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Friday, 3 July 2009

A couple of early construction images from Renzo Piano's mixed-use development at St. Giles Court in London, fantastic engineering but very bad architecture. Before the horrible cladding was applied, the building shells, a mixture of concrete and steel framed structures depending on use, looked very elegant and rational. Then came the architect....

RPBW's description of the project is an exercise in how far semantics could be stretched before they snap: "the project is part of a complex urban patchwork of medieval streets, modern buildings, and traditional urban blocks." No it's not, it's the largest Lego set in the world, the designers are using color in this childish way to simulate variety and freshness. It doesn't work.

The project reveals how distinct and separate aesthetics and structures have become in contemporary architecture. Designing facades has become the equivalent of dressing up dolls, with no relationship to the spatial and tectonic aspects of the design. In this case, Renzo chose fancy summer ball dresses for his latest set of dolls.

Renzo's experimentation with ceramics has been a complete failure so far, it didn't work in Potsdamer Platz and doesn't work over here. Renzo is trying return materiality to modern architecture, but the harder he tries the more plastic the ceramic looks, St. Giles Court is the most plastic so far.

The pathetic lack of innovation in architectural technology especially when it comes to cladding systems has reduced this aspect of building design to two aspects: keeping the water out and meeting the ridiculous European codes for thermal performance of building envelopes. Anything else is a bonus. This is precisely the approach followed with the design of St. Giles Court, it's a direct translation of the codes with mathematical precision that governs even window sizes. Apply color, and presto! Bad design of the year award beckons.

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  1. Interesting points Karl but all I know is I came to the building 'fresh' - I'd no idea what it was or who it was by and I thought it was pretty stunning. Mind you I do live in Birmingham so I'm probably easily pleased. Niall

  2. I've been thinking about why I liked what I saw of the building (and I was looking at it through the bottom of a pint glass in the pub over the road) and I think it is the strange effect of sticking these heavy looking blocks on what looks like a typical 'late modern' light, airy glass building behind it. I could see glimpses of the building behind and between the gaps of facade and I think that's intentional - they bounce off each other (building and facade) and create quite a pleasing effect. At least that's how it looked through my beer.

  3. I should probably concede that the building does make a difference for that part of London..l.