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Peter Cook: the tiger blinks, the scorpion twitches. Peter Cook delivers a warning shot to Western architectural glitterati from Busan.

The lights dim, the famous name descends the staircase to the accompaniment of a movie theme tune, and another live performance begins. Four of us greyheads sit at the front and try to remain impassive for the duration of each of seven 40 minute shows: we are part of the audience too, but our moment will come a day later when we are supposed to single out the winner.

Of course we're only skimming past the film world for a moment: for this is all happening in South Korea, in the Busan International Film Fair. The famous architects are competing to build a permanent home for the world's fourth most prestigious such event. Later they will parade in medieval-looking tents along with their project models for the benefit of the film folk. But right now, behind the greyheads, sit 300 or more kids looking suspiciously like architectural students, confirmed by the squeals and cheers for Winy Maas with his 'folded bed'--the MVRDV scheme--a perceptible buzz around Wolf Prix of Himmelb(l)au and for Bernard Tschumi, who enters to sustained applause as befits one who has established himself as a box office stalwart.

I hadn't realised that Busan is the size of Berlin with a luxury beach resort near the site, but with no memorable buildings. Which is maybe why no Koreans are among the invited seven. Nor are there women performers, but plenty of girl architects who will swarm forward to plea for autographs and ask to be photographed alongside the heroes--just short of the goings-on outside the resort hotels where real film folk are greeted with squeals and mad rushes in and out of lobbies. So far the perception is that the world of architecture is not (quite yet) showbiz.

The same might be said of the projects themselves--oscillating between monumentalism, urban gravitas and attempts to create loose-limbed ceremonial backdrops. Even so, some of the greyheads seem to be rather suspicious of the more showbiz-conscious projects. Unspoken but perceptible--even in the closed session--is a nervousness of being played with. As the only Westerner on the panel I am conscious of this nervousness but totally unprepared for the moment when Arata Isozaki lets slip his deep resentment of the current European prizewinning surge. Such resentment is by now common in the US, where a veneer of quality was built up in the last 25 years through a combination of erudite theorising and saturation publishing that brainwashed the architectural world into believing that the East Coast of the US was where it was at. Then suddenly the emperor's new clothes slipped away and the lack of inventive creativity became obvious; by contrast strange Dutch, Swiss, Austrian, Spanish or even foreign-born Londoners had been making some original pieces of architecture.


Yet there is cause to ponder: for Arata Isozaki has surely changed the course of recent architectural history. It is no secret that his skilful interventions at the jury stage catapulted the careers of Hadid, Sejima, Hasegawa, Foreign Office and more. His relentless search to winkle out the new and a youthful ability to keep his ear to the ground is to be taken seriously. It is natural to expect a generation brought up on SOM, Kipnis and herbal tea to be confounded by these creatures creeping out of valleys with a thousand years of ironworking, wood crafting, leather thong honing mixed in with stories from professors who do sensitive or quirky buildings.

For now, international politics encourage more Asian architects to seek intriguing alternatives to the top eight American schools; but in the next few years, Arata's mood will spread and there will be moments when the question is asked 'do we need the West?' The locals who begin to offer an alternative may include some of those same autograph-hunters who travel to Vienna, London, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Ljubljana and Helsinki. They recognise that there has always been a natural series of links between ideas, crafting, folklore and innovation--as there was anyway in the East.

So a warning shot is a warning shot. The international circus meets in each other's favourite restaurants, shares jokes, swaps assistants--meets on Arup doorsteps. At the moment the members look over their shoulder at each other, allowing the Tokyo players into the Club but desperately needing to be challenged by newcomers.

It is at this point that the conversation comes full circle: for Busan (like so many other cities) was too nervous to include an open stage in its competition. This may or may not be bad for showbusiness, but it's sure as hell bad for architecture and not terribly good for the stars themselves, in the long run.
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Author:Cook, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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