Architects of Oligarchy

In his 1995 Reith Lecture series, Richard Rogers, architect of the Paris Pompidou Centre, spoke of how, “The essential problem is that cities have been viewed in instrumental or consumerist terms…The result is that cities have been polarized into communities of rich and poor and segregated into ghettoes of single-minded activity.” The Pompidou Centre is widely regarded as a landmark in late 20th century urban design because of its focus on community. Built alongside a giant piazza, Rogers’ collaboration with the Italian architects Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini is an expression of the importance of the public domain – a democratic exhibition space evoking the French Republican traditions of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In contrast to a city of repressive 19th century boulevards designed for Napoleon III’s autocratic regime, the architects created an “open-minded space” for cultural dialogue amongst French citizens from every background. Built in the mid-1970s to provide, amongst other things, Paris’ first large, free public library, the Centre’s design reflected the aspirations of a new generation of socially-minded European citizens.

Fast-forward the clock to 2015, and the same ‘master’ architects are producing buildings of a completely different sentiment in our British cities. Rogers’ firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, has recently been shortlisted for one of the UK’s most prestigious architecture prizes for its work on Neo Bankside, a development of elite penthouses near the Tate Modern. Originally put on sale for as much as £22 million per penthouse, the development’s claim to the RIBA Stirling Prize lies on the basis of a design catering for the private interests of the international super rich. The same exposition of the building’s skeletal structure that in the Pompidou Centre is an expression of transparency and public accountability becomes for the Neo Bankside project little more than a decorative shell for a private world. In a scheme that consciously refused to accommodate on-site affordable housing, no effort is made to foster a sense of an integrated London community. Rogers’ design may carry the façade of his previous projects, but crucially it is based on a completely alien ideology. In short, the bankside development celebrates the predominance of private capital over what should be a public community.

Related  Cracking down on drug use is misguided

The problem is that Rogers’s development is not alone. Among the ‘landmark’ London developments of the last 30 years, how many have reflected the dominance of private wealth? Public architects have taken to designing monuments to the vast fortunes of, more often than not, foreign investors in the capital’s property bubble. As iconic as Renzo Piano’s design for the Shard may be, we must remember that it is an icon of the hegemony of the moneyed interest in our capital. Towering above civic landmarks, like St Paul’s or the Houses of Parliament, London’s tallest sky-scraper is above all else a monument to the closed world of capital – a world far remote from the Londoners that live in its shadow.

The poster boys and girls of British architecture, names like Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster, have helped to create a brand that has been exported across the world. Celebrating the life of Azerbaijan’s notoriously corrupt ruler, projects like Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center have shown that too often this brand has been sold to the highest bidder, not the highest ideal. Despite warnings from human rights activists about the conditions of migrant workers on the 2022 Football World Cup, the fact that Sir Norman Foster continues to work with the Qataris on the Lusail Stadium suggests the developing ethical bankruptcy of this brand. Across the world, British architects’ designs are being used by the super-rich to create buildings that help to justify their monopoly over the world’s resources, without asking too difficult questions of it. Certain tropes of ultra-modern, high-tech British design have evolved into a built language of the international elites: an architecture of oligarchy.

In spite of all of this, perhaps there is hope for a reinvigoration of public, community-based design in the next generation of British urban projects. Notably, alongside Neo Bankside on the Stirling Prize shortlist there are also listed the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Museum, the Maggie’s Lanarkshire Cancer Centre, and a block of affordable family housing at Darbishire Place for the Peabody Trust. All three buildings, designed by a younger generation of architects, embrace values of community living and interaction in the public sphere in a very tangible way. These buildings may not have the budgets of Neo Bankside, the Shard, or a World Cup stadium, but in their own discreet way they speak of an architecture of far greater value to the much more diverse communities with which they interact.  To put it another way, they present British architecture with an opportunity to return to more egalitarian narratives of dialogue with the wider community – it is up to the profession to take it.