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Tragic decade for architecture

Hugh Pearman

Our last birthday archive sees highs and lows from the millennium to the Mack – and Prince Charles is back

The Glasgow School of Art was declared best building of 175 years in 2009. Then it succumbed to fire twice, in 2014 and 2018.
The Glasgow School of Art was declared best building of 175 years in 2009. Then it succumbed to fire twice, in 2014 and 2018. Credit: Getty images

Our year-long trawl through the RIBAJ archives to mark this magazine’s 125th anniversary concludes here, in the early 21st century, with an account of another big birthday: the RIBA’s 175th. The Millennium has come and gone, with all those big Lottery-funded projects that for a while seemed to dominate all popular coverage. Some were very successful, such as Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall. Others flopped, most notably another of the Millennium Commissions ‘landmark projects’ involving reclamation of industrial sites, the Earth Centre outside Doncaster, dedicated to sustainability. This never got to build its intended centrepiece, the ‘Ark’ by Future Systems, a shallow double dome like a huge pair of compound insect eyes which remains one of the great unbuilt projects of the period. Lacking this key attraction, the expected two million visitors a year failed to materialise and it closed its doors in 2004. 

Architecture returned to ‘normal’ but ‘normal’ was then severely disrupted by the financial crash of 2008, nicely in time for the RIBA’s own 175th anniversary year of 2009. In the spirit of reconciliation, president Sunand Prasad decided to invite back the man who had lobbed a bomb into their 150th celebrations in 1984: Prince Charles, who this time also wanted to tackled sustainability and climate change. This he did, in a speech in which he warned that ‘we have less than 100 months to save the planet’. Reviewing the speech Aubrey Meyer, director of the Global Commons Institute, was dismissive of the fact that Charles made no mention of the ‘contraction and convergence’ methodology to halt the rise of atmospheric CO2 – which Meyer championed and which the RIBA was signed up to. 

In the spirit of reconciliation, president Sunand Prasad invited back Prince Charles

‘Without an effective deal on climate change, Chelsea Barracks ends up under water,’ said Meyer, referring to the latest project that Charles had controversially intervened on. ‘No royal intervention on style or anything else can afford to ignore the political imperative of effective climate change mitigation.’

Meanwhile the RIBA Journal decided to mark the anniversary of the Institute by running a ‘Stirling of Stirlings’ with the aim of determining the best building of the past 175 years. We ran a public vote which whittled down a longlist of 49 buildings to seven: the Crystal Palace (1851, by Paxton and Fox), London St Pancras Station (1883, by Barlow, Ordish and Scott), Glasgow School of Art (1908, Charles Rennie Mackintosh), London Underground Stations (from 1928 by Charles Holden), the Royal Festival Hall (1951, Matthew, Martin and Moro), the Pompidou Centre in Paris (Piano and Rogers, 1976) and that Eden Project of 2001 by Grimshaw.

The winner? Both the public and our panel of judges agreed: it had to be Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. In the public vote the Pompidou Centre came second, St Pancras third, Eden fourth, Crystal Palace fifth. 

In the light of the double fire tragedy that was later to befall the Mack, let’s remember what judge Dan Cruickshank said of it then: ‘A tour de force that is brilliantly of its site, with a robustness and excitement where it changes volume and adapts to the steeply sloping landscape, yet with incredible fitness to the interior layout and detailing.’

Sorry about the conflagrations, Toshie. But it WILL return.