How to make buildings in Britain more exciting

Simple, argues Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Get foreign architects to design them
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The Independent Online

During the construction of Norman Foster's wobbly millennium bridge there was a (later televised) moment that spoke volumes for British attitudes to the foreign. Foster received Jacques Herzog, the Swiss architect of 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 absolute authority.

During the construction of Norman Foster's wobbly millennium bridge there was a (later televised) moment that spoke volumes for British attitudes to the foreign. Foster received Jacques Herzog, the Swiss architect of 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 absolute authority.

It seems this disdain may be institutional. In a Channel 4 film tonight, Waldemar Januszczak will visit a selection of the 50 new buildings on the shortlist for the Stirling Prize (the award for building of the year given by the Royal Institute of British Architects), none of which is by a foreign architect. The official spin is that Tate Modern was completed too late to qualify, but it is debarred anyway because none of the Swiss partners can be a member of the RIBA. The institute is desparately trying to find a way round the impasse before it faces greater embarrassment next year.

Foster's lofty froideur was perhaps nothing new to Herzog. He had already heard the familiar whinge that a British architect should have got the Tate job. And during construction, Dennis Stevenson, the chairman of the gallery's trustees, even praised "the virtually unknown young firm of Swiss architects" his people had found.

In reality 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 Pompidou Centre by Richard Rogers, the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt 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 Frank Gehry, the American architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to design a cancer care centre in Dundee. 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 extension to the V&A.

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 the tower at Canary Wharf in stainless steel so that it might dissolve against London's grey skies. It does. But that does not make it belong.

Examples of the best from abroad would help us define what our architecture should be. 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 The Architects' Journal topped £50 million. One third of that was made up by Foster's firm.

The RIBA now has 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 and spur British architects to new things.

Libeskind's "deconstructivism" - deployed to searing effect at his 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.

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 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.

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 planners 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. In cases such as these, it would be damaging 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 in London is exemplary of the approach now. The shortlist 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.

'Building of the Year', Channel 4, 8pm tonight

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