Betting on a sure thing

Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron may be celebrating its win of the new Tate job, but Sutherland Lyall is willing to bet that with no cash allocated, interference from all manner of preservation groups, and the Tate board to deal with, the team’s in for

SBHD: Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron may be celebrating its win of the new Tate job, but Sutherland Lyall is willing to bet that with no cash allocated, interference from all manner of preservation groups, and the Tate board to deal with, the team’s in for a hellish decade

I’m not suggesting for one minute that the CSD (Chartered Society of Designers, in case you had forgotten) should try to imitate the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects, of course), but at least the RIBA gets into Private Eye. This time it’s the institution’s new president, er, actually an old president from the early 1980s who the members have reincarnated – Owen “Sod You” Luder.

The nickname comes from an off the cuff comment Luder made to the hacks at the first exhibition of competitors for the National Gallery extension. I gave him press support the first time round because RIBA presidents were normally Buggins-turn men and Luder forced the first election since anyone can remember – and won against the official candidate.

That’s what he did this time as well, despite a modestly vicious campaign which suggested Luder was well past his sell-by date. And a lot of snobby architects (and Piloti in Private Eye) had the vapours at the thought of having the chirpy East-End chappie, as the press condescendingly des-cribed him, at the helm once again – even if he promised to sort out the institution’s ludicrous finances. Yes, the press is well aware of how to use that interesting word Ludercrous, yawn.

I was at a big architects’ party the night the results were announced and everybody under 45 was incredulous and deeply depressed. What I told all those whingeing, youngish architects that night is that history shows it makes not a blind bit of difference who is president of institutions like the RIBA – and what the hell were they doing worrying about a body for which they normally affect a deep disregard anyway?

One of the reasons the RIBA was set up was to try to regulate competitions. The RIBA’s track record has been one of more or less total failure.

And so, too, with the current fiasco over the design for the Cardiff opera house. The competition was won by Zaha Hadid, an ex-Iraqui princess who in the usual way is internationally known for her stupendous designs but hasn’t built much.

The creeps at Cardiff immediately went into reverse after the decision and tried everything slimy they could to oust her. Their most recent convolution was to invite two of the failed competitors to submit fresh proposals. Following a barrage of letters in the press, Sir Norman Foster declined the offer and chief nominee for Architectural Shit of the Year is now Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti, who is believed this very minute to be working up a Zaha-ousting proposal.

I hope that turns out to be wrong because I want also to nominate the Cardiff competition organisers and their associates – and the market-forces-old-boy-RIBA – for another dismal failure to make competitions work. The fact that this wasn’t a RIBA-approved competition is neither here nor there.

The other competition that’s got architects as sick as parrots is the selection of the Swiss team Herzog & de Meuron for the Bankside Tate project. Like Zaha, they are internationally respected but haven’t built much. Trouble is they’re foreigners. It’s all right, of course, for British architects to win competitions abroad, but not, apparently, the reverse scenario.

I wish them luck because they’re faced with the ninnies of the Thirties Society and every preservation group known to humankind leaning over their shoulders for the next decade.

Sorry, it’s not the Thirties Society any more but the much more grandiloquent Twentieth Century Society. I’ve thought of reporting it to the local trading standards officer because the one thing which unites these Young Fogies is a deep hatred of modern twentieth century buildings.

They changed the name because they want to preserve the dull outpourings of their revered Edwardian and later heroes, which in the case of George Gilbert Scott’s Bankside dates from the 1950s – even if it is more or less indistinguishable from several big churches the old buffer did in the inter-war years. One thing Scott knew was that it was silly not to recycle ideas if the punters would buy them.

Interestingly, Bankside was built despite the fact that it interfered with important sightlines to St Paul’s Cathedral. The then minister, not entirely unreasonably, couldn’t see why people wanted to see St Paul’s in the first place.

So what poor old Herzog & de Meuron have got is this crap building whose exterior they’re not allowed to touch and the whimsical Tate board handing down conflicting briefs. And – and this also applies to Cardiff – there isn’t any money to build it.

The theory is that both schemes will be funded by the Millennium Thing. Its chairman is Simon Jenkins, founding member of the Thirties lot. The detailed work of choosing successful candidates is done by a group of freelance assessors Рworking for ̼300 a day. My bet is that the entire Thirties shower has applied to be assessors, and Millennium money will be going only to schemes which meet their ultra-reactionary criteria. Any takers?

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