‘Me’ buildings

‘Me’ buildings

As one who has never wavered in my skepticism about many of the headline-grabbing buildings designed by the celebrity architects of our day, I recently experienced a heady rush of approbation when reading an article published in the UK’s Times newspaper. The writer was Roger Scruton, philosopher and author of “Beauty,” a book that examines the deep human need for beauty in the world around us, and he was arguing that so-called “starchitects” are turning our cities into landfill sites for grotesque monuments to themselves. 

In fact, according to Mr. Scruton, we have one of these “me” buildings going up right now in London, just down the road from ReardonSmith’s office — the Shard. This fully glazed stalagmite will comprise 87 floors, if you include the levels at the pinnacle for plant. It is replacing a 24-story building, and part of it will contain a Shangri-La hotel. The architect, Renzo Piano, says it will enhance the cityscape of London. How? By what means does a single spike of gargantuan proportions “enhance” the cityscape of London? My contention is that at local level, where people live, work and relax, this glacial edifice is squashed into narrow streets like an inappropriate alien that’s fallen from the sky. It does not fit into its immediate surroundings, and there is no shared language with its neighbors. At street level, I find it has a malign, oppressive and overbearing presence. It shrieks “look at me,” and, by implication, “how big am I; how small are you!” This, Roger Scruton argues, is “gadget architecture that neither faces the passerby nor includes him. It may offer shelter, but it cannot make a home.”  

Surely, avoiding such an affliction when designing hotels is crucial. Hotels — more than any other commercial environment — should include their inhabitants, by which I mean staff as well as guests, and this involves designing from the inside out and putting the needs of the people who will use the hotel before the external appearance of the building and the ego of the architect. This does not mean that my practice never designs glazed towers — in fact we will soon be completing one in Baku for JW Marriott — but Baku is a city in the process of establishing a new architectural character. It is not London or Paris or Rome, where neighborhoods have been shaped organically for centuries and where architects would do well to listen to and observe the inheritance of the city before making a respectful contribution to its evolution.