Engage and deliver

Opinion

Suzanne Trocmé describes how buildings initially derided for unorthodox design often defy controversy by engaging with people.

Exactly 10 years ago I was tasked with finding superlative – and at least a couple of Pritzker Prize-winning – architects to interview on a podium, agendas permitting, in front of a huge audience in the south of France to mark the 20th anniversary of a world-renowned real estate show – no mean feat.

Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne agreed, as did Wolf Prix and Zaha Hadid, before her Damehood, and when Libeskind called off due to a cold, we were fortunate to find Frank Gehry in the audience and happy to pick up the mic. He was in Cannes to see a client and thought to drop in – I think to see Zaha, who became a pussycat in his presence.

Glamour aside, the discussion (thanks to Wolf Prix) turned to whether it is a greater legacy to be built or be unbuilt in the 21st-century architecture/developer climate.

Do ideas often claim a better future than the reality? he pontificated. What is the greater legacy for the architect with unique vision? Prix thought it was to better to be unbuilt, in most cases, when theories abound. Well he should know.

No ‘love-in’ this; there was neither back slapping nor rubbing, but a meaty exchange between great minds and it was a privilege to bear witness.

At the time, 2009, Thom Mayne was hoping to win the competition to build London’s US Embassy (he did not). Daniel Libeskind we talked about in his absence. He had clearly suffered his own defeats, like the monumental and well-published spiralling design for London’s V&A courtyard which won a competition in 1996, but which eventually was realised by Amanda Levete, following a further competition with a whole new jury that chose a far more demure proposal. As often with ‘monumental’ architecture it comes down to engagement, and the civic meeting civility – which takes the most prescient, possibly precocious, talent to pull off.

When the late Dame Zaha Hadid died, oh so prematurely, three years ago, 25 projects had been realised in quick succession. There were 24 more on the table. That is a fine legacy but what a struggle, her first realised project (the Fire Station at Vitra) coming after 14 years of unbuilt work. Then in 2006 we saw the Zaha Hadid exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s own spiral lifting us step-by-step through her journey. We felt her pain and her tenacity as we climbed the ramp, from her extraordinary paintings to the finished built work.

Of course FLW also broke many moulds. His spiral was an attempt to avoid New York City’s fire department rule that there had to be one fire exit on every floor. So, he made a single floor in defiance. There wasn’t ever a fire. Neoteric thought is hardly recognised at the time and others struggle with its agility.

I have often wondered why some of the most instantly recognisable, eye-catching and best-loved structures have been built for temporary exhibition.  The Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais, Crystal Palace and the London Eye, Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere. There are many more.

Perhaps it is because they are ‘of’ their time, distilling the nectar whence they came. Because no one tore them down at once, as planned. Because they engaged the citizenry. Are they just icons of a bygone era? Examples of engineering feats at the time? Maybe, just maybe, there is never as much hoopla around impermanence.

Recently, I went to see Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in New York, which has been as controversial as many of  Thomas’s schemes. OK – a waste of space and money or…?

What I saw was engagement – it was packed with people of all generations climbing up and down the stairs to nowhere. It is wonderful it has been built because New York is proud and anyone can experience how it feels to engage in another world.

I look forward to the Wilkinson Eyre building in Sydney too, primed for next year – One Barangaroo.

It will be the tallest building in Sydney at 275m and it took 10 years to get that little moment over the line.

Yes, there will be a casino and, yes, it is a Crown Residence and there will be whopping apartments for sale.
But it will rejuvenate an area that has had no real value in decades.

Permanent or temporary, ‘if it don’t leak, it ain’t Architecture’. In my mind, an architect builds for the moment and dreams in the future. Suzanne Trocmé wrties on art, design and architecture, and is a curator, author, broadcaster and furniture designer.
She is editor-at-large at Wallpaper*