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Bridges, skyscrapers and conservation battles – the year ahead in architecture

28 December 2018

I warm to a generous architect in a profession not known for its philanthropy. Wasting no time after the shocking collapse of the Genoa bridge in August, Renzo Piano has designed a replacement for his home town.  The structural failure of a two-lane highway bridge demonstrated that in engineering, assiduous maintenance is all. As shown in the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition devoted to the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (until 20 January 2019), Piano is a firm believer in interdisciplinary exchange and, the son of builder, has never taken such relationships for granted – from the days when he worked alongside Peter Rice, the inspirational engineer of the Centre Pompidou.

Piano’s workshop will have an all-American moment this coming year when the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles: an immense bubble, the Sphere building, attached to an old ‘streamlined modern’ department store. Less happily the practice continues to work for the Seller property group in London. After the elegant Shard, comes the lumpen Cube (originally the Pole) at Paddington, now breaking ground, with more to follow in Bermondsey. The tug of war between the need to keep huge architectural offices afloat and the quality of the output becomes ever more painful. I rest my case with Norman Foster’s ‘Tulip’ – a sky-high playpen for visitors to the City of London. In 2019 the Royal Institute of British Architects will present its gold medal to Nicholas Grimshaw and he at least shows greater consistency between the office back catalogue and forthcoming projects – currently a major railway station, Curzon Street Birmingham for HS2, and a new Eden Project, at Morecombe, Lancashire.

Of a younger generation, high-flyers keep flying. Last month, Princeton alumnus David Adjaye was named design architect (as opposed to executive architect) of the Princeton University Art Museum, and in the meantime will be the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London focused on seven projects (2 February–5 May). (Piano’s show gives us 16, but then he is 81 years of age).

View of the upcoming National Museum of Qatar designed by Atelier Jean Nouvel.

View of the upcoming National Museum of Qatar designed by Atelier Jean Nouvel. Photo: Iwan Baan

In March Jean Nouvel’s very long-awaited National Museum of Qatar opens in Doha, a combination of the renovated, relatively modest Historic Royal Palace and a huge cultural centre subsumed below a cascade of petal forms, inspired by the desert rose. With this project going back a decade or more, even before the same architect’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, Nouvel seems to have been caught in a game of cultural grandmother’s footsteps, Gulf-style.

Back in London, Crossrail, an immense insertion into the fabric and dynamics of London, is behind schedule, so will open in 2019. Above ground, it’s generating ever more development, the latest an entire new neighbourhood in the Lea Valley at Tottenham Hale. With the housing crisis, it could be the ideal spot for an Ikea model housing initiative, given that its gigantic Edmonton store is up the road. Just saying.

Meanwhile, conservation battles, as ever, come in many sizes and shapes. The good people of Norwich are justifiably up in arms, with the support of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, about the scale and quality of the proposed Anglia Square. In Halstead, Essex, a fight is on to save 16 air shelters built by Courtaulds for their workers, who were making silk for parachutes when not underground, while crass works to Macintosh Court, Lambeth, recently renamed after its architect, the indomitable Kate Macintosh, are causing the Twentieth Century Society and others to worry. All this, and more, to be dealt with satisfactorily in 2019, perhaps? We can but hope.