If you’re talking about architecture, or housing, or construction, in 2017 it’s hard to look past the charred stump of Grenfell Tower. This image will remain in the collective mind, as it should, long after the year’s novelties have faded. The best that can be hoped for from the disaster is that it will alert public and politicians to the parlous state of housing in Britain – and all parties are now at least talking about large-scale public housing programmes, which not so long ago was politically unthinkable. It might also be noticed that a decades-long tendency to reduce risk, by spreading it among building contractors, project managers and an expanding panoply of consultants – and by marginalising architects – did not, in this case, reduce risk.
In other news we found out once again that vast wealth can produce splendiferous buildings, whether the digital billions that paid for Foster and Partners’ visible-from-space Apple Park in Cupertino, or the petrodollars (and offsets from arms sale) that created the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In both cases the architects opted for a gigantic circle, cosmic emblem, symbol of eternity, as their dominant motif. In London, Bloomberg’s billion-pound new HQ opened, also by Fosters, civic-minded and imperial at once.
This was also the year when postmodernism, for long derided as the gimcrack style of shyster capitalists of the 1980s, was well and truly rehabilitated. (In this it followed on the heels of brutalism, which was long derided as the inhuman style of arrogant socialists of the 1960s.) Historic England started listing postmodern works. Books were published. Playful reincarnations of the style – post-postmodernism, perhaps – appeared at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. In truth, the late lamented architectural practice FAT was doing much of this before the turn of the millennium, but it takes time for the rest of the world to catch up with true visionaries.
Lastly, two victories for good sense. In London the Garden Bridge sank under the weight of its own contradictions and deceptions. In Liverpool the Welsh Streets – well liked, serviceable, refurbishable Victorian terraces – were spared from demolition after years of campaigning by committed local residents and by Save Britain’s Heritage. As with Grenfell, it might be hoped that lessons will be learned from these experiences, but don’t hold your breath.
Five best buildings
Maggie’s cancer centre, Oldham dRMM
Its architects won the Stirling prize with Hastings Pier, and will be contenders again with this playful, serious and beautiful building.
Tate St Ives Jamie Fobert
A great, reposeful gallery carved out of a cliff, in a place where the local politics were as challenging as the engineering.
Exhibition Road Quarter, Victoria and Albert Museum Amanda Levete Architects
Another great gallery space, also buried, reached from a (literally) dazzling ceramic-paved courtyard. Bring your sunglasses.
Garden Museum, London Dow Jones
Subtle conversion of a church and churchyard into an urban homage to things planted.
The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 Barbican art gallery, London
An exhibition of architectural invention at its most fertile.
Canaletto, City Road, London UNStudio
In theory, bold architectural patronage. In practice, a car crash. Gestural design meets developers’ expedients and both lose.
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