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Context – Estranged Buildings in the Cities of Today

[adrian welch]

New Building Context

Competitions are a great way of gauging the differences in approach between practices. Competitions where entrants have to use the same image to insert their design are simply the best. So when the Image and Audio Museum Competition (Rio de Janeiro) visuals in this vein were released last week once could easily compare designs by celebrated architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Shigeru Ban.

Image and Audio Museum Competition
image from architect

It was fascinating to see the range of styles applied to Rio’s principal street and famous backdrop, after fascination came puzzlement. Puzzlement that not a single entry seemed to enter into a dialogue with the site’s neighbours.

New City Centre Context

Travelling across Europe this Summer we spent some time at OMA’s Almere city centre, near Amsterdam. Almere dates from 1976, a new town with cookie-cutter neighbourhoods on the (flat) Dutch polders. OMA won the competition to design the centre way back in 1994, and the redevelopment is now almost complete. Apparently by “refusing to construct the project in relationship to a context, the OMA intended it to become a context in its own right”.

Sounds bold, but have OMA really ignored context in the Almere Masterplan? The answer is broadly ‘no’: the scale and density are harmonious with surrounding cityscape, but most importantly OMA have almost magically created a large new piece of city that instantly works. Why is this? A good plan as a basis, a variety of good architects and materials, and a softly dynamic landscape to tie it all together.

Almere Masterplan
image courtesy of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)

But before we get carried away, there is no space as magical as the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno (Italy), viewed by many as the most beautiful space in Europe. The sense of space in historic Italian cities has long been celebrated – Siena’s Piazza del Campo or Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio. Few current architects – whether contemporary or traditional – have been able to match these spaces since. As the mud flies in the heat of current controversies, it is worth noting this point.

Famous Building Context

Finally it’s that chap Prince Charles again. I considered not covering the story of an old letter re Jean Nouvel’s One New Change (London), after all the tail must not wag the dog. Should we not after all be focused on how to build good sustainable architecture rather than be distracted by spurious style wars?

One New Change Building
photo ©

Despite a curious sense of déjà vu (National Gallery, Paternoster Square, Chelsea Barracks) I felt it worthy of a mention as it is really a success story. Unlike the other interventions just listed, here the developer stuck to their guns and Jean Nouvel’s project is well under way. Meanwhile on the Chelsea Barracks site the shortlist (remember the Prince’s Foundation were brought into the fold as advisers) includes Porphyrios Associates and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

Chelsea Barracks London
image : Hayes Davidson/Candy & Candy

The result will be fascinating – but like Almere’s masterplan, or Paternoster Square, there won’t be a single practice designing all the buildings. Many years after Postmodernism faded it already feels like 2009 will mark a shift from contemporary architecture automatically holding court, to a more pluralist architecture, certainly in the UK.

It would be interesting to hear from our readers around the world as to whether this is primarily a British phenomenon.

Article by Adrian Welch – e-architect Editor

15 Aug 2009

Iconotastic Reflections : Signatecture
[adrian welch]

Good things can happen by accidentArt Galleries
[alan dunlop] glasgow / Jan 2007

Memory MarkerFreedom Tower
[adrian welch] edinburgh / Jan 2006

Good BuildingsIconic Architecture
[charles blanc] glasgow / Oct 2005

Degrees of ChangeOlympic Site London
[alan hills] london / Sep 2005

21st Century GlasgowRiver Clyde Architecture
[adrian welch] edinburgh / Aug 2005

The Great EscapeIconic Buildings
[colin gordon] edinburgh / Jul 2005

Deconstructing the deconstructivistsFrank Gehry
[mark chalmers] aberdeen / Jun 2005

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