Going up the wall

Herbert Wright's getting spaced out

Perhaps the only architectonic allusion that the Beatles ever made was in George Harrison’s contribution to the Sgt Pepper album, when he sings: ‘We were talking about a space between us all, and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion’. At the time, the most significant wall stemmed from illusion but was tragically real. The Berlin Wall had been built six years earlier in 1961 because the illusion of a bright Soviet-style socialist future had become a delusion, and 2.5 million East Germans had skipped the country. Walls take our built environment at least 23 millennia back, to one in the Theopetra Caves, Greece. They divide, shelter and define space. But what of Harrison’s wall of illusion?

A Canterbury Cathedral visitor centre by the M25 would let visitors ditch the car, exit through the gift shop and proceed by donkey

Two Stirling Prize 2013 nominees involve allusory walls – close enough to illusory, so let’s not let a single letter prevent a pleasant diversion. In their great articulated brutalist walls of housing in Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith alluded to Italian hill villages, but it’s taken Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West’s fruity-coloured panelling and refenestration to finally deliver the sunshine. The rectangular basalt columns walls of Heneghan Peng's Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre reference the 60 million year old hexagonal basalt columns 1km away. There’s similar thinking at Denton Corker Marshall’s soon-to-open Visitor Centre 2km from Stonehenge, where off-vertical steel columns pin down an all-covering canopy, alluding to timber posts in neolithic homes. Talking of diversions, those visitor centres lead a trend in increasing distance from what’s being visited. Others could go further. A Canterbury Cathedral visitor centre by the M25, for example, would let visitors ditch the car, exit through the gift shop and proceed by donkey. It’s about 55km, but what tales they could tell.

Back to the wall. From Oslo’s fjord, the MVRDV-masterplanned Barcode, a wall of different offices beside Central Station separated by narrow gaps, looks like... a barcode. But technology dates and the illusion won’t scan forever. Mecanoo’s 143m-long wall at Arnhem’s National Heritage Museum, a quilt of cobbles and bricks laid and arrayed in different traditional styles, will last much better.

Another way to beat time is to avoid it with a provocative vision never intended to be built. Rem Koolhaas’ 1972 project Exodus envisioned The Strip, a mega­structure of two parallel walls slicing across London, creating a chain of enclosures that people would migrate to because of their ‘intense metropolitan desirability’. It’s an illusion because they become ‘Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’, his alternative project title. Koolhaas’ idea sprang from the Berlin Wall, and incredibly, a similar morphology has actually emerged there.

The masterplan competition for the Spreebogen, the government quarter at a bend of Berlin’s River Spree, was won by Schultes Frank Architekten in 1992. Its axis is a huge strip cutting through the city by the Reich­stag, two dead straight walls of state buildings tempered with circular elements. These new Berlin Walls are extending towards Friedrichstrasse, reflecting, like the last one, the regime behind them, which this time means transparency and modernity. Some may say that’s an illusion, but at least park, plazas and river cut great gaps in these walls.  

The message in Harrison’s song is that ‘life goes on within you and without you’. I could say that of architecture, but I’d be speaking to the walls. 

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic.


Pep it up

Sustainability is the theme of this year’s Oslo Architectural Triennale, with a main exhibition curated by ROTOR packed with an unfeasibly huge amount of exhibits related to the theme. A LEED-certified car park features, inviting ridicule to the American rating system, although to be fair LEED now excludes car parks. It’s heartening to see BREEAM assessment adapted by several European countries and recently used as far away as Shanghai. But to the public, sustainability has become a tired word. Perhaps we need to coin a new one for buildings, with a directness like ‘Fairtrade’. How about ‘Earth-friendly’?