To theme or not to theme

Theming:architects hate it, designers love it – just one more thing working against the Dome’s success. Can’t the two meet in the middle? asks Hugh Pearman

Having survived the Blair/Mandelson/Heseltine/Bob Ayling charm offensive at the launch of the Millennium Dome Zones, I’ve thought of another way to distinguish the work of architects and designers, though I’m a little reluctant to discuss it. The last time I made a stab at such a definition in these pages, I got a bit of snotty mail. I suggested that architect-designed products were almost invariably high-value, low-volume items (rather like their buildings), whereas products by real product designers tended to be the opposite: anonymous, mass-market things.

Obvious enough, you’d have thought. Let’s put it this way: you don’t know, because you aren’t told, that a certain toaster is by Seymour Powell or a certain video recorder by Priestman Goode, both first-rate product design houses. But if it’s a door handle by Sir Norman Foster or a chair by Ron Arad, architects both, the manufacturers just don’t let you forget it.

To say this, however, is to provoke the ruffling of feathers from those who think that architects are just dabblers in an area best left to the professionals. I can sympathise with this view.

Of course, there are plenty of celeb rity designers who produce “signature” pieces. Most of them are to be found at the Milan Fair and some of them, like Philippe Starck, even get to do complete buildings. Having said that, I can’t think of any other living product designer who has done complete buildings apart from Starck (readers may correct me), although the estimable Ross Lovegrove shows signs of wanting to move in that direction. True, interior designers sometimes venture into buildings – with what must politely be called mixed results.

The truth is that interior design and architecture have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with each other – something most national newspaper editors seem incapable of grasping.

Back to the Dome. It is immediately apparent, looking at the “zones” now revealed and the preliminary work on those to come, that the architects are doing one thing, and exhibition designers something else. Just fancy – the architects are producing little buildings which could well exist on their own somewhere, while the designers are producing, well, exhibition designs that would look very odd, and would probably melt if they were left out in the rain.

What a shame Nigel Coates wasn’t picked as one of the invited architects, since he is one of the few in his profession to understand instinctively that exhibitions are a serious and separate subject from buildings. What a shame Lovegrove, say, wasn’t cast against type and given a chunk of the Dome to get his teeth into.

However, the main thing that struck me forcibly on examining the Dome’s proposed entrails, was this: designers are very happy with themes, and architects abhor them. To most architects, theming is the worst of all crimes. To most designers, it is the necessary peg on which to hang the narrative.

Which explains why Coates, with his manifesto background in “narrative architecture”, is entirely happy with the genre. As is Mark Fisher, architect of rock sets, who has got the central performance zone. But such an attitude is rare.

Of all the architects commissioned to design buildings for EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris), only the frighteningly eminent Frank Gehry was not asked to work to a given theme. It seemed that Disney did not dare ask him to, presumably because it knew he would simply have resigned on the spot if it had.

So Frank did his bit of Disneyland his way and only later realised that he had unwittingly played right into the gloved hands of the Mouse: HE was the theme! Disney had wanted a Frank Gehry Zone, and got it!

I doubt, somehow, that the Dome people are quite so Machiavellian. Nonetheless, the ostensible theme of the Zaha Hadid Zone – the Mind, or something – is not going to fool anybody. Nor the “spiritual” theme of Eva Jiricna’s, nor the “provincial Britain” tag attached to the female collaborative Muf’s contribution. No, these pieces will be complete in themselves: it’s the architecture that we will go to look at. Whereas in the exhibition-designer bits, it is the stated themes we’ll go for.

My money, then, is on Mark Fisher to come up with the most satisfactory resolution of this conundrum. An architect with no hang-ups about theming, who has worked all his life with substance-abusing prima-donna musicians? This man could single handedly save the Dome.

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