Pre-Crash survivors

Recession, what recession? The cultural-buildings juggernaut rolls on.

You know them when you see them, the great public buildings. It’s all to do with unshakable confidence. The 1842 portico and façade of the British Museum has it. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Guggenheim in Manhattan has it, as does Frank Gehry’s Bilbao version of 1996. Two utterly different 1970s buildings – the National Theatre in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris – have it. The question is – will the Tate Modern’s £215m extension have it? And what else is going to happen over the next decade?

A surprising amount, paid for (in Britain anyway) by a mix of Lottery and taxpayers’ money – often helped by European Union grants and private donations – from better times. These places are always about so much more than their contents and function. If the entire magnificent collection of the British Museum were to be housed in a distribution warehouse somewhere, we’d feel short-changed. Even if there was a nice café there, and lots of car parking. This was proved the hard way when, back in the 1990s, the Royal Armouries collection moved to a new building in Leeds. It wasn’t a bad new building, but it wasn’t the Tower of London, where most of the collection had been before. Collapsing visitor numbers, financial embarrassment and a Government bail-out ensued.

In the jargon of the tourism business, the “experience” is what counts. Ever stopped to look at your fellow art-lovers in Tate Modern, for instance? Lots of them (not you, obviously) charge around the place in packs. They don’t stop to look at anything much. Dwell time per room is minimal. That’s where the huge turbine hall with its annual installations comes into its own. You can get many roaming packs of cultural tourists in there. So the container – this once-overlooked, cathedral-like, postwar power station by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – is more than up to the task of providing the experience. This is why they need to build an extension. It has more than twice the number of visitors it was designed for. It’s just been too damn popular.

When Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron first came up with an idea for an extension, it was a bit over the top: a stack of glass boxes. That was silly, so version 2 is in brick, like the power station itself. Clever, latticework brick but brick nonetheless. However, the key thing is what the building, with its high-level viewing platform, will do for South London. Tate Modern faces north across the Thames: the symbolism of the fact that its £215m extension will face south, is huge. Visitors to London on 2012 will see it, though tantalisingly it won’t be open by then.

As Bilbao proved, you don’t have to be a capital city to draw the crowds. So I’m intrigued by the much-anticipated £72m Museum of Liverpool, opening of which has now slipped a year to 2011. A sort of stone-and-glass bowtie by Danish architects 3XN, it is right next to the famous “Three Graces” Edwardian Pierhead buildings. The museum looks a bit weird from some angles but is graceful indeed next to some of the other tat which is now being built close by. In what, incidentally, is still a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site. Liverpool has revived strongly in recent years, but continues to score some thumping architectural misses.

Liverpool has plenty to recommend it anyway, but forlorn Dundee, up on the Firth of Tay in Scotland, has to work a lot harder. It may have Frank Gehry’s only British building – a Maggie’s Centre, at an edge-of-town hospital – and it may have the 1999 Dundee Contemporary Arts by Richard Murphy, but apart from down-at heel shopping malls and a bronze statue of comic-book character Desperate Dan, it has little else to draw the visitor. Hence the plan, just announced, for a £47m branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum to be built there by 2014.

There is to be an international architecture competition for it. This is part of the city’s waterfront regeneration project and my, does that waterfront need regenerating. The mini-V&A is billed as a “Museum of 21st century design”, will be run by the city’s university, and will take exhibitions and some of the collection of the mothership in London. There has been the inevitable feasibility study promising 500,000 visitors a year and the creation of 900 jobs in the wider local economy. Wishful thinking, unless it is accompanied by lots of other initiatives. It will take more than a design museum to reverse Dundee’s decline, even with the V&A’s branding on it.

The big theatrical opening coming up is the £113m rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on Avon, which should be in action by the end of 2010. Architects Bennetts Associates and theatre consultants Charcoalblue are transforming the cavernous old 1930s Memorial Theatre into a much more intimate affair, based on the theatre layouts of Shakespeare’s time. Plus there’s a tall viewing tower from which you can survey all Stratford. I’m expecting this to be a real treat.

Let’s put in a word for the smaller provincial centres: the new £25.5m Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, for instance, by architect Keith Williams, looks promising. Though modern in appearance with a flytower angled towards the cathedral, it returns to the idea of the tightly-stacked, intimate Victorian auditorium and opens in September 2011. Two good new regional art galleries by one of our best architects, freshly-knighted Sir David Chipperfield, will also open in 2011 – The Hepworth in Wakefield, and the Turner Contemporary in Margate.

It’s the big cultural beasts which will get the footfall however. Such as the City of Birmingham’s new filigree-clad £193m main library by Dutch architects Mecanoo. It will be built on Centenary Square and should be open for business in 2013. Not so long ago, public libraries seemed to be an endangered species. Not any more. True, they have become noisier places of public resort, less of a retreat from the world. But the fact that Birmingham is prepared to build a new civic building of that size and quality (we hope) augurs well. The downside? Birmingham happens to have a rather good central library already, a 1970s Brutalist affair by John Madin which some are fighting to keep. Its doom is assured by the fact that it is standing in the way of a £600m commercial redevelopment which one desperately hopes will be good. The developers are better than most, so it’s not impossible.

Just as 2009 saw Greece finally complete its excellent Acropolis Museum by Bernard Tschumi – so throwing down the gauntlet to all those other nations such as the BM who used to claim there was nowhere suitable to house the treasures of antiquity in Athens – so a similar exercise is taking place in Egypt. The $600m Grand Egyptian Museum near the Pyramids in Giza will have no trouble at all drawing the crowds, firstly because of where it is, and secondly because of its extraordinary design, conceived as an inscription on the dunal desert landscape, and clad in a geometric-patterned veil of translucent stone. Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects won the competition in 2002, but construction of the building only began this year. It too is meant to open in 2013, though you wouldn’t bet against it running on a bit.

With so many cultural building projects happening, you wouldn’t think there was a global recession at all. Don’t be fooled – these were all being planned and financed long before the global downturn. But they do represent faith in the concept of cultural regeneration. The world’s tallest tower, the just-opened Burj Khalifa by SOM, is a beautiful monument to another approach entirely, the one that says it’s enough to build anything extreme, and people will come. No: architecture is important, but it doesn’t half help to have a culture to back it up.

So it will be interesting to see if neighbouring Abu Dhabi’s very different approach – to build a string of new museums and a performing arts centre by top names, and loan artefacts and expertise from the likes of the Louvre and Guggenheim to put in them – will work. Here, in the $27 billion Saadiyat Island development, you will find a cultural district including buildings by Tadao Ando, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel among others. There will also be a campus of New York University. The whole thing will be complete by 2018. Can you really buy yourself a fully-formed cultural civilisation so quickly? Well, yes. The great museums of the 19th century all arrived in double-quick time, and ransacked the world for their contents. What’s changed, exactly?

Text © Hugh Pearman. An expanded and updated version of article first published in The Sunday Times, London, 3rd January 2010, as “The landmark buildings shaping the next decade”.


Royal Shakespeare Theatre:
Saadiyat Island:
Heneghan Peng Architects:
Gehry in Dundee: