Page N1.2 . 02 August 2006                     
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    London Biennial

    continued

    Meanwhile, similar topics were being debated at the Tate Modern, where five high-profile industry players tackled the subject of 1960s architecture: icon or eyesore? The debate measured the merits of pulling down unattractive buildings.

    The venue was well chosen: the Tate, originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, had been a power station, once considered ugly and unwieldy. Now, reworked by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, it is one of the nation's most visited galleries.

    The 1960s discussion panel included architects Quinlan Terry, of Quinlan & Francis Terry Architects and Rodney Gordon, as well as Catherine Croft, director of the 20th Century Society. Together, they debated the appeal and uses of concrete, the role of Le Corbusier tyrant or genius? and the redevelopment of postwar apartment blocks into trendy condominiums.

    The problem with Le Corbusier, claimed architect George Ferguson, was that he gave rise to monuments, not places to live in. Terry, who had likened practicing in the 60s to "being in Soviet Russia before the wall came down," reminded the audience that Le Corbusier had actually hoped to demolish half of Paris.

    Architecture on Exhibit

    Along the biennale's "World's Longest Architecture Exhibition" three miles (five kilometers) dotted with small booths and installations various groups tackled the issues of the day, each from its own perspective.

    The British pressure group Save Britain's Heritage has spent the past three decades fighting against the governmental wrecking ball. Along with a small book fair, the group set up a photographic timeline to document past "trends" in demolition, from empty country houses left to decay in the 70s, Georgian town houses many council-owned in the 80s, old Northern pub interiors in the 90s, and entire towns such as Farnborough, this century.

    Save Britain's Heritage also brought a few startling statistics to light. For instance, in the first six months of 1975, permission was given to demolish no fewer than 182 listed (registered historic) buildings in Europe, and listed buildings are still being torn down.

    Nowhere are such issues as relevant right now as they are in King's Cross, a significant spot on the biennale map this year and an area about to undergo a major architectural change. Planned redevelopments include much of King's Cross Central, King's Place (a state-of-the-art concert hall and headquarters for the Guardian Newspaper), the reworking of Euston Road, a Eurostar Terminal at St. Pancras, and the appearance of new districts, such as Regent Quarter.

    However the King's Cross borough's long-neglected state has made it quite an artistic hub, and local concerns have given rise to a watchdog group, CreateKX. "Such extensive change is both exhilarating and challenging," writes the group. "CreateKX has been formed to ensure that, during this period of growth, King's Cross both retains and develops its distinctive, creative culture."

    During the biennale, the district hosted everything from talks on civic leadership and imaginative future cities to more artistic options: a film by music group St. Etienne and a camera obscura photography show by local artist Minnie Weisz.

    Engaging the Public

    A large part of the biennale and its official theme, "change" encouraged public interaction; the quirkiest example of this was to be found in the Smithfield House headquarters. Here, in a bid to make London "nicer," a Big London Brainstorm had been set up, taking ideas for city improvement from locally based architects and suspending them, exhibition style, in vacuum bags from the ceiling.

    Hook up gym machines to the national grid, suggested Fay Sweet and Phillipa Stockley. More travelators, or moving walkways, said Paul Finch. Meanwhile Jan Kattien believed that the oscillations the Millennium Bridge by Norman Foster, known locally as the "wobbly bridge," could become a useful source of electricity. Catherine Burd suggested meeting the nation's housing target by plugging housing estate gaps with prefabricated houses.

    Some proposals were even more obscure: "What if a skyscraper could be grown from a set of instructions, one set of seeding instructions where the skyscraper emerges differently each time in direct response to sun, wind, shadow, and other structures?" asked professors John Fraser and Lu Xiyu and Dr. Ming Xi. Hmm.

    These ideas were more formally tackled in seminars, from the grand designs of Norman Foster in the headline show, "What Skyline does London want?" to more modest architect-led campaigns, such as one against paving over front gardens.

    In addition, there were bicycle tours, environmental installations, student exhibitions, pavement-tile competitions, and an inaugural sheep drive through the city by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

    It became clear that this ten-day event had visitors very busy if not overwhelmed. And if the organized events weren't enough, there was always the venue: this is London, after all. To get an eyeful, whatever their architectural preference, all anyone really had to do was look around.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Jo Baker is a freelance design and travel writer based in Hong Kong, soon to relocate to San Francisco. Publications she writes for include Time, The South China Morning Post, and Hinge Magazine.

     

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    London plaza, with the new City Hall (far left) by Norman Foster.
    Photo: London Architecture Biennale

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    Kings Cross area redevelopment master plan model.
    Photo: David Levene

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    London's buildings and their documentation on display for the biennale.
    Photo: Jo Baker

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    One of many exhibits teaching visitors about London's architectural heritage.
    Photo: Jo Baker

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    Table setting at the Epicurean Cafe.
    Photo: Jo Baker

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    Smithfield House, featuring the Big London Brainstorm exhibition and a sheep dominated gift shop.
    Photo: David Levene

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    A sheep drive drew attention to the celebration.
    Photo: David Levene

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    Urban carpet.
    Photo: David Levene

     

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