‘The summit of world architecture has been conquered by a tiny class of signature architect who peddle a brand of designer egotism to desperate clients with no regard to context, placemaking or local needs. Discuss.’
It is 12.38pm and Will Alsop’s mobile bursts into life.
The architect snaps it open within a couple of rings and issues a suspiciously bleary “Hello?”
It is your correspondent calling and Alsop doesn’t quite sound right. It might be lunchtime in London but it’s still not breakfast in Toronto, where Alsop is only sounding more laid back than usual because it is an ungodly 6.38am where he is. My questions will have to wait, but it’s no great problem. After all, the reason for my call was to research the phenomenon of “kerosene architecture” – which is where architects don’t just serve the jet set, they are the jet set. Alsop’s rude awakening has illustrated my point nicely.
The fact is, he is one of an elite of architects that spend more time flying around the world than at their drawing boards. A quick ring round this week found that Zaha Hadid was on a flight from Vienna, David Chipperfield had just got back from the USA and Ricky Burdett, Ken Livingstone’s architecture adviser, was on a plane from Mexico. But that’s nothing. Rem Koolhaas definitely needs his flight socks. In one week he’s flying from London to Rotterdam to Berlin to Munich and on to Beijing. By the time he gets back, that’s a carbon-spewing 10,774 miles.
You’d expect the environmentalists to complain about the emissions. But more unexpected is the rapidly growing concern that all this travel is not good for architecture, either. High-profile architects in London have fulminated against the trend and the Italian institute of architects got so angry about the airborne invasion of architects from abroad that they bought a page in a national paper to complain.
So what’s the problem? In short, kerosene architecture is under attack because it results in buildings that appear to have been popped from the same mould regardless of where they are. Alsop builds a box on stilts in Peckham, south London, and wins the Stirling Prize in 2001; three years later another box on stilts appears in Toronto, this time as an art college. Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas builds a library in Seattle, USA, and the following year he opens a music centre in Porto, Portugal, that takes a similar exterior form. He’s not rolling out the same drawings, but the preoccupations that inform the designs are common.
The granddaddy of the kerosene gang is by Norman Foster. At 70, he’s been playing this game longer than anybody, and in the past decade he has scattered the globe with Foster office towers, airports, and bridges. Some think his natural heir as the biggest architect in the UK, and perhaps even the world, is Hadid. Her sweeping and jagged designs make little impact in the UK, but mainland Europe and the USA have taken her to their hearts. And Herzog & de Meuron are a Swiss partnership who are so global, they are said to divide the workload on the basis of hemispheres – Jacques Herzog looks after the west and projects such as the remarkable Walker Art Gallery in the USA, and Pierre de Meuron handles the east including the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing. They could meet for coffee in Istanbul.
If the rest of the gang were to join them, en route to favourite E E destinations such as China, Dubai or the USA, the conversation could easily centre on common concerns in their architecture: a shrinking world made up of a network of world cities connected by airlines and the internet, the triumph of cutting-edge structural engineering and economic progress and free thinking, even though most of them work in the United Arab Emirates and China, neither of which are democratic.
But clients all over the world are falling over themselves to work with these firms, desiring a little of the stardust that they hope can transform an enterprise, a gallery or even a whole city into something special. Multiply the so-called Bilbao effect by 1000 and you have the scale of the enthusiasm for these practices’ landmark designs.
But for an increasingly vocal minority, the trend of architecture traded across borders as a commodity is beginning to grate. Adam Caruso, partner in Caruso St John, which burst onto the scene in 2001 with the acclaimed Walsall Art Gallery, is among them. “Like architectural Dan Dares and Wonder Women, they egg each other on with ever larger and more formally outlandish projects – work that is insistent on being unprecedented and unrelated to past architecture,” he says. “These projects increasingly engage only with the egos of their authors.” In its press advert, those Italian practices rebuked globetrotters, including Foster, for precipitating the “architectural mongrelisation” of their nation.
Architect Rab Bennetts has some sympathy with this. “The problem identified by the Italians is that of architectural globalisation,” he says. “It’s the worldwide ‘branding’ of styles by a few eminent architects who seem unable to respond to local conditions with the imagination so clearly in their possession.”
On the other hand, as globetrotter Chipperfield explains, it’s a blessed existence for the architects. “If someone flies you in and is nearly on their knees and thinks you are the best thing that has happened in that part of China or the USA, then the climate for the architect is so much better. They are in a situation where unless the client is gagging for it they don’t have to do it. It also means as an architect you can become even braver.”
None of this is bad news for Chipperfield who believes many of the kerosene gang are prodigiously talented, and clients are purchasing a valuable commodity. “It’s a case of get it while stocks last,” he says.
Indeed, few could dispute that the architects are top notch, but that doesn’t calm stomachs queasy at the thought of the architecture itself. The more international it becomes, the more it is about the architect’s personal signature and not local uniqueness. And, as Chipperfield implies, it is architecture as commodity rather than as placemaking.
But architects are not alone in the kerosene gang, according to Burdett. “Scratch the surface and you see that this is a network that includes quantity surveyors and engineers,” he says. He also argues that an architects’ propensity to ignore matters of local context or urbanism is not related to whether they fly in from the other side of the world. He points out that Herzog & de Meuron are building a scheme that is “incredibly subtle and contextual” in Tenerife, and that Hadid – the international architect with perhaps the most pronounced signature style – is also doing projects that are “seriously contextual”.
It would be understandable if those criticising the global movement were motivated a little by jealousy. After all, the kerosene gang hoover up all the best commissions and win the highest praise. But the critical backlash against them is under way and for the detractors, it is a success that comes at too high a cost.
Don’t expect to see those qualms laid to rest any time soon, as this is a phenomenon that continues to gather pace. Those Chinese mayors, Emirates sheikhs and American museum philanthropists who find kerosene architecture so intoxicating have a long way to go until they are sick of the fumes.