18 January 2014

Enclosing the Commons (but in a good way)

The Norman Foster designed Great Court in the British Museum
British Museum, London, 18th January, 2014
My life in London is physically book-ended by what, for me, are two of the most impressive building redevelopments of contemporary architecture. 

The history of contemporary architecture is all to often written solely in the dwellings of the idle rich and the corporate temples of capitalist excess, its purpose to isolate and protect or to intimidate with phallic vulgarity. Those spaces accessible to the masses are deliberately bland, devoid of inspiration and passion, or worse, buttressed and reenforced against the very people they are designed to serve, a visible message from the moment they step foot upon its grounds that they are no better than an unwanted invader, a parasitic contagion whose very presence contaminates all around.

But within a stone's throw of me lie two buildings, while not a part of the commons, are designed nonetheless to serve the masses, one by utility and one through inspiration.

When the British Museum moved its library collection to the British Library, the opportunity presented itself to redevelop the courtyard, an open air quad in which sat the central reading room. Norman Foster was eventually selected to commemorate the Millennium with a bold plan to enclose the entire courtyard under a steel and glass roof that bursts forth from the core of the old reading room, radiating outwards in a circular bloom that bathes the space in a light that seems almost unreal.

While Foster's 180m-high Gherkin looms priapically over the London skyline, the roof of The Great Court feels less about naked displays of masculine power and more about enveloping all below in a blanket of knowledge. Its function is not to intimidate, rather it inspires through illumination.

The roof over the central concourse of King's Cross Station designed by John McAslan
King's Cross Station, London, 18th January, 2014
Twelve years later, steel and glass bloomed again to midwife a landmark form a bygone era into the 21st Century. King's Cross Station, blighted by decades of neglect and congestion-fuelled urban miasma, was to play centre stage in the transportation links of the 2012 Olympics. As with the British Museum, the outdoors were enclosed in a way that while not exactly sympathetic to the existing style, was more than complimentary in its boldness, the architectural equivalent of Dr Who's sartorial elegance, a mixture of the outdated and the unfashionable, with something bizarre and outlandish that (like fish fingers and custard) will not be to everyone's taste but should at least bring a smile to your afce when you see someone else take such great pleasure in it.

Isn't that what public architecture should be all about, not merely the functional and affordable, but rather something that makes the lives of all those who pass through better for having done so, if only because their step gets springier and their face lights up even for a moment?

I love these two spaces, living by one and working by the other, and even if I do not pass by or through either every day, it does my heart good to know that I can.

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