Nicknaming buildings just reduces complex ideas into simplistic soundbites. Having said that, the Vol-au-vent does seem quite appropriate for HOK’s vile Olympic stadium …
Agood nickname can go a long way, but it can also dilute a great idea into a soundbite; either way, these days, no new architectural proposal can do without one.
From the Shard of Glass, to the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, the Helter Skelter, and now the Vol-au-vent, we have become obsessed with giving our new city buildings nicknames. At least with the Vol-au-vent, Building’s readers have given the unimaginably disappointing Olympic Stadium by HOK Sport a moniker that is eminently appropriate, not only reflecting its shape, but also carrying with it connotations of those nauseating nibbles we have all had too many of the night before at a silly-season Christmas party. One can only hope the vile aftertaste isn’t the first thing that comes to mind within the international community, who unsurprisingly will have been expecting this building to be the landmark of the Games.
Leaving the Vol-au-vent to one side, who comes up with these nicknames anyway? Well, it was Renzo Piano who dubbed his own building The Shard of Glass, words loaded with poetic romanticism, in his presentation to the planning committee. But is it actually the media, or perhaps the public, that is in control of these nicknames, because more often than not, they carry with them a contemptuous streak, a way of hitting back at those silly snooty architects, over-zealous developers, and wannabe iconic objects?
All of this has become quite serious stuff. Hugh Pearman, architecture correspondent of The Sunday Times and editor of the RIBA Journal, was interviewed on the subject on Radio 4’s Front Row programme. He touched on something quite poignant during his diatribe – that our penchant for clever little epithets actually stems from a desire for a sense of ownership. We in the industry do not stop often enough to consider how it might feel as a member of the general public who has no power or method of intervention in what takes shape around them. Most people living in major cities must sometimes feel emasculated by their own built environment, playing a submissive role to the decisions that architects make, decisions with profound wide-reaching implications.
Not all nicknames are derogatory, of course, and some are much loved and grow to be indispensable tools in navigating around our tangled cities. The Flatiron building in New York, for example, has become a landmark and the name for the district that surrounds it.
More often than not, these nicknames carry with them a contemptuous streak, a way of hitting back at those silly snooty architects
The Thrupenny Bit building in Croydon (the one near the station that looks like a stack of thrupenny bits), now re-dubbed the 50p tower, again acts as a navigational marker that people refer to, especially as it is situated on a roundabout.
The Bird’s Nest, Herzog & de Meuron’s impossibly beautiful, sublimely chaotic steel nest of a building, in Beijing, will be an iconic building in the best meaning of the word. It
is a simple idea, suits its endearing nickname perfectly, and yet somehow manages to maintain an elegance and dignity that elevates it above the nametag itself.
Some buildings seem too complex to place a tag on. Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s CCTV building, now rising out of the ground like a defiant and unexpectedly elegant behemoth in Beijing, will live out its days quite happily fascinating architecture students and beguiling structural engineers alike while blissfully avoiding any one-liner references to its form.
And, ultimately, is this all that our nickname obsession is about? A way of reducing complex ideas into single common denominators of what they resemble, a desire to dumb down architectural complexity and layers of thought in order to make them instantly accessible? How awfully pedestrian of us. We should at least allow HOK some room to redeem itself, let the puff pastry rise and become a building we can be proud of at the Olympics.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop
Have your say on the Vol-au-vent, and any other nicknames, at what you think.