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Intervening in Europe.

'Intervening in the European City', Architectural Review's conference, 16 March 2004, at the RIBA London. Generously sponsored by Zumtobel Staff. Sutherland Lyall reports.

You assemble an all-star cast: Chris Wilkinson, Mecanoo's Francine Houben, Norwegian star Ole Wiig, the ebullient Massimilano Fuksas, Peter Archigram Cook, Ireland's Valerie Mulvin and Holland's Hubert-Jan Henket--all familiar to readers of this organ. You already have an excellent and important topic: Intervening in the European City. And what do most of them do? They pay brief lip service to the topic and then talk at length to PowerPoint images of their own work.

I suppose any seasoned architectural conference-goer should know the score: the official theme could be about deep freezing tundra foundations in Upper Silesia and all the speakers would still turn up with several carousel trays of their latest design work. As here, wily conference devisers make sure that the speakers and their works are going to be interesting so that everyone has a good time even if the topic gets only a token airing.

The problem is that you feel that an unspoken agreement has, without your permission, been made between you and the speakers. It is that they, the good guys, don't really need to explain too much why or how their buildings represent interventions. The only speaker to raise the issue was Peter Cook, still basking in the universal applause awarded his and Colin Fournier's Kunsthaus, Graz. He made the point that there is a difference between making an intervention and simply doing a building in the city: it was, he said, the difference between 'sneaking something into the fabric of an old city and putting something in because someone asked you to'. You felt that quite a lot of the others had been quite heavily involved in the latter process. The deceptively tentative Cook was persuasive, not least because he spoke about only one brilliant project and because he spent maybe a quarter of his time talking affectionately about Graz, about the Grazer Schule and its silkily back-stabbing architectural fraternity, how everybody in restaurants stood up respectfully when an ecclesiastic came in, and how it pretended to be a nice little Baroque city when it was really a town on a fast-moving mountain stream which makes most of its money from car parking and students at the two local universities. You felt he knew Graz pretty well before snuggling the Kunsthaus into its site on the wrong side of the river.

There were two themes running through the speeches. One was Blob, not surprising given the presence of Cook, Fuksas and Wilkinson who was showing a giant blob on legs striding along the ridge beside the Crystal Palace transmission mast in south London. Chairman and revered Review editor, Peter Davey, got in a few shafts about (inappropriate) blobs in places such as Birmingham. The designers were bewildered at being tagged Blobistes but we've all heard that sort of thing over the years. The other four architects, orthogonalists all, were too courteous to comment although the stilldebonair Hubert-Jan Henket wheeled out, with more than usual vehemence, that evenhanded line on the extremism of the old Modernists wanting to destroy in order to replace. He blew his position by wandering severely off topic with a bit about a Docomomo project which was located, er, in the countryside. Henket's position on intervention was however unassailable because nobody builds anything in that de facto city, Schiphol Airport, without his say-so.


The other theme was the 'conservation fundamentalists' who, said Ole Wiig, 'will always find some reason to preserve existing buildings'. Wiig had worked in Britain and found the Oslo preservationists just as painful. But the words 'conservation fundamentalist' had caught on and were to find their way into subsequent presentations. In the audience some remembered that Docomomo's work could very easily be categorized as conservation fundamentalism. Wiig thought the way to cope with the common enemy was dialogue and the patently high quality of his design proposals. None of the speakers would disagree with that. But you began to feel that the nub of city intervention might have something to do with powers of persuasion even more than architecture.

McCullough Mulvin's Valerie Mulvin from, according to chairman Davey 'another small Catholic country' like Ireland, spoke seamlessly and with perhaps too much detail about her practice's immaculate small-scale work around the Eire county towns--and at Trinity College Dublin. In an unusually muted presentation, Francine Houben had the balance of description right but had the lights turned off which made it difficult for scribes to take readable notes. In the slot earlier, the prolific Ole Wiig had followed the Mulvin line, alternating between locations, lots of them, in Oslo and Trondheim. He laid down a set of headings (The City as a House, Urban Insertions and Extensions and Reusing Lost Space among them) which were an aid to understanding his text but left unanswered the conundrum of why the work illustrated constituted intervention. Doubtless much was but you were left wanting further and better particulars.


It was Chris Wilkinson, that afternoon about to fly off to Harvard graduate school for a teaching stint, who opened the proceedings with a carefully measured preliminary analysis: half the world lives in cities, each generation has different requirements of the city, the city of today, by dint of the people who now make it up, is a new thing, however much it looks like the traditional city. The architect has in his and her armouries such things as beauty, the bizarre, the shock of the new and spectacle. This was probably not spectacle in the Situationist sense, rather the straightforward and wonderful spectacle of the Gateshead bridge opening and closing, or your shock of delight at noticing that twisting bridge at high level across Floral Street between two Royal Opera House buildings. His had been, in chairman Davey's words, an elegant beginning.

The bouncy Massimiliano Fuksas could afford to be ebullient because, now settled in Rome, and with four offices around Europe, the sheer quantity of his current completed and about-to-be-completed output is on the far side of prodigious. And he took us on a rollicking ride among it. Amid a lot of glass office buildings, it includes a magical swooping and diving glass and steel roof for the Milan Trade Fair ground. The physical manifestation of (possibly) a complex mathematical formula snaking along a computer screen, it is 1.5 kilometres long and it's almost finished. This was not intervention but INTERVENTION. Everyone in the RIBA's Florence Hall seethed with envy.
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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