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I have always been fascinated by architectural competitions, especially the ones held for projects that will never be materialised. From their entries one can really assess the designer’s architectural abilities and also map out their politics and true motives. It is the closest an architect can get to his/her student years, when being a dreamer and not a pragmatist was the norm. Anyone who studies or has a creative profession knows that sometimes the most outrageous of ideas produce the most interesting of projects.

Top left: In the Canopy by Studio McLeod / Top right: The Gassworks by Patrick Judd and Ash Bonham / Bottom left: Reclaiming the canalside by Bethany Gale / Bottom right: Kentish Town square by Urban Projects Bureau+BBUK Landscape Architecture

Top left: In the Canopy by Studio McLeod / Top right: The Gassworks by Patrick Judd and Ash Bonham / Bottom left: Reclaiming the canalside by Bethany Gale / Bottom right: Kentish Town square by Urban Projects Bureau+BBUK Landscape Architecture

In this competition held by the RIBA, the contestants chose one area (out of some suggested ones) and then focused their intervention in whatever part of it they wanted. Each proposed neighbourhood has various places that seem to be forgotten and each project’s aim was to shed new light on them. All of the short-listed entries suggest a 180 degree turn from their original use. Aldwych station turns into a spa, where people actually bathe in the tube, old phone booths are transformed into bike repair stations and a part of the BT tower becomes a cultural centre.

Top left drawings: Bikebox by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo / Bottom right drawings: An Arial View by OMMX

Top left drawings: Bikebox by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo / Bottom right drawings and model: An Arial View by OMMX

Architectural studies involve coming up with schemes on how to regenerate areas and scenarios of what sort of buildings to make quite often. In fact there is so much time put into developing these scenarios during student years that one would think that entering the actual profession architects would be even slightly involved in them. This is really far from the truth. Even the biggest names in the business are presented with very precise briefs that have been developed entirely by clients, companies, strategists and governments and to which the architects have not contributed anything at all. Which means we are trained to be dreamers but we actually only execute orders. This is why I always thought that being an architect is like having studied to be a chef but instead having to wash dishes for decades. This is why most architects are not happy with their jobs even though they loved their studies. And this is also why most of us are willing to spend weeks of our precious time for a competition, even if there is next to no chance to ever win it (not to say that if won, the award would not even remotely cover the cost).

Hidden light by Threefold Architecture

Hidden light by Threefold Architecture

Another important thing that popped into mind going around the rooms of this exhibition was that regeneration is often promised in a vague, generic fashion that reminds me of politicians’ schemes that are presented to the public in order to win votes. Having the objectivity to read the intentions behind such ‘promises’ is an important skill to develop because often there are potent political motives hidden behind them. In our days regeneration usually equals gentrification. Attracting rich consumers to occupy an area is the goal, while social problems and inequalities instead of being addressed, are hidden under the proverbial carpet. Poor and marginalised people are sent away from the ‘regenerated’ area as out of sight is out of mind.

Museum of Memories by Claire Moody

Museum of Memories by Claire Moody

Some decades back, patronising or naïve as they might have been, architects were trying to face social problems, no matter how difficult or even impossible it was. In our days we are trained to forget and focus on design, beauty and generally the surface of things. It is as if designers only look into a repertoire of ‘problems’ that mostly relate to the environment and the need for more culture-related places. Thus the recipe is either to create a leisure/art space or something that addresses environmental issues via recycling and the production of biological products to hit the jackpot. Everyone will think the designer really cares. By that I do not mean that there is no need for additional public or cultural centres and I am not challenging the fact that global resources have been reduced and our health and well-being are not in danger. On the contrary. However I do believe that as citizens and as designers we should all be more sensitive towards the social impact and  politics represented by the projects that claim to regenerate the areas that allegedly need it.

Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones

Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones

Having said that I do not want to state which projects in this competition -according to my personal opinion- were successful in addressing actual problems creatively and which not. This is something for each person to figure out on their own after careful consideration. However I do believe strongly in the importance of competitions because somehow they open up a horizon of possibilities for architects that reality has turn into cynics. Especially this competition had a very interesting subject as cities are literally filled with forgotten spaces. Ultimately, the decision to display it in an equally forgotten space, the basement of a building as famous as the Somerset House was a brilliant one.

The basement of Somerset House where the exhibition was placed

The basement of Somerset House where the exhibition was placed

I would also like to mention some projects that stayed in my memory for various reasons. Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones which is basically a moving kiosk that creates public space where there is none. Hidden Light by Threefold Architects, which is a series of flares indicating the Victorian technology that still remains underground of the city. The Museum of Memories by Claire Moody for its Gothic qualities and for re-introducing the necropolis. “In the Canopy” which is a tree-climbing system by Studio McLeod for its playfulness. Urban Agri-Aqua Culture by Ian and Peter Wale for its ethics even though I wish they had paid more attention to their aesthetics. And finally the Bike Box by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo because something truly helpful should be done for the cyclists in this city.

Top images: Aldwych Baths by Team Growler / Bottom images: installation and drawings for Aquadocks by Studio Pink

Top images: Aldwych Baths by Team Growler /
Bottom images: installation and drawings for Aquadocks by Studio Pink

The exhibition has now ended but you can find the its website here

More information about the shortlisted projects at the RIBA website here

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David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary gallery is a very photogenic building. Having read quite a few positive and negative articles about it and finally visiting Margate one cannot help but wonder : “Is this what the fuss is all about?”.

The gallery’s site is very privileged. Placed on the raised promenade next to the seafront it cannot be missed. However the building itself is a rather modest structure, much less impressive than it seems to be in photographs. Many visitors and journalists have described it as a boat-shed and regardless of the crisp detailing (only obvious to the trained architect’s eye) it really does look like a boat-shed.

upper right: Auguste Rodin’s The kiss/ lower left: Daniel Buren’s work Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape/ all photos taken by the writer

The feelings are equally mixed when one enters it. The first impression is really good, almost grand. The spacious double-height gallery opposite the art shop, with breathtaking views of the sea and  complemented currently by Rodin’s iconic sculpture of “the Kiss”, is truly wonderful.

Once upstairs the visitor lands on a balcony overlooking the double-height gallery and enjoys the view of the sea once more before entering the galleries. By entering the main exhibition space, any contact with the building is somehow lost, as all skylights have been blinded and the environment seems totally artificial. When Turner Contemporary was first presented to the public, it was praised on its quality of natural light in the galleries, which according to the architect has been manipulated in such a way to achieve even distribution without producing any shadows. Here it seems that the curator’s needs for this exhibition were not in sync with the architectural scheme and the advantages the building offers. The choice to use the building’s assets would ultimately make the visit a truly unique experience. On the contrary, by having all natural light blocked, one does not perceive the geometry of the space at all. These rooms could be white rooms anywhere else, they do not truly belong to this particular building any more. The first floor gallery spaces seem to be reduced to a vacuum with no identity which contradicts the purpose of creating this museum in the first place. Should not art and architecture attempt to compliment each other?

far right: creative workshop at the learning studio

Maybe the purpose of this museum is what has been often been defined as the “Bilbao effect” : the construction of an iconic building that enhances a city’s identity, placing it on the map of ‘must see’ places for tourists. Was the placement of Turner Contemporary in Margate a political move then? David Chipperfield has stated that “buildings such as this should not be procured on the basis of regeneration. It’s about building an institution which is important for the town,’ not the ‘cultural elite’ from London”. *

This museum has been considered as another way to waste money that could have been invested in reducing Margate’s elevated unemployment rate, one of the highest in south-east England. Such views should not be disregarded in reviewing new public buildings. After all, public buildings should be examined first and foremost through the political prism of their impact on the community they were meant for.

upper right: David Chipperfield’s sketch for Turner Contemporary, postcard sold at the museum shop/ lower left: artwork at the window of local gallery depicting Turner Contemporary

Having visited Turner Contemporary during the “Nothing in the world but youth” exhibition and witnessing the students of Margate participating in the creative workshops taking place in the ‘learning studio’, it was obvious that this place is currently a vibrant community hub. Therefore the overall experience was not as dramatic or controversial as ‘promised’. It was  merely a visit to a seaside town with a new building which regardless its looks seems to be integrating nicely in the community. Sometimes, strange as it might be for any formalist, this is even more important than the building’s appearance.

*David Chipperfield’s quote taken  from  “Turner Contemporary, Margate, by David Chipperfield Architects” article by Christine Murray published in Architect’s Journal on April 28th 2011

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