One has to wonder what Ken Shuttleworth is quite getting at. The founder of MAKE is best known for being the project architect of the lovely Gherkin tower in the City of London while working for Norman Foster. I happen to rather like this building though I’ve never dared step foot inside it; indeed I often feeling the urge to throw up all over it when thinking of what goes on inside. The tower sits rather comfortably into the city skyline, evincing an upright and twee dark blue blazer of a phallus. Of course at ground level it is rather clumsy, meeting the pedestrian world with a concerted, even arrogant lack of subtlety befitting a (pre-recession) bank. Indeed, on seeing this building my mind is cast way back to a time before the recession when bankers were just regular knobs – knobs recalled in the form of the tower as it bulges out just so. But it is a beautifully realised form, and it rises straight out of the ground with very few concessions to the streetscape or the passerby (much like the banker that parks their Lamborghini right outside the pub). But I don’t care about that: in fact, I like that best of all. It’s an un-confusing building; you don’t feel like it is making concessions to anything – it is a delightful diagram carried through by the project architect with admirable conviction and a shitload of cash.
Here it is:
And here is MAKE’s proposal for Broadgate, a bank conceived after the crash, which last week received planning, also for the City of London:
Now, I’m not one to start slagging off a building based on a single picture, of a building, indeed of another bloody bank, that doesn’t yet exist (although I’d wager that there was an ongoing conversation about precisely how much sky colour that metal cladding could reflect without being ridiculous). But, there are more than just the one render, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Writing about it would suggest that it merited comment on its architecture. But there are a lot of words being said about this scheme, and this dialogue is very illuminating. It is the language used by Shuttleworth in this article in Bloomberg last week that gives some indication of where this building is coming from.
“The age of bling is over [...] Money now drives everything, so if you can build something for half the price, you will.” [...] Tenants are demanding “austere and efficient” buildings that are more likely to be “ground-scrapers” than high-rises, said Shuttleworth [...] “The tall glass box is dead.”
The whole article is worth reading. And then, contrast it with this one. What do we learn from it all? Well, a number of things.
The architect of the current Broadgate scheme, Stuart Lipton, who once referred to Shutteworth as “one of the best hidden talents in the UK”, now thinks that this Shuttleworth-designed scheme is “the worst large building we’ve seen in the City for 20 years”. Which is a bit of a turnaround. But then again, the Make scheme replaces Lipton’s current Broadgate with a scheme twice the size and well, there is no attire to hide those extra rolls of fat.
We learn that there is an emerging argument (coming mainly from the banks) that the skyscraper, which in a financial sense seeks to maximise the available let-able area on a site, hence maximise profit, may not be the most profitable use of land because of the inherent costs involved in building so tall. Which seems to suggest that previously banks seemed to build tall for prestige value – all those things embodied by the Gherkin.
We also learn that Ken Shuttleworth sees that the “tall glass box is dead” – and only just in time it seems, as judging from the renderings of Make’s Broadgate, the fat, repetitive, shiny-metallic box “groundscraper”, is in. Fair enough really, for as the Bloomberg article highlights, the direction of architecture in the city is veering wildly toward the ‘economical’ (read ‘cheap’). Which is cause for much concern. And if your client is pushing for a big, cheap building, and times are tough, and you have to work, I concede that you can end up doing a scheme that stands for a lot of things you as an architect do not (a building that overwhelms the street, compromises the public realm, etc. etc.) Which may give some idea of the unusual timing of the Bloomberg article (which, bizarrely, doesn’t mention the Broadgate scheme by name, but does have some flattering pictures of the Make office) with the Broadgate scheme’s unveiling. Not that the two things are in any way related.
But it isn’t like Make haven’t tried to do bling before. On their *hem hem* underwhelming ‘the Cube’ in Birmingham (which narrowly missed out on winning last years Carbuncle Cup… it was a very competitive year) Make say,
“The building acts as a protective metal box, pure in form, assembled from a multitude of glistening components, which gives way to a glassy, crystalline and wholly unexpected interior of light and colour”
ie. they call it bling. But take a look at it, and bling it isn’t.
Architecture doesn’t really take to short, reductionist descriptions. It is open-ended, enduring and one could argue its whole art lies in its capacity to take on real and complex cultural and personal meaning over time. Any description or ‘tagline’ used to describe a building before or as it is being built only really serves as some kind of marketing currency. Architects use a lot of bullshit words when describing their buildings, but so too can others. And once it sticks, that can be it. Hence, I’m sure, Foster liked the “Gherkin”, because, well, it could have been so much worse.
A poorly conceived design will never achieve much architectural effect, never mind how amazing the construction of it may be. It is something intrinsic to all art forms that, when greatness is achieved, the composition and detail are in harmony, and speak of a depth of thought that is only present in the experience of the work itself. Words do the work no justice. There is a term in architectural practice that refers to the detailing stage of an often rushed, or unconvincing design as ‘polishing the turd’. Make’s Birmingham ‘the Cube’ seems to fit into that category. That, if there is enough conviction, one can turn a huge dull grey-brown box into a jewel box by, well, polishing it.
It didn’t work.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Make. At precisely the time they get planning permission for a two-dimensional bank-fortress box, they highlight that architects cannot do bling any more. Not that the two things are in any way related.
But the words don’t stop there. CABE (remember them?) gave their blessing to Make’s Broadgate design. (Hang on, wasn’t Ken Shuttleworth a Cabe Commissioner? Not that the two are in any way related.) But while warning the building could be, well, a ‘turd’ as its size will make it “difficult to integrate into the surrounding city grain”, Cabe gives this advice: “great care and subtlety will be needed in the detailing of the elevations to ensure that the building achieves the desired quality and maintains this over time”.
We’re talking about a whole lot of polishing.