Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Applying soul to cities is a hit and miss affair
‘So this stuff is, like, later?” The voice – young, American and slightly over-loud – echoes through the gloom of the Uffizi’s 16th-century corridor, lined both sides by Vasari, Clouet and, later, Rubens. The boy may be callow but his incredulity that anything from the 15-whatevers could be considered “late” is a natural first response of many Americans and most Australians.
We brag of Australia’s 40,000 years, but it’s a carpet we roll out for the dinner guests, not something we live on. We live, in fact, anywhere but there. Sure, we let our collective psyche stretch forward, maybe even to the far side of an electoral term, and back around the occasional stump of “heritage”. But generally we keep to a ribbon of the synchronous present.
This, we like to think, gives us enormous freedom. And it’s true. A freedom as big as the continent itself, but also (witness Sartor’s relentless white-anting of our “heritage” system) as sandy, salty, nutrient-poor. Europe has the opposite problem, if problem it is. There, history’s omnipresence renders a topsoil so rich and moist it can cling to the boots and clog the willpower, even as it feeds the imagination.
This question of how to dwell creatively with history – and the related one of how to build, now, anything we like even a tenth as much – has long troubled the aesthetic mind, in lovely old Europe and funny old England quite as much as the big, brave New World. And yet, if there is an answer, it hovers, tantalising, just out of reach.
The Prince of Wales’s latest quinquennial rant on the subject threw the art of city-making once more into relief. His original “monstrous carbuncle” tirade – delivered, perhaps aptly, in 1984 – was credited, probably wrongly, with bringing Pomo to Britain. The new one – which, like the Prince’s friendship with foliage and envy of tampons, is no longer regarded as shocking or even especially odd – traversed similar ground. The single carbuncle was now a “rash”, said His Luminance, citing the dozen-ish skyscrapers proposed for central London by architects like Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Raphael Vinoly and Kohn Pedersen Fox.
Immediately, predictably, Charles was cheered by journos and attacked by architects. Neither side could be accused of excessive intellectual subtlety. The Guardian’s Michele Hanson wondered “how tall and mad does architecture have to get before its wilder practitioners are carted off in straitjackets?” while Royal Institute of British Architects president Sunand Prasad both denied the “plague of towers” and insisted that such a plague, were it in fact to exist, would be more acceptable now to the newly “design-savvy” Londoner.
The Prince’s case, though, is evidence-heavy. Throughout Europe, not just London, it’s the old, intricate areas that collect and hold human life as a tree collects snow, while new precincts repeatedly drift from grand vision to trackless void, where a city’s distinctive flavour vanishes in a blaze of global nothingness.
Take Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, the Renzo Piano master-planned archi-fest designed to rebirth the East and hailed by many as state-of-the-imagination. Beneath the vast neon-lit flower of Helmut Jahn’s Sony Centre, tiny figures scurry and huddle. For what do they brave the raking sleet? For the tiny fake log-cabin that glows with gluhwein and good humour like a beacon of humanity on these frozen architectural steppes. And the real street life, the bars and smoky clubs, the zany shops and bizarre cabarets that give Berlin its charisma? They’re happily stuffed into the mossy crevices and funky courtyards of the old city’s wrinkly bits including, ironically, the very lovely Rosenthaler Strasse in the old Jewish Quarter.
It’s the same story around Berlin’s glassy Reichstag area, Norman Fostered to death and now as gemuetlich as a day spa in Canberra.
Same in Barcelona’s Olympic precinct, once hailed as the apotheosis of urban design and now embalmed in a silence that is only deepened by the neighbouring vividness of the old Gothic Quarter and the Barceloneta “slum”.
Same in Paris’s Parc Bercy, with its very own Frank Gehry Cinematheque, and in London’s smart ‘n’ soulless Canary Wharf.
This is mysterious enough, considering the mountains of money and talent so lavished. More mysterious still, though, is the result of similarly heartfelt efforts to recreate olde-worlde charm. The Prince’s Poundbury village, Dorset, and Field Farm, near Shepton Mallet in the Mendips, might be almost convincing if not for the sinister waxwork prettiness of a set from The Prisoner.
Still, there are good modern buildings. Buildings with genuine warmth and feel – like the residential Glass Building (actually largely timber, stone and copper) by Feilden Clegg Bradley in Cambridge, and the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras Station, built to a Norman Foster outline and designed by Alastair Lansley. They’re not limelight architecture, designed for the cover shot. But they have that rare quality of dignifying humanity rather than traducing it.
It can be done, but it’s not easy and seldom rewarded. Back in ’84 the Prince likened modernism to the Luftwaffe, and not in a good way. But by the time Sartor has finished with our planning system, a spot of precision bombing could be right on the money.