enough, proves that quality and careful planning reaps the rewards of improved quality of life for residents, greener, more sustainable environments sensitive to the built and natural landscape, heralding closer working relationships between developers and local governments.
this is where boundaries can be pushed, not on statement buildings but on the everyday aspects of people's lives...


ADELE said...

What a very interesting article.
Although after reading the comments on the winner of the RIBA awardI couldn't help thinking that it's just another 'tweak' on Corbusier's vision of urban/communal living.
Albeit this has a contemporary flair with the eco aspect and sustainability - but these were not considerations in Corbusier's time.
This leads me to wonder if as in most aspects of our culture themes are cyclycle and there is no such thing as 'original thought'!
I would love to see something that was truly 'original' and exciting win a prestigeous award.
However they would have to get through the prescriptive definitions of RIBA's pre-requisite for what makes a great building - iconic or otherwise!!!!

Bluestocking said...

i'm completely with you on this but on a pragmatic level find i'm grateful for any housing development that attempts to raise the bar a little higher than so much of what we've been given. in that sense perhaps accordia is orginal? anyway lets give it 5 years and go back to visit it then...