Betting on the outsiders

Commissioning a broad international mix of architects to work on public buildings can give cities an exciting cosmopolitan feel, but there is a danger that ‘international’ could translate into ‘bland’ if the same old faces always make up the chosen few, a

There was this bottle of wine. Bought in a supermarket with pretensions. Mid-price, nice label, Portuguese. It slipped down a treat with a lamb tagine. People had no trouble passing it round and tilting it over their glasses. Later, I tried to recall what it tasted like. What were its distinguishing characteristics? What made it better or worse than the last such exploratory purchase?

The data bank was empty, save for the rapidly fading memory of a vaguely pleasant sensation. I could remember more about the nature of the bubbles in the fizzy water. Strange. So I looked at the other label, the one on the back of the bottle.

It turned out that this wine was Portuguese only up to a point. It was made there all right, but from a French grape variety, by an

Australian winemaker. Mystery solved. For once, I had been the literal victim of one of the most insidious millennial phenomena: Flying Winemaker Syndrome, or FWS. I had only myself to blame – normally I spot the danger signs instantly. Such wines are the same the world over, uniform, predictable, safe, smooth, palatable, unexciting. Good when served by airlines, but wholly unsatisfying on the ground.

FWS normally strikes on a more metaphorical level. A Scottish radio programme once asked me what I thought about Glasgow’s Year of Architecture and Design, l999, and the appointment of its then new director, Deyan Sudjic. I replied that Deyan would have to take care not to be seen as a flying winemaker. Someone, in other words, who jets in and jets out, galvanises the sleepy locals, delivers the high-quality goods, but leaves you with something that would be equally at home in Milan or London or Tokyo or Bilbao. And then, like McAvity, isn’t there. If anyone can handle this, surely it’s Deyan. I note from my reading of the fearsome Scottish press that he is now well through his honeymoon period and out the other side.

But isn’t that international flavour exactly what every city craves? Doesn’t Glasgow ’99 have “international” somewhere in its title? And isn’t the precise opposite of that “parochial”? Remember with horror Margaret Thatcher asking why there wasn’t more British art in the National Gallery. Remember that the 1951 Festival of Britain, by electing to be inward-looking and shallowly patriotic rather than outward-looking and international, had none of the global impact or long-term beneficial consequences of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Lament the astonishing nerve of certain British architects, with big commissions overseas, who complained bitterly that the job of designing the Tate’s Museum of Modern Art had gone to some strangely-named architects from the land of cuckoo clocks.

As the influx of emigré architects in the Thirties proved, from Serge Chermayeff to Peter Moro, a new injection of creative vigour is periodically needed. The same is true today of Herzog and de Meuron at the Tate, or Gnter and Stefan Behnisch at Bristol’s concert hall. I haven’t noticed Paris becoming noticeably less Parisian since Piano and Rogers, Harry Seidler, IM Pei, Gae Aulenti, Ian Ritchie, Ken Armstrong or the rest built there. Stuttgart’s Germanic quality is somehow enhanced by Jim Stirling’s cultural complex. Eric Sorensen’s two buildings nestle almost unnoticed in Cambridge.

Where this praiseworthy internationalism goes wrong, however, is when the same old brilliant names keep on cropping up. When every city has a Frank Gehry or Richard Meier or a Norman Foster art gallery. When every design conference features Terence Conran, James Dyson, Kenneth Grange. When every city has a Marks and Spencer. But to go out on a limb is risky. If the burghers of Cardiff had got Foster – as they nearly did – rather than Zaha Hadid, you may be sure that the whole thing would have gone down more smoothly. Rather like that Portuguese-French-Australian wine.

What a relief that the vast and allegedly stupendous new Tokyo Forum building is by the previously under-hyped Rafael Vignoly, rather than the usual suspects.

And – wouldn’t you know it – the original flying winemakers are now being challenged. All the big-money wine buyers are now sniffing out distinctive, even eccentric local varieties rather than international-style Merlot, Cabernet or Chardonnay. Let’s just hope they travel.

Latest articles