Saturday, 31 August 2013

Tour: Foster

Opposite the Temple in Nimes, the Maison Carrée, is a gallery given over to contemporary art, the Carré d'Art.
As can easily be seen, the gallery has been designed (by Norman Foster) as Architecture with a capital A, intending to echo the Roman temple opposite.And as the modest poster indicates, they were mounting a retrospective on Foster's architecture and Art (another big A) while we were there.

We didn't like the building.   To us it came across as the worst kind of sub-modernism; rather old-fashioned in the same way that a 1960s municipal civic centre is now old-fashioned.  Lots of glass and concrete and cantilevered stairs over voids.  A focus on Spaces (capital S) but with little real joy.  We would hate to work there.

This wasn't the only Foster gallery we encountered on the Tour.  We also visited the Museum of Prehistory of the Gorges du Verdun, in Quinson.  This had the great virtue of having real content, of course.

However, and again, the much vaunted Foster architecture, all sweeping concrete curved walls, did little for us at TANH.  It reminded us of some of those parts of Foster's Great Court, in the British Museum, that are somewhat behind the scenes and less-commonly seen.  The Education Centre in the basement beneath the main courtyard, for example, has the same love of roughened concrete and transitioning curves.  Exciting in theory perhaps, but cold and inhuman in practice.

The weekend before the Great Court was due to be opened by the Queen, we were working on some final IT stuff, and spotted some of the Foster's staff on one of the balconies.  They got some workmen together, and set them to work breaking up the stone slabs in front of the Reading Room.  They were quickly stopped by Museum senior management of course, before too much damage was done, but some slabs were broken and had to be replaced.

Their reasons were aesthetic, and about the look of things: the slabs they wanted to remove were a slightly different colour from the others, and they needed replacing with stone which was a better match.  The offending slabs were damaged, of course, before the workmen were stopped, so we suspect they got their way.  Apocryphally, we heard that the underflow heating and ducting systems were also damaged and never repaired, as a result of the designers focus on surfaces, but we don't know the truth of that.

It did amuse us, however, to see this just outside Foster's Carré d'Art:
Maybe it has become his new signature?  Along with the brutalist concrete, that is...

Finally, one other apocryphal story.
We heard that when the Chairman of the British Museum (a pompous title for a pompous man at that time) attempted to enter the British Museum for the grand opening of the Great Court by the Queen, with the then Sir Norman Foster, the latter was stopped by the gate guard.

'Do you know who this is?', asked the Chairman.
'Yes', came the reply. 'But he can't come in without a pass.  Temporary passes round the back, tradesmen's entrance.'
'But he's with me!'
'Temporary passes round the back, tradesmen's entrance. But you can come in, sir, you've got your pass.'

So the Chairman rang the duty security manager and complained about the 'jobsworth on the gate'.

'Sorry sir, but he's right.  He's doing his job. Temporary passes round the back, tradesmen's entrance.'
'But he's the architect of the whole scheme!'
'Exactly, sir.  Just a supplier.  Not even a member of staff. Temporary passes round the back, tradesmen's entrance.'

So Sir Norman went round the back to the tradesmen's entrance, and got a temporary pass.

And a couple of people from the Security team got bought free drinks on the strength of the story for weeks afterwards.....

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