Why Britain should let more foreign architects build

During the construction of Lord Foster’s wobbly millennium bridge there was a moment that spoke volumes for British attitudes to the foreign. Foster received Jacques Herzog, the Swiss architect of the Tate Modern, in his office in order to resolve the way his bridge would touch down in the landscaped grounds of the new gallery. Foster spoke clearly, explained patiently, listened little, never doubting he was in the right and in possession of the absolute authority of a colonial governor

It seems this disdain may be institutional. None of the fifty new buildings eligible for the prestigious Stirling Prize—to be broadcast for the first time by Channel 4 tonight—is by a foreign architect. The official spin is that the Tate Modern was finished to late to qualify—in fact it is debarred because none of the Swiss partners can be a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The RIBA is trying to find a way round the impasse before it faces greater embarrassment at next year’s awards.

Foster’s lofty froideur was perhaps nothing new to Herzog. He had already heard the familiar whinge that a British architect—it came, predictably enough, from the only one on the remarkably cosmopolitan competition short list—should have got the job. And during construction, Dennis Stevenson, the chairman of the Tate’s trustees, even praised “the virtually unknown young firm of Swiss architects” his people had found.

In reality, Basel-based Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were then only as unknown here as almost every other foreign architect. The Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, was nearer the mark when he called Britain’s first significant commission to a foreign architect “a signal moment”.

For so it was. Britain runs a massive national trade surplus in architecture. Our architects can be proud of the European symbols they have created—the Centre Pompidou from Richard Rogers, the Deutsche Bank, Europe’s tallest building, and the Reichstag dome, both by Foster, the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart by James Stirling and the new Berlin embassy by his former partner Michael Wilford.

But the corollary has been a creativity deficit here which is only now beginning to be cut. The Spaniard Enric Miralles has designed the new Scottish parliament building. The architecture critic Charles Jencks has asked his friend, Frank Gehry, the American architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to design a cancer care centre in Dundee in memory of his wife. It will be a tiny building, but the first and so far only one in this country by perhaps the world’s most exciting architect. The Italian Renzo Piano—Rogers’ collaborator on the Centre Pompidou—is the lead architect in a scheme for an 87-storey tower at London Bridge to be submitted to Southwark Council by the end of the year. The Polish-American Daniel Libeskind is the architect of the Imperial War Museum in Salford and of the controversial “Spiral” for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Architecture is more pluralist than ever before, and architects more international. Yet we still have no work by Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Rafael Moneo, or Tadao Ando among many others. For its own sake, simply picking a name is not an appealing notion—architecture as stamp collecting. But many of the names are extremely good and their styles are different from anything otherwise found here.

Why does this matter? Isn’t architecture supposed to be of its place, and so best done by locals? Sometimes, yes. In commissions for British institutions from Glyndebourne to Lord’s, Michael and Patti Hopkins, for example, have managed to reconcile modernity with local tradition.

And some jet set architects make a poor fit. Cesar Pelli says he clad Canary Wharf Tower in stainless steel so that it might dissolve against London’s grey skies. It does. But that does not make it belong. And we should be glad that his fellow American, Philip Johnson, did not get to build his idea of Venice on the Thames.

But examples of the best from abroad would help us define what our architecture should be, just as Palladio’s books helped Colen Campbell and William Kent shape the English country house of the 18th century. It would show that Britain—or more particularly the cities that sponsored such projects—is a cultural force to be reckoned with: imagine if Gehry’s titanium battleship had dropped anchor in Belfast, not Bilbao. Such buildings put places on the world map, giving them an identity that, to outsiders at least, they may have lacked. Sophisticated proclamations of civic nationalism—they are by outsiders, remember—they may have some power to disarm ethnic nationalism.

Our exports only do half the job. Fees paid here to overseas architects have been around three per cent of those received by British architects building abroad. A survey of overseas fees for 1996 published by Architects’ Journal topped £50 million. One third of that was made up by Foster’s firm.

The Royal Institute of British Architects recently added to its regional awards whose winners make up the Stirling prize list an award for work by British architects in the European Union. But the priority should be to encourage the best imports. This would stimulate our minds as building-watchers—the Tate Modern handles its sequences of solid and void, light and dark with a dramatic flair absent among home-grown talent—and spur British architects to new things.

Libeskind’s “deconstructivism”—deployed to searing effect at his just completed Jewish Museum in Berlin—will be new here, for example. Derived from ideas in literary theory, it involves bringing jagged fragments together at uncertain angles. (Paradoxically, the theory stands up less well than the buildings, which also celebrate the fact that new construction technologies have no need of square foundations and upright walls.)

At the V&A, Libeskind was the only overseas architect on the short list—and the only one whose design was not cowed into tasteful nothingness by bitter acquaintance with British planners. His exuberant, shimmering design—contextual in spirit with the Victorian terracotta alongside, if not in the literal sense of following the existing buildings’ cornice line—was speedily welcomed by English Heritage and the Royal Fine Arts Commission. If the final funds can be found, the building will be representative of an important strand of contemporary architecture as well as a striking and suitable addition to the museum.

There are signs that what is emerging may be too much for some stomachs, at the V&A and elsewhere. Santiago Calatrava’s flamboyant restyling of Britannic Tower on London Wall met with objections from Westminster City Council because the building would look “aggressive”. What we see instead was done in the end by a British firm and makes no real contribution to the London skyline either way. Miralles’ design for the Scottish parliament, already beset with cost over-runs and design compromises, is also at risk following the architect’s sudden death last month [July]. Already, one British architect who was vanquished in that competition has said he fears the worst for the project. In cases such as these, it would be doubly damaging and a disgrace if it were seen that selecting a foreign architect was the root of the problem.

But there are greater grounds for optimism. The Laban Centre for Movement and Dance at Deptford is exemplary of the approach now. The short list for its new building, due to open in 2002, included Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, four other overseas firms, and only one Brit. Herzog and de Meuron got the job. Casting a wider net is not only good for glamorous cultural monuments. Glasgow’s “Homes for the Future” programme, the major practical and lasting element of the Glasgow 1999 City of Architecture and Design extravaganza, requires its developers to work with architectural teams with local, national and international members. It is quickly becoming hard to remind oneself that this is a new tide.

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