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Sam Hall Kaplan

London's Architecture Sampled

November 22, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

LONDON — Modern architecture has not fared well in post-World War II London. In the rush to repair the disfigurements of the Luftwaffe and to embrace new trends, much that has risen has been undistinguished.

Scattered sterile glass and steel office towers, slick luxury hotels, and uninspired government buildings rise out of scale and context to stand out like sore thumbs across the historic cityscape.

Particularly egregious from an urban design point of view are such structures as the National Westminster office tower, the Hilton, Inter-Continental and Park Tower hotels, the Commonwealth Institute and the Hyde Park Barracks. One wonders how they could have been approved in a city with such a rich sense of place and pride.

"It was the American influence that did it; the belief that new and bigger was better," explained a local architect of some repute. "You must understand that for the decades following the war, we emulated you, and that, of course, included your architectural indulgences."

However, with America's influence on the wane, along with the value of the dollar, England now seems to be following its own architectural indulgences, as illustrated by some recent singular designs.

The most striking design of recent years in England has to be the new Lloyd's building, the home of the famous insurance exchange. It was designed with a characteristic high-tech flair by the Richard Rogers Partnership, which had been perhaps best known for its work a decade ago on the Pompidou Center in Paris, and engineered by Ove Arup & Partners.

Lloyd's in some respects is similar in style to the center. Squeezed onto a small site in the curving canyons of London's financial district, Lloyd's--in sharp contrast to its Baroque, Gothic and Victorian-styled neighbors--is a shimmering conglomeration that looks at first glance like a compelling gas refinery, as does the Pompidou.

However, where the emphasis in the Pompidou is on the high-tech details, with Lloyd's it appears to be on the structure.

To create a vast interior space for the insurance policy brokers who converge daily on Lloyd's, the structural and mechanical elements of the building, including air ducts, plumbing and elevators, have been pulled to the exterior in a series of towers braced by concrete columns and trusses. Topped by a glazed barrel vault ceiling, the interior space is striking. And while some of the circulation in and around the building may be awkward, the drama of the design is undeniable.

If Lloyd's can be labeled a major drama on the architecture stage, then sadly the Clore Gallery addition to the Tate Museum designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford is a confused melodrama, over styled, under designed and insensitively colored.

The Clore was built to display under one roof the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, considered England's greatest artist. It also was seen as a sort of homecoming for Stirling, who though a recipient of the Pritzker Prize and numerous other architecture awards, had yet to design a major building in his native land.

In trying to relate the Clore to the eclectic Baroque Tate and a Georgian styled structure nearby, as well as respect a garden setting, the facade fashioned by Stirling ended up a confused collage of stone, brick, trellis work, wood, glass and metal mullions of varying geometric shapes. Aggravating the mix is the bright lime-green coloring of the mullions; a color Turner supposedly hated.

But beyond the use of this color, and other punk and arbitrary blends, hinting of the hues Sterling used in decorating his design of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, West Germany, is the awkward entrance and lobby. To get to the galleries, there is a staircase with a pink hand rail leading in the opposite direction, at the top of which you turn around a walk an equal distance to the galleries.

Happily, in the galleries the paintings dominate, though not helped by the beige-colored walls and carpeting selected by Stirling. The sequence of the galleries and their sophisticated system of lighting seemed to work well, at least on a busy Saturday when I was there.

The brilliance Stirling displayed a few years ago in the design of the Stuttgart museum unfortunately is missing at the Clore. Stirling just seems to have tried too hard with too little to make an architectural statement. Where a whisper was needed, he shouted.

Promising to be more respectful to its parent building and its august site is the Sainsbury Wing to the National Gallery facing Trafalgar Square. Now just beginning construction, the wing was designed by Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown of Philadelphia in a sort of subdued free-style classicism, according to the plans and model on view in the museum.

The hint here is of a more sophisticated and sensitized Post Modernist style, one that is not rubbed in your face as at the Clore. The wing is scheduled to be completed in 1991.

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