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Last Updated: Friday, 5 October 2007, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Buildings at risk (of being different)
By Razia Iqbal
BBC News


Britain's Stirling prize for architecture has only been in place since 1996, but in just over a decade, it has established itself as the most prestigious prize in the field of architecture.

This year's winner will be announced on Saturday. But four out of the six buildings on the shortlist are not in Britain.

When the shortlist was announced, there was some debate about what this said about attitudes to architecture in Britain as compared with the rest of Europe.

Although Britain is home to some of the most admired architects in the world, there is a risk averse attitude here, which does not exist as much in the rest of Europe.

David Chipperfield, who has doubled his chances of winning, with two buildings on the shortlist - the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar in Germany (pictured above) and the America's Cup building in Valencia, Spain - says the English have a problem with modern buildings.

"We either go for the bombastic or pastiche," he says. His buildings on the shortlist are neither.

Chipperfield's America's Cup building

He took a risk with the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar; the use of classical columns is still closely associated with Hitler and National Socialism, and he laid himself open to potential claims of celebrating fascism. However, Chipperfield was responding to a particular brief for the building; he felt it was an appropriate form for a building dedicated to the book.

The town of Marbach has a population of only 15,000 people. It would be hard to imagine a town of comparable size in Britain, being fortunate enough to have such a prestigious building. And that too goes to the heart of the debate over commitment to cutting edge architecture.

Chipperfield's America's Cup building, which was built in only 11 months, is also a perfect response to what the building was meant for: a series of open viewing platforms or balconies from which people could watch the yachts leave the harbour and return.

Given the elitist reputation of sailing, Chipperfield was determined to make sure that parts of the building were accessible to members of the public not associated with the yachting set. That the building was meant for a single sporting event has left it looking somewhat abandoned at the moment, but its very existence has transformed an otherwise redundant dock.

Gemstone of concrete

Although not a household name, Chipperfield is regarded as the finest of the generation after Lord Rogers and Lord Foster. Yet he has failed to get a break in Britain, while finding success in the rest of Europe and elsewhere.

Casa Da Musica and Dresden station

When I spoke to Lord Rogers, who won the Stirling prize last year, with Madrid's airport building, he accepted there should be more exciting architecture in Britain. But the fact his Pompidou Centre was in Paris, didn't make him any less proud, he said.

In that context, perhaps the more valuable debate is to do with the intrinsic quality of buildings, rather than location.

In Portugal, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (who qualifies by dint of being an honorary member of the Royal Institute for British Architecture - RIBA) has designed a building which several architects up for the prize think will win. Koolhaas is widely admired among architects for his vision and ideas. His Casa Da Musica, a music auditorium in Porto, is like a cut gemstone of exposed white concrete, and outlandishly futuristic, in a city which dates to pre-Roman times. Yet the city has taken the building to its heart and it is very popular.

And popularity does matter in this debate; there is little point in making great buildings which are hated by the communities they are in or loved only by those in the know.

In Dresden, the highly successful British firm of Foster and Partners took on the task of re-building the 19th Century train station. It was one of the few buildings not completely destroyed in the Allied bombing of the city in 1945.

Teflon skin

Communism, and the aesthetics of that time, resulted in the building being covered up in different ways. The British architects and their German colleagues painstakingly removed the layers to reveal 80% of the steel structure still intact. A Teflon skin brings light and air into a renewed station, embraced by the inhabitants of the city.

UK Two
Howell's Savill visitor centre (left) and the Young Vic
So, what of the two buildings on the shortlist which are in Britain? They exemplify the fact that good architecture IS being built here.

Glenn Howell's Savill visitor centre at Windsor Great Park was closed because it falls within the current foot and mouth exclusion zone. But it is a well loved building, even if it only has one, not hugely original architectural trick: the undulating, wooden roof.

And the Young Vic Theatre in London, from Haworth Tompkins, has a cheerful spirit, and works well in the community which uses it. But can either really be described as Great Architecture?

Truly great architecture requires time, commitment to taking risks, and lots of money. That combination of attitudes comes more easily in the rest of Europe than here and accounts partially, at least, for why British architects are currently enjoying greater success with great buildings and designs outside this country.

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