Why We Live in the Age of Renovation, Tim Abrahams, δημοσίευση στο ArtReview [5/1/2023]
Influential sectors of the architectural profession now see themselves as custodians of the built environment rather than agents working within it
Architecture, proper architecture, rather than interior design, is unfashionable. In an essay (to be published later this year), the Stirling Prize-winning architect William Mann explores the untimeliness of architecture: how buildings planned in one economic cycle or cultural context are very often delivered in another. ‘Buildings […] carry the hopes and anxieties not of now, but of the time of their conception, often several years past; they might bear on foundations decades or centuries old, and sit within street layouts measureable in millennia,’ he writes. Quoting from Entretiens, published in 1863, by the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, he writes: ‘the architect […] begins what others will finish, or finishes what others have begun’.
For architecture to be considered great, it must both address a contemporary need and tap into deeper cultural rhythms. No better example of the profound, almost existential, ungrooviness of architecture was the recent completion of the Battersea Power Station conversion, more than four decades after it closed its doors. In the years since 1989, when the building’s roof was removed in a failed attempt to turn it into a giant theme park, it has been a ridiculous presence on the south bank of the Thames, its 100-metre high brick walls propped up with steel bracing. SAVE Heritage proposed that the listed husk should host a concert arena, in the face of concerted pressure from developers that it should be knocked down.
The building as it stands today is the victorious culmination of a half century of the heritage industry in Britain: a sector which emerged in the 1970s in response to the demolition of the ageing Victorian urban fabric. On one level the refurbishment is a reductio ad absurdum of the movement. Take the European headquarters of Apple, a tech company which has commodified, for a mass audience, German modernist design within an inch of existence, add a bunch of retailers all aiming for the Abercrombie and Fitch crowd and a soupcon of million-pound apartments, then cram them into a listed building. The whole development of the area around the station – effectively the urban centre of an upmarket London borough – cost £9 billion (£48 million alone to replace the power station’s famous chimneys.)
And yet Battersea is a masterpiece of heritage architecture. One of the greatest architectural moments in London is the interior view of the south atrium wall: a 50-metre high course of single brick which is supported from the interior by an incredibly sophisticated bow-string array of cables and lightweight steel beams. It is a spectacle of renovation, pointedly showing how little of the building’s structure remains and creating an interplay of two dominant strains of British architecture: high tech meets heritage.
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