Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Spot the Difference

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Spot the Difference

Article excerpt


HANG on a minute, isn't there some mistake? We, the citizens of London, were going to get a city hall that gleamed and shone, a brilliant piece of silverware to house our chic democracy. It would be cute as an A-class Mercedes, delectable as Sony's most winsome minidisc, the sky above forever azure. So what's this sombre ironclad rising opposite the Tower of London? How has its gossamer skin become the everyday curtain walling of an everyday office block, albeit curved and stretched and staggered into skewed shapes by some seismic force? With humdrum Venetian blinds, to boot. And what are these reflections doing on the magically transparent, reflection-free glass through which we could see our masters in the Greater London Assembly deciding our fate? Oh, and it seems to be raining.

Whoever would have thought that, in London?

The new GLA headquarters, as this city hall is properly known, doesn't look like the picture on the packet, or rather the computer-generated images with which it was first presented to the public. Yet we should not be surprised.

For the greatest gift of the computer age to architects is the power it gives to slick unbuilt buildings through the planning system and spin them into public acceptance. These visions of the future look so seductive, buffed up with their gigabyte software, that they are hard to resist. And if the finished product is a bit more matt, no one will complain much.

Degrees of shine are not yet material planning considerations.

In a way it's unfair to pick on the images of Lord Foster's GLA building, as they eschew some of the worst tricks of the trade. There is no sign of the localised digital mist that is apt to descend on proposed skyscrapers, making these massive constructions seem like things of the air. Foster's building is also shown in daylight, so we are spared the clichE of the building glowing at night.

Anything looks good at night, if you turn enough lights on. The angle of view is one from which the GLA building will often be seen, not some point in the gutter or the sky that makes it shrink into insignificance. All these techniques are routinely used on other projects.

Nor is there anything new about architects bordering on fiction in their efforts to show their buildings in the best possible light. Sir John Soane would have tiny figures scuttling about his more modest designs, to make them look grander than they really were. In the 1960s architects would present their proposals for tower blocks with pristine models; when these became urinesoaked reality, and local authorities were asked why they had funded them, they pleaded that they were led astray by the models. There was no urine on their crisp balsawood.

A decade ago, when Prince Charles's cabal sought to foist a Georgian-themed megastructure on Paternoster Square, they produced winsome oils and watercolours of a sun-drenched square presided over by the dome of St Paul's cathedral. …

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