Architecture: 1999 - the year of the turkey

Fuelled by lottery cash and hampered by poor planning, the past year has been a delight for connoisseurs of design disasters. By Nonie Niesewand

Nonie Niesewand
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:29

One of the biggest challenges facing architects in the new millennium is what to do with the white elephants that they have left behind in the last 10 years of this century. National Lottery funding caused a rush of blood to the head - as well as a wealth of projects to the drawing board.

Visionary buildings accompanied by improbable business plans were given the go-ahead without anyone having a clear idea of their purpose or shelf life. Style superseded content, form was separated from function. Would Sir Christopher Wren have been allowed to build St Paul's without everyone agreeing that it was going to be a place of worship?

A white elephant is a possession that is more trouble than it is worth, and, therefore, unwanted by its owner. The king of Siam apparently made a present of a white elephant to courtiers whom he wished to ruin.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, is chairman of the Millennium Commission that funds landmark buildings all over the country with lottery money. He's spent the last two years playing the king of Siam. Here are the winners of the white elephant awards - the seasonal equivalent of turkeys coming to roost.

Some have no stuffing - such as the V&A Spiral, with no idea of what to put inside it. Others have been force-fed and are full to bursting - such as the Dome, which is looking for a new owner after just a year.

The Millennium Dome

Billboards plastered all over London featuring an aerial photograph of the Dome and imprinted with the words "The world's largest car park" act as a barbed reminder, from Heineken, of the identity crisis suffered by the Dome project. The lid - or hub-cap as it has been called - anchored upon 12 masts was an ingenious way of covering 12 acres with a vast light- weight shelter that won't lift off in high winds.

It has been built on an industrially polluted site. Noxious gases have been capped off deep under the ground, but that ground cannot support the foundations needed for heavyweight bricks and mortar. We have, in the words of our Prime Minister, "a bold and beautiful building that embodies the confidence of Britain". But what for?

Britain's most controversial project this century will be looking for a new owner when the New Millennium Experience shuts the exhibition after just one year.

What will fill the largest tent in the world? Hopes that it might be London's answer to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham were dashed by vast new exhibition halls which have been rising up adjacent to the Dome at Royal Docks.

Mike Davies, a partner at Richard Rogers and the architect of the Dome, wants the Open University to move from Milton Keynes into the giant Teflon- coated bigtop.

Norman Foster wants to see the Olympics' opening ceremony in 2012 staged there. This appears likely now that his design for Wembley stadium (another white elephant, see below) has had its athletics tracks pulled from under its feet.

The Spiral

Angled so acutely that visitors are astonished to discover from its scale model that the floors are flat, the Spiral extension to the V&A by Daniel Libeskind has captured pounds 30m from private donors.

Powerful trustees at the V&A - such as Richard Rogers' brother, Peter Rogers from Stanhope, and Stuart Lipton of CABE - want to see it built. Even the staid Kensington & Chelsea planners controversially gave it the go-ahead.

So why is the Libeskind's Spiral still stuck firmly to the drawing board 10 years after the V&A decided it wanted an extension? The reason has to be that the V&A didn't have a clue then, any more than now, about what it wanted to put in it. Why it needed another building is a mystery. The Spiral's role has changed direction more times than a twister.

First it was to house 20th-century design and crafts. Then it was to be an orientation centre directing people to other bits of the museum. Now it is a ubiquitous restaurant, shop and visitor centre that will stay open after the museum closes.

Not only has the building spiralled with all these changes, costs have spiralled too - from pounds 30m to pounds 74m. Refused lottery funding three times, the project will go ahead only if it can raise the rest of the necessary money from private donors.

The Earth Centre, Doncaster

The pounds 135m landmark centre for sustainability appears to be unsustainable. The rainbow inside Planet Earth - the boring building by Feilden Clegg on the site of a former colliery at Doncaster - does not have a crock of gold at its end.

This has been proved by the scarcity of visitors since its opening in May, leaving half the staff laid off. Watching water purify in architect Will Alsop's plant, called Waterworks, is like watching paint dry. Too much of the park is without shelter. The aptly named bog garden is not a year-round child friendly place.

When the idea of the Earth Centre - to turn the disused colliery into a green theme park - was hatched in the early Nineties, Future Systems designed a building like an iridescent glass butterfly landing lightly around a rainforest.

Had that been built, Doncaster would have turned into an international visitors' attraction. Instead, the butterfly was put into a chrysalis for Phase Three, which is likely to be axed, just like Phase Two - the six-metre high canopy of solar photo-voltaic cells which was due to cover a central plaza and which won't now open in April 2000.

Sheffield National Centre for Popular Music

The first centre in the world to recognise pop music as an art form got Arts Council backing for its pounds 18m project. Pop music fans have hardly been trampled to death in a rush to fork out pounds 20 to step inside four steel drums in Sheffield.

This is a problem of content rather than building design. The architect Branson Coates, who always thought that the exhibits were dull, wasn't allowed to have a hand in the interiors. It was worse than getting a band together.

When the Hard Rock Cafe exhibits Tom Jones's necklaces and Elvis's platforms and pub nights offer karaoke, the national pop music centre had to stage a spectacular gig. But it didn't. The scheme had gone belly up.

At the creditors' meeting in November, the decision was taken to trade through in order to pay off disgruntled contractors.

British Museum

When Norman Foster removed the 1870s museum front hall to reinstate the hidden courtyards of the southern portico, he created a two-acre public square. Then he cast a net of glass over it, a feat of great engineering, as well as dazzling architectural, showmanship.

Therefore, it is sad that just as the pieces are in place and the scheme is on time - with a budget to open at the next year end - that an almighty row has broken out over the use of French limestone instead of matching Portland stone on the southern portico.

Traditionalists didn't like it, any more than they liked the architect's definition of "oolitic limestone". This is as vague as describing coral as the primary composition of the Great Barrier Reef.

Differences will show in the weathering but as the southern portico is sheltered beneath the glass roof, the architect has dismissed it as a problem.

Wembley Stadium

Wembley's pounds 425m make-over was to be the centrepiece of the British campaign which aims to attract the world's premier sporting events - the World Cup in 2006 and the Olympics in 2012.

In July, when the avuncular Chris Smith unveiled new designs by Norman Foster, with HK Lobb, for Wembley Stadium to house football, rugby league and athletics, he called them "stunning". No more. Now Wembley is the Cinderella who is not invited to the Olympics.

The architects HK Lobb and Norman Foster were shocked last week when the Secretary of State revealed that Wembley should be a football-only venue, thus ending its chance to become the centrepiece of the British bid for the 2012 Olympics.

The Football Association was called on to repay pounds 20m lottery cash originally earmarked for the new project, along with another pounds 40m to pounds 45m to adapt Wembley for athletic events. That money will be ring-fenced to create a "permanent legacy for athletics in London".

But where? The world-famous rugby pitch at Twickenham is the favourite. In exasperation, Foster suggested the Millennium Dome as a venue.

His Wembley seating plan for 65,000 spectators at athletics events was considered too small when the minister of sport, Kate Hooey, opened up the goal posts by instead demanding seating for 80,000 spectators at track events.

Revising Wembley plans to accommodate 80,000 alongside a warm-up track simply wasn't enough. The Government pulled the track from under developer's feet. Now Wembley will still be built so that track events can be run on a demountable platform. "There is no question of redesigning it," says Foster. "That's how robust it is.

"That stadium is going ahead, which means that one cannot rule out that demountable track. When the dust settles and they look at Twickenham as a site for athletics, the penny will drop. They may be curious to see what is in the offing."

What makes Sir Norman Foster mad is that he really believes that the platform solution is "a brilliant, clean, swift, pre-fab, state-of-the- art solution to staging major athletic events in a stadium. The design of this new stadium at Wembley is generated by the need to perform well for the athletes, footballers and spectators."

As he says: "The project has become a political football - and I'm not a politician."

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