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Herbert Wright’s aflame with energy-driven ideas

When Azerbaijani capital Baku won the right to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, it ordered a fleet of London taxis. Painted purple rather than black, they cruised the city, saying: we’re arriving in style. And you’d step out onto a kerb that the city may well have just replaced with marble. Azerbaijan has petrodollars, you see. Hence ­developments like Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous Heydar Aliyev Center, a tour-de-force that the West would now be hard-pressed to fund.

When oil bubbles up, cities transform. The pattern is often a belated burst of PoMo and crazy skyscrapers. Baku’s done that, but better than most. Stately sandstone buildings betray their youth only in their bulk and clean stonework finish, and there’s an elegance to the spectacular cluster of HOK’s Flame Towers that dominate many views. Their form refers not to fossil-fuel flames but to local Zoroastrianism, to which fire is fundamental. Not quite the same flare will emerge in the blue tower for petrochemical company SOCAR by Korean architect Heerim, evoking a gas boiler’s pilot light. Soon, Heerim will go total Dubai with its Full Moon Hotel for Baku, which will be a big disk.

No city is more restrained with oil money than dour Aberdeen. Abu Dhabi, of course, is building an island of museums

Those aside, Baku may have tempered the energy boomtown tendency to go ‘Ping! It’s time for bling!’ because it’s been here ­before – it was the world’s first oil boomtown. Pre-Soviet local oil business fortunes were spent on stunning buildings that used European classical elements in a mix-and-match sort of way. We call this Victorian version of PoMo ‘eclectic’, but it could be called PreMo.

No city is more restrained with oil money than dour Aberdeen. The only thing that’s come up there recently seems to be more moss on the damp brutalist bunker of Covell Matthews’ John Lewis store. Oslo is splashier, but likes splurging cash on new buildings for museums that are already housed in great old buildings. Abu Dhabi, of course, is building an island of museums, and Gulf cities generally are at last building general public assets – metros, stadia, etc – as well as vanity towers.

Not so in the newest petrodollar boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, where beefy dudes stream into town looking for fracking action. They’re housed in ‘man camps’, Spartan quarters with strict rules like no alcohol. Like construction camps in the Gulf, actually. Nevertheless, permanent housing is booming in Williston. Photos suggest that architects who specialised in McMansions before the 2007 US sub-prime market collapse have been dusting off old designs. There may be lessons for London as it frets about how to house another million or more inhabitants. Perhaps we need some subterranean energy to get things moving.

There are vast amounts of it beneath London. Forget geothermal, or that heat in the Tube that keeps confounding Transport for London engineers. I’m thinking of pongy sewer gases like methane, which currently power merely a Victorian lamp-post in Charing Cross. Thames Water’s giant new sewer project, now called the Tideway Tunnel, will be a superthick vein of biogas to tap. Here’s a plan that’s full of beans: let the energy sector loose on it, build vast man camps for the new energy workers on Boris Island-like polders, and send floating trains, like water rides at funfairs but longer, down the tunnel and out into the Estuary to service them. Suddenly, you’ve got a sort of vaparetto/Crossrail hybrid service as well as loads of new affordable housing. And if fatbergs cause delays on the line, nuclear submarines rejected by Scotland could be on standby to torpedo them...

Now I have the capital’s energy, transport and housing crises all sorted, call me a cab – I have presentations to make! Wait, maybe I could crowdfund this... call me a fleet of cabs! Black or purple will do! 

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


Having designed the tallest Art Deco skyscraper between Chicago and New York and grand theatres across the USA, architect C Howard Crane came to England. His 1937 monster exhibition centre here would become world famous. Its facade’s sweeping style is Art Moderne – like Art Deco but simpler, and stressing the horizontal. Five heroic murals are mounted on it, and neon letters spell out EARLS COURT. All is set to go in a Farrell-masterplanned redevelopment, which could easily accommodate this facade. However, the local councils’ planning document fails to list anything of Crane’s as a ‘heritage asset’. Frankly, that’s monstrous.