Architects on a roll at the coast
No one would expect a roller-coaster on a north England pleasure beach to merit equal status with handsome churches and smart university extensions, but this year's Riba Awards for Architecture are a little different.
Among the 51 award-winners chosen by judges up and down the country on behalf of the Royal Institute of British Architects is a "station for the Pepsi-Max Big One, Blackpool Pleasure Beach" designed by Philip England: "This building, said the jury, is seriously fun, a contrast with most of its frothy polystyrene neighbours. It makes a fine contribution to Blackpool as it arrives at the centenary of its Pleasure Beach."
England's station is somewhat different from its Inter-City counterparts. Its function is to "handle the vertical transfer and storage of three trains, provide maintenance workshops, and to load and unload passengers safely. It is designed for a maximum flow of 1,700 passengers per hour, and the loading section can hold 150 passengers at a time". Passengers at this award-winning station are taken for a vertiginous, scream-a-second ride on the world's tallest, fastest roller coaster (235 ft high and 85 mph). England's design, said the judges, was thoughtful because it offered "a surprisingly calm space to contain the snaking queue of aspirants and quaking bodies of descendants".
Given Britain's ascent or descent, depending upon your point of view, over the past 15 years into a burger-chomping, Coke and Pepsi-swilling, baseball-cap-wearing, gum- chewing shopping-mall society in which leisure has become the prime social goal, it seems only appropriate that a roller-coaster station on Blackpool Pleasure Beach should win an award that 20 years ago would have gone to a school or hospital.
Announcing the awards today, Owen Luder, the Riba president, said: "There are more Riba awards than ever before, which suggests that we are currently witnessing the rise of an exceptional generation of architects." Among the most talented of the younger generation of architects are Troughton McAslan and Allies and Morrison, both of whom won awards yesterday. The list suggests that a healthy number of civic buildings have been designed to high enough standards to win recognition from the Riba, yet Mr Luder said he was disappointed so few came from that sector. "I hope this is something that the National Lottery can rectify."
The National Lottery is itself something of a roller-coaster and, to date, there is hardly one major all new building of any architectural merit being funded by Millennium sources.
This may well be because the new-style British Leisure plc (formerly Great Britain) is much more interested in providing fun (for which read bread and circuses) for its customers (citizens was the boring old word) than creating architecture and civic spaces of lasting value.
Nevertheless, among the other 50 award-winners are a number of fine buildings that bear out Mr Luder's belief that British architecture is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Among these is one mainline railway station, Ashford International, which was designed by Nick Derbyshire Design Associates, a civic design that represents the cultural link between Britain and Europe as opposed to the transatlantic leisure line between Britain and the United States so neatly laid by Philip England's Pepsi Max Big One station Blackpool.
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