Time for discourse or design?

Some exceptional talent was on display at the Young Architect of the Year Awards. But, asks Jay Merrick, is it architecture or space oddity?
Click to follow

Michael Shamiyeh gives good moody. Consider the averted face, grainy and shadowed in the tightly cropped photograph on the cover of his brochure. He is gazing down at something, his mouth set in a sombre rictus, the hair mussed, but not too mussed. He's got that late-Kerouac look; he could be a beatnik, a bug exterminator or a flâneur. He's very "street". But his identity, the thing that he does - well, it's a bit of a mystery.

Michael Shamiyeh gives good moody. Consider the averted face, grainy and shadowed in the tightly cropped photograph on the cover of his brochure. He is gazing down at something, his mouth set in a sombre rictus, the hair mussed, but not too mussed. He's got that late-Kerouac look; he could be a beatnik, a bug exterminator or a flâneur. He's very "street". But his identity, the thing that he does - well, it's a bit of a mystery.

We need more evidence. There are a scattering of images: a page from a Segaworld guide, a downshot of escalators, an empty highway, a street map. And then there are the words on the pages in sans type and fluctuating point sizes. The eye falls randomly on the following: "Owing to the fact that in our post-capitalist society the existentialist needs are already satisfied, it becomes possible to exchange the concrete money-value of performances more and more with happiness and fun."

Ah, of course. He's an architect.

Shamiyeh is a young dude in a profession of eternal, matt-black dudes. And as one of the 40 talented younger guns who formed the final distillate in the Young Architect of the Year Award competition sponsored by Building Design magazine and Corus, he just wants to be loved - and please, God, let it be in public. The craving is an unavoidably chronic condition, and the only real cure to this consuming self-consumption is the arbitrary approval of a handful of accidental gods who, in this case, gazed down from the Olympus of an upstairs room at London's Groucho Club heavy with the smell of fate and canapés.

Shamiyeh didn't win. The rather over-wrought involutions of his ideas - were they brilliantly ironic, or just tiresome philosophical pebble-dash? - only heightened the bathos of the images of his "deconstructed" Blue Haven hotel in the West Indies. But is that judgement pithily omniscient or pissily mean-spirited? After all, in front of a different critical mass, Shamiyeh might well have walked off with the first prize which was worth £25,000. What is mere style to some, is gravied and gravid substance to another.

The separation of high talent from flashovers of brilliance is problematic. In the case of the BD/Corus competition, this judge often came up against the game-of-two-halves syndrome. Half, the first: architect submits intriguing, if not thoroughly gripping, visuals. In this passage of play, there is typically - as Ron Atkinson might say - a sweeping grandeur of movement and sublime touch that almost certainly flows from a divine, and preferably indescribable, strategy.

Half, the second: architect submits written raison d'être or studiedly indecipherable text cut-ups that seem to have nothing to do with the raw surprise or seduction of the drawings or other images that lit up the first period of play. The reverse can also take place: a brilliant rationale can be undermined by some irritatingly inconclusive visual evidence.

When they're hoping for a result on the day, why do gifted young architects mess things up with the equivalent of a flat back four or vague through balls? This criticism is offered gently: it is notoriously easy to neuter the actual - a building, or its carefully crafted visualisation - with formal justification. Indeed, the only young practice to deliver perfectly organised evidence of high talent and innovation - just enough taught imagery and text, not an iota more - was Softroom, the Soho collective that seemed to be a shoo-in at the shortlisting stage. It had to make do with second place after the jury were fronted up by a dazzling in-person presentation by Oman & Videcnik of Slovenia, but their eclipse will not depress them. They know they're hot, and have already picked up a special RIBA Building of the Year prize this year.

Judging architectural promise is enervating and oddly depressing because much that is good must be cast aside. The chairman of the judging panel, South Bank masterplanner Rick Mather, sipped a 50-50 mixture of still and carbonated water - presumably to inoculate himself against impulse. And there was much to be impulsive about.

Denmark-based Chris Thurlebourne, for example. His practice, Alt.itude Arkitekttegnastue, delivered a wonderful series of mysterious artworks for the extension to Copenhagen's Royal Theatre which suggested stage-sets, branches caught and tangled in a strong wind, and gothic arches. His approach suggests a kind of crafts-based virtual reality rooted in the idea that "life's a wonderful space". That remark may seem rather plain-Jane, but it carries a potent resonance. Is it not a delightfully inverted definition of architecture?

Thurlebourne has a passion for the "presence" of materials and, as the Bartlett School of Architecture's Peter Cook puts it, a tendency towards lyricism and the meandering line. His work is therefore hard to judge: it is undoubtedly beautiful and enmeshing, but how to compare it competitively with more obviously decodable material? The same applied to work by two more talented outfits in the shortlist, Zoo Architects and ACQ Architects; the former's Wee People's City project was a bold kit of disparate parts, and ACQ's use of inflatable forms punctured preconceptions about interior space. But was it architecture or space oddity?

Zoo and ACQ had access to a wide range of materials, and clients willing to take chances. Prague-based Kopecky Studeny Architects, which took third place in the competition, made do with scraps and yet managed to deliver something notable. Its family house on a sloping site north of Bratislava is made entirely from off-the-shelf materials, which produced a sharply etched Modernist container. Its approach was much riskier than it looked; anything less than perfect control of detailing, proportion and visual weighting of materials would have turned this tightly focused idea into a lumpen disaster.

Finally, though, the BD/Corus competition boiled down to a dog-fight between Oman & Videcnik and Softroom. For this judge, there was no doubt that Softroom's gleaming steel belvedere on the shore of Keilder Water - an utterly voluptuous and original form etched with razor-fine detailing - was easily the most brilliant single project on show; and the practice's other work shows equally high levels of innovation in delivering unusually sculpted forms.

But Oman & Videcnik did for them with a barrage of ideas and ongoing large-scale projects that signal extreme ambition. The range of its work is exceptional: apartment blocks, a museum extension, industrial zone masterplans, a sports stadium - all of it showing a wide spectrum of solutions. This pair of 30-year-olds radiate a confidence that was already rampant when they developed their MA project at London's Architectural Association: their proposed transparent office block for engineers Ove Arup looks like a sculpted block of ice - just the sort of sensual form that Softroom might have concocted.

But still. Were the Gods right or wrong? Was Michael Shamiyeh da man, after all? "Fragmentation as a postmodern phenomenon refers to the complexity of a whole which denies to be represented as such, but has rather deliberately dissimulated itself to hide its true essence," he says. "The only possibility to approach this non-identity is to continuously come up with the silence of omissions, the in-between spaces." As Diamond Ron might say, in a game of two pseudo-existential halves, why risk ruining a top discourse by doing buildings at all?

Comments