With the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations, BBC Two’s Great British Menu, Royal Ascot (which I attended for the first time) and the unveiling of the quintessentially British theme of Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, I have been taken by the recent promotion of being British.
We have all witnessed the pomp and pageantry of the recent Thames flotilla celebrations, afternoon tea parties, morris dancing and street parties, but does all this enthusiasm and promotion of Britishness extend to architecture?
In the creative world it all seems to have started in November 2011 when the GREAT campaign was launched. It was the UK government’s global campaign to promote British excellence and opportunities for partnership with the United Kingdom across business, travel, education and culture.
The campaign focused on 12 “pillars”: business, countryside, creativity, entrepreneurs, green, heritage, innovation, knowledge, music, shopping, sports and technology. It was launched in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. In China, the campaign was particularly active with advertising at airports and on subways in Beijing and Shanghai, and a GREAT education exhibition that was seen by tens of thousands. GREAT stuff!
The venues for this summer’s Olympic Games in London are widely recognised to be the most sustainable ever, an increasingly important characteristic in architectural design. But UK practices are also producing buildings and masterplans that test the boundaries of design in terms of their creativity and visual impact. UK-based architects have received internationally recognised awards due to their achievements around the world. Zaha Hadid gained the 2011 RIBA International Award for her marvellous design of Guangzhou Opera House. Terry Farrell won the RIBA International Award for design work of Beijing South Railway Station and Thomas Heatherwick’s design of the British Pavilion won the 2010 Shanghai Expo Best Design and Lubetkin Prize. GREAT promotion of the brand.
British architecture has always been known for its heritage, from Roman baths to medieval castles, and from the dreaming spires of Oxford to the Gothic wonders of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. We are known for our Georgian and Victorian prowess with wonderful cast-iron structures and the ability to create wonderful public buildings. Of course none of this could be achieved without the input of world class engineers such as Brunel.
Are the Expo pavilions the best examples of how contemporary British architecture is portrayed here and abroad? Some fantastic contemporary British architecture has been achieved at Expos, for example: Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral in Shanghai, Hadid’s Pritzker award-winning Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza and Grimshaw’s watercooled facade at Seville.
So what underpins this GREAT British architecture? Is it intellectual rigour informed by heritage? Is it a tectonic approach to building? Is it an awareness of sustainability and green issues or an ability to achieve excellence anywhere in the world? Or is it just simply design integrity and attention to detail?
I think it is a balance of our tectonic approach to building, intellectual rigour and ability to collaborate with others that makes our British architecture GREAT. What about you?