This week Ripon Civic Society has announced its annual awards. The winners have been presented with their silverware (or, for the winners of Best Shop Front, their glass bowl) and certificates have been handed out.
And what do the awards tell us about the state of building and the environment in Ripon? First, of course, that there is good work going on in the city, and that there are some worthy winners of the awards. And then come the questions: where is the modern architecture? And what is modern architecture, anyway?
Anyone who watched the presentation of British architecture’s most prestigious accolade, the Stirling Prize, on television last weekend will have seen how diverse modern architecture has become. The six buildings on the shortlist were all very different, though, perhaps, none was so startling as to be an obvious winner. Instead we have diversity. There were two schools: one was a rectangular brick-built (or at least brick-clad) block; the other was a school extension, this one a block clad in different coloured horizontal glass panels.
There was one house, in London, which combines home, office and flats for letting. This was, certainly as seen on television and in pictures, the least impressive. It resembled a 1960s signal box.
Then there were three museums. The extension to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford greatly increases the size of the museum with a clever use of angular walls and impressive staircases. At the Neues Museum in Berlin the architect has taken the war-damaged building and turned it into fine gallery spaces in a starkly simple way. In Rome the new Maxxi Museum for 21st-century art is one of those buildings that look as if the first model was a strip of Plasticine that had been tied in a knot – in a a city dominated by its classical past. This is the building that won the Stirling Prize.
What have the rarefied strata of top international architecture to do with Ripon? At first glance, not very much. Yet, whether we like it or not, we will find that building like this might have some influence on the city.
The Stirling Prize is the haute couture of architecture – the fashion show where the top designers show off their latest collection and where the wealthy get out their cheque books to commission one-off pieces. And just as the catwalk fashions of London and Milan are reinterpreted for the high street chains, so architects are influenced by what they see in their architectural magazines and on site visits.
So, what should we be expecting in Ripon over the next few years? Which of these modernistic styles will we be welcoming with Civic Society awards? How will the city be transformed?
The realistic answer is probably that very little cutting edge architecture will reach the city. If you shouted ‘Hurrah!’ to that statement, that’s a pity. Ripon deserves good new building just as much as it needs to take care of its historic buildings. In 1904 we got just such a building – the Spa Baths, in the latest style. What the city should not be doing today is encouraging the mediocre and the pastiche. It is very easy to say something does not ‘fit in’ and should be rejected. It is far harder to have the open mind that can see new structures as both a welcome addition to the historic fabric of the city and as a statement of their own time.
Little building work is happening in Ripon at the moment – a fact that may well pose problems for next year’s Civic Society Awards. At some point, though, the economics of the country and the region will improve, and new planning applications will start to flow. Many of them will play it safe, knowing that the planners are likely to object to anything that is more than boring and anodyne, especially near the historic core of the city.
Just occasionally, though, we may find an architect who has seen the vision – or visions – of the future that buildings such as those short-listed for the Stirling Prize represent, and come up with something of our time. It is then up to our representatives, the councillors and their planning officers, to make bold decisions.
If they do, we may one day have a truly modern building in Ripon which the Civic Society can unhesitatingly hail as the city’s ‘Best New Building’. But we will not, as the saying goes, hold our breath .
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