BUILDING OF THE YEAR : Architecture worth arguing over

The most popular film-maker in history got into history, and stayed popular. Glyndebourne rose again, handsomely. Pop ate itself, but survived. Steve Coogan was everywhere, and so was Hugh Grant; only one of them is praised here. The theatre had a thin time, but television drama serials made up for it. People defined themselves on Mondays at 9pm: were you for `Cracker' or `Chuzzlewit'? And again on Saturdays at 8pm: did you really believe that a 14m-1 shot would win?(Or did you do it for love of the arts?) It wasn't the best of years, but it had its moments. And here they are, in the fourth annual `IoS' Awards
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS YEAR's major architectural excitements were unveiled across the Channel. French municipal ambitions in particular put us to shame, with buildings as daring as Will Alsop's Regional Government Headquarters in Mar-seilles or Rem Koolhaus's vas t transportation project at Lille dominated by the artistry of his remarkable Grand Palais. But, as William Morris observed of England, "the land is a little land" - now more overcrowded than ever.

Schemes like EuroLille would not have got beyond the drawing board here. And because of a British commitment to structural truthfulness we have no architecture like Jean Nouvel's floating diaphanous Foundation Cartier in Paris. Nor have we the Finnish ability to continue the modernist project unselfconsciously. The new Finnish Embassy in Washington by Markku Komonen and Mikko Heik-kinen (which I have not yet seen) looks pure poetry from photographs.

What we have are some of the greatest exponents of high-tech and a collection of imaginative geniuses like Alsop who have, as yet, built little. We also, uniquely, have a somewhat tired but on-going debate about classicism and historicism. This seems as good a year as any to pick the best building which makes those ideas manifest.

Richard MacCormac's new block for St John's College, Oxford, is, in terms of a historicist approach, one of the most interesting buildings of the decade, let alone the year. It illustrates all the possibilities and pitfalls of an architecture which seeksto connect imaginatively with classical sources as heterogeneous as Roman baths, Smythson's Hardwick Hall and the architecture of Sir John Soane. At St John's a massive rusticated lower story (with a subterranean courtyard and a dining room and theatre both with pendentive ceilings lit by occuli) acts as a podium for a tightly designed formal garden and Italianate residential blocks.

At times the complexity of the enterprise almost topples over into vulgarity - the fanciful belvedere, the trompe l'oeil skies painted on the Soaneian ceilings, the fussy iron-work details. MacCormac is no Lutyens and there is nothing easy or natural about his manipulation of an extraordinarily rich range of classical motifs. But this is precisely why his St John's block is such an interesting building - architecture with which to start a serious argument about the future of the neoclassical revival in the 1990s.

Previous winners: 1991 Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy (designed by Norman Foster); 1992 Cranfield Institute of Technology Library (Norman Foster); 1993 International Terminal Waterloo (Nicholas Grimshaw).

Comments