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Editorial: All architecture is about the future – but about the past too

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From Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie to Will Alsop’s Peckham Library, is it important for architecture to ‘fit in’?

‘We do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value – a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity.’ TS Eliot, a poet who thought more about time and its implications than most, would have been an interesting judge for The Architectural Review ‘New into Old’ awards, featured in this issue. While some of the selected entries clearly fit into their surroundings, that is by no means true of all of them, particularly the extraordinary Zaha Hadid Architects Port Authority building in Antwerp, a predecessor of Herzog & de Meuron’s ambitious Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, reviewed earlier this year. But then does Eliot’s poetry ‘fit into’ the canon of English literature? It may not have seemed so when written, but it does now.

In architecture, the opposite of conformity is not a simple matter. Non-conformity sounds too negative – a reluctance to conform rather than the outright opposition represented in the examples cited above. A more interesting condition is where conformity and contrast are juxtaposed, a common occurrence partly prompted by planning and heritage regimes inherently suspicious of the radical new. In a comment on what makes a good project, the London-based Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has this to say: ‘A good designer will consider the relationship of a design to its context. This is not to imply that one of the aims of a design should necessarily be to “fit in”; at its worst, this can be little more than an excuse for mediocrity. Difference and variety can be virtues in new proposals as much as sameness and conformity; and of course different contexts themselves may be more or less uniform in their nature.’

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 A Cedric Price drawing of the original structure of the Snowdon Aviary. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture

This points to the inherent problem about ‘fitting-in’: it implies that what exists is an ideal demanding conformity. It makes no allowance for the transformational power of architecture in respect not just of a single site, but a whole urban quarter. A good example is Will Alsop’s municipal library in Peckham, completed in 2000 when the area was notorious as being unsafe and unsavoury. The library, which overturned conventional templates of how you should design this building type, had an extraordinary psychological effect on the area and its residents: it has been onward and upward ever since.

For reasons that cannot be fully explained, the same sort of effect can be achieved by the introduction of unusually tall buildings in particular locations. They become markers for their patch because they are easily visible, but it may be that it is not simply height that invests them with urban significance, but the combination of architecture, willpower, finance, confidence in the future and bold planning policies that make Renzo Piano’s Shard, or SOM’s Burj Khalifa so influential. Do these buildings ‘fit in’? Of course not, but then use of the phrase has odd anthropomorphic overtones. Planning policies requiring architecture not to be ‘alien’ or ‘disruptive’ deploy language that would cause outrage if applied to people; as ever, fears and anxieties about other matters are projected onto architecture. Assumptions about what a building should ‘look like’ are invariably based on the familiar and the easily understood, but that is surely not a sufficient test. To quote Eliot: ‘A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can’t be much good.’ The same surely applies to architecture.

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The three original designers pictured in 1965 at the Snowdon Aviary. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture

This is not to condone illiterate or wilful design that ignores context and history: it is, after all, quite a good idea to understand rules and know how to operate within them before ignoring them or tearing them up. The curse of Postmodernism was not its critique of the sterile formulae of the International Style, but its adoption by architects too interested in treating design as a fashion style to bother with the academic learning required to do it properly. That is why its shelf-life was so limited, except in the sense that we are all, to some extent, Postmodernists now.

As for the architecture of Zaha Hadid or Herzog & de Meuron, one could reasonably cite Eliot again, in defence of their fearless approach to their art and craft: ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’

London’s Snowdon Aviary (1965) is an admired London Zoo icon in Regent’s Park. Designed by Lord Snowdon with architect Cedric Price and engineer Frank Newby, it was London’s first ‘walk- through aviary’. Changing attitudes and discoveries on the enclosure of birds made the structure inappropriate and a candidate for demolition (an idea that did not bother Price, who once objected to the British habit of ‘sentimentalising the redundant’).  However, the structure was given a Grade-II* listing by heritage authorities, meaning demolition was not an option. The way forward, designed by Foster + Partners, has been to give new life to the aviary by extending it, and turning it into a primate enclosure plus education and community space. Its inhabitants will be colobus monkeys (colobus is Greek for ‘maimed’ because they have no thumbs), an endangered species found across Africa, whose favoured habitats are diminishing because of farming expansion. As with the aviary, visitors to the zoo will be able to get a close-up view of the occupants 

Top image: model of the Foster + Partners proposal, courtesy of Foster + Partners