Auntie's grand design

The BBC's new Music Box centre, a home for its orchestras, will make a striking statement in a drab part of London. But, asks Jay Merrick, is the building as iconic as it should be?
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The Independent Online

The BBC has entered Cool Britannia territory by commissioning a new classical-music headquarters at its otherwise dreary White City complex that is right on the glinting edge of architectural radicalism. The new Music Box centre, designed by Foreign Office Architects, is a key step forward, signalling the Beeb's intention of becoming Britain's most significant developer of interesting new buildings.

The selection of this young practice - very much part of the new wave of architectural blobmeisters and fracture-merchants - was no accident. Their design beat an extremely potent shortlist that included Zaha Hadid, arguably en route to full-blown architectural greatness; Future Systems, which designed the Media Centre at Lord's cricket ground and the new glitter-girdled Selfridges in Birmingham; and Ushida Findlay, whose serpentine forms have made it white-hot in terms of avant-garde street cred. Key players in the shortlist selection included the senior BBC executive and arts presenter Alan Yentob, and Ricky Burdett, director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics.

"We are not afraid to champion a controversial design," says John Smith, the BBC's director of finance and property. "We are looking for an iconic building that makes a statement and creates a buzz. This has been a very close-run decision, with all four designs being truly inspirational, but Foreign Office Architects' vision for the Music Box was the most exciting and innovative interpretation of what the BBC wanted."

Smith is more than a suit. It was his visit to CNN's Atlanta headquarters in the late Nineties that triggered a brave new fearlessness in terms of BBC architecture and property management. That, in turn, spawned a financial "sweetheart" deal with the developers Land Securities Trillium, which is delivering huge BBC building projects in London and Glasgow involving big-name establishment architects including Sir Richard MacCormac and David Chipperfield. The developers will build and operate the new buildings and take 50 per cent of their earnings.

The new music centre, which will rescue the BBC's classical-music ensembles from their Maida Vale base in 2006, will become the gateway to the corporation's new White City media village, designed by Allies and Morrison. The centre's strongly sculpted form, based on oversailing ferro-concrete folds, will make a striking statement.

But is it as architecturally controversial and iconic as it might be? Take those folds away, and the complex has an oddly dated look to it, with a retro vibe reminiscent of the dire geometric wallpaper patterns that polluted sensibilities of the Seventies - and surely doesn't deliver anything resembling the architectural shock of the new. Foreign Office, whose award-winning Yokohama Ferry Terminal, in Japan, proved that it can deliver adventurous buildings that function efficiently, has designed a music centre that is bold and decisive but ultimately seems a little safe.

Of the "losers", Zaha Hadid will be the most disappointed. It is understood that the jury's final deliberation involved Foreign Office and the highly original Hadid, who, despite major architectural success in Europe and the US, has yet to be commissioned to deliver a building in Britain, where she trained and is based.

The competition to design the Music Box was notable, if not revolutionary. The BBC has, in the past, pulled away from radical architectural solutions, starting in the mid-Eighties when it ditched Norman Foster's proposed - and quite brilliant - makeover of its Langham Place site, diagonally opposite Broadcasting House. The Beeb may now be chasing better architecture, but its failure to proceed with the Foster scheme left the corporation playing catch-up with its competitors, who took note of the abandoned Foster design as a cue to modernise. ITN let Foster loose in Gray's Inn Road to dramatic effect in 1990; and Richard Rogers delivered a super-cool, hi-tech London headquarters to Channel 4 three years later.

The story of the abandoned scheme is salutary. Well told in Building the BBC, a new book by Nicola Jackson, it sets the corporation's latest commission in sharp perspective. Foster, it seems, approached the brief with ferocious attention to detail. He had to, because, at the time, the BBC's knowledge of its resources was pitiful. And soon, he knew more about the dynamics of working in Broadcasting House than those who inhabited it. Put bluntly, the BBC used Foster's team to build up accurate records of staff, which departments they were in and where, precisely, they worked. Today, it seems extraordinary that this gubbins wasn't actually known to the BBC, and in triplicate.

Foster's design called for the razing of Langham Place and specifically the stolid, arch-Victorian pile of a hotel on it. Its replacement would have been the first fully transparent office building in London, featuring an atrium space visible from the street. The design caused a stir. At the time, the staid and academically inclined Architectural Review went bananas over the prospect. It declared that Foster was "clinging to an image of transparency, of revelation - of an apparently solid block whose one chamfered corner was carved away by a huge glazed gash, to reveal, like complex microchip circuitry, the mass of blips and bleeps and humans and tiny flashing lights that constitute the inner sacred workings of the BBC".

The potential masterpiece was cancelled, ostensibly because of fears about costs. A new chairman had been appointed at the critical moment: Stuart Young, a former head of Tesco with little interest in architecture, decided to build something much cheaper on a former greyhound track at White City.

There was, though, more to the decision than cost. Cowardice was also a factor. Foster's vision was simply too different, too avant-garde. Its decisive lines, ultra-crisp detailing and huge atrium volume had been offered up in a brief but hugely depressing architectural ice age, chunks of whose duff classical postmodernism still litter our towns and cities like tinted-glass drumlins and moraines.

Spencer de Grey, now a director of Foster & Partners, worked on the project and describes it as "an antidote to the introverted... the importance of public space runs through much of our work, and had its origins in [Norman Foster's] Hong King Bank, where the banking hall has a public space that flows beneath. At Langham, it was taken several steps further."

Better late than never. The BBC may have lost its nerve nearly three decades ago, but it has certainly grasped the nettle of modernity now. The significance of the proposed White City Music Box is that it sucked in riskier and trendier architects. The kind that, when not assessing the architectural implications of Barthes or Derrida or the psycho-social significance of the Lucky Strike logo, might be seen sipping espressos in Sketch while reading profiles of themselves in magazines such as Blueprint, Ikon and Wallpaper*.

The new complex will clearly deliver a graphic punch to the White City landscape. But will it be great modern architecture? Auntie Beeb, apparently in danger of becoming a dedicated follower of fashion, must hope so. And so must Yentob, whose nailed-to-the-mast fervour about the BBC's architectural progress will make sense only if the corporation delivers more buildings culled from a shortlist of genuinely challenging architects.

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