By Jay Merrick
Brute bigness will be a defining feature of architecture in 2011. The way large buildings occupy space, and even the way architecture will become the threshold to outer space (thanks to Norman Foster and Richard Branson) has put supersizing firmly on the menu.
Last year, the hot news was that the vilified ex-banker Fred "the Shred" Goodwin was going to turn the Edinburgh-based practice RMJM into a Godzilla of world architecture. But now we learn that the equally hard to pronounce Aecom has acquired more than 30 practices and, with a jumbo-pack of 1,488 architects, has become the biggest practice in the world, after a mere 20 years in the business.
In London, bigness looms in the form of buildings such as Robin Partington's so-called Cucumber, a 459ft residential tower destined for the shiny architectural hodge-podge known as Paddington Basin. The Cucumber has just been submitted for planning approval and its uniquely peculiar form surely makes it a foregone conclusion in a part of the city where gaudy architectural chunks seem de rigeur as far as Westminster's planners are concerned.
In St Petersburg, meanwhile, size can only prompt satire. The Punch and Judy saga otherwise known as RMJM's 1,299ft Gazprom tower – designed to look like a twirling gas flame – cannot be built in the city centre because of a threat to strip the old imperial city of its World Heritage Site status. So the authorities have simply said: "St Petersburg is not a Primus stove! Move Gazprom flamethrower from the city centre!"
In the middle east, the 107-storey, 1,358ft Princess Tower in Dubai Marina will become the tallest residential tower in the world when it opens in the autumn. And in that exploding tub of urban Lego, Guangzhou in China, the 1,300ft Guangzhou International Finance Centre – designed by the British practice Wilkinson Eyre – and SOM's 960ft Pearl River tower will also be fully tumescent in 2011.
In Britain, we will witness the final act in the transformation of London's most hideously mangled railway station, King's Cross; the extension of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath; and the rolling-out of major Olympic projects. But more on those subjects in a moment. First, back to bigness.
Two buildings – one within days of opening, the other being considered by City of London planners as you read this – epitomise the controversial thud of supersized buildings on to our cityscapes.
Exhibit A: the £250m One Hyde Park residences in London's Knightsbridge, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and with four glazed "blades" of apartments linked by semi-transparent circulation cores. At 65,000 square metres this is a major, precedent-setting urban object. Clearly, the practice has tried to give the building a sense of articulation, rhythm and material refinement, but it is the sheer scale and manner of the building, in its Victorian-Edwardian context, that make it so debatable. The Prince of Wales, having machinated to block Rogers Stirk Harbour's scheme for Chelsea Barracks, held back from putting the royal boot in this time.
Exhibit B: an even bigger "groundscraper" in the City of London, at Broadgate, designed by Ken Shuttleworth and his practice, Make. This £340m scheme, for the Swiss financial giant UBS and with a "footprint" the size of a football pitch, could receive planning permission this year. Shuttleworth's inspiration for his massive metal-sheathed structure is an engine block. As in, engine of finance. The building gleams as if coated in platinum. Is the UBS building too big for the City, or is it simply the unstoppable, low-slung shape of leviathans to come in a world where the masters of the universe usually get what they want?
The City's planning supremo, Peter Rees, is broadly in favour of the Make design, which suggests that the building will be given approval. Rees is an urbane, shrewd and confidently provocative character, a trained architect who understands the commercial value of star practitioners. His vision is that the City must be an organism of physical change and versatility, if it is to retain pole position in the ephemeral and image-driven world of international finance.
Under Rees's guidance, the City has become a metaphor for eternal renewal in which buildings, like the fulminating money markets, are in dynamic, come-hither flux. His support of One New Change, 100 metres east of St Paul's Cathedral – Jean Nouvel described his building as a "stealth bomber" – was daring; so too was his approval of Rem Koolhaas's almost finished building for Rothschilds, which is, literally, hard up against St Stephen's Walbrook, Christopher Wren's most exquisitely beautiful small church.
The City has thus become marked with the equivalent of Just Do It architectural brandmarks, spikes on a skyline that will soon dole out more towering visual infarctions: the 20 Fenchurch Street Walkie-Talkie building, designed by Rafael Viñoly; Renzo Piano's so-called Shard, looming above London Bridge station; the Pinnacle tower designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox and known as the Helter Skelter; and the Heron Tower, which has failed dismally in its primary task, of triggering a fatuous nickname. Only one of these forthcoming giants promises to offer any sense of formal gravitas – Rogers Stirk Harbour's Leadenhall tower, the so-called Cheesegrater.
The grandeur of architectural bigness is strangely paradoxical. "We know by instinct," wrote the novelist WG Sebald, in Austerlitz, "that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins." In the City, new kinds of architectural bigness are creating a beauty pageant of towers and groundscrapers in an urban cabinet of curiosities which may ultimately lobotomise our interest in the effects, good and bad, of change.
Even so, Sebald's "shadow of destruction" can never be universal. Nor will size be everything in 2011. Indeed, in Britain, 2011 could become the year a certain Chippo bigs it up in a very different way – "Chippo" being the nickname of the architect who is considered by many to be the most significant of all in terms of anti-bling architecture.
David Chipperfield, a Royal Academician and the latest RIBA gold medallist, was forced to forge his world-class reputation in Europe, because he was once considered "not one of us" by the Caligulas of the British establishment. His new and suddenly very solid presence here will rattle those architects who have been picking up the most valuable British commissions. Estimable and highly successful practices such as Allies and Morrison and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris are hot tickets in commercial architecture but they must now operate in the glare of Chipperfield's vastly weightier international reputation for designing buildings that subtly recast the relationships between historical precedent and 21st-century urbanism.
Two important British buildings by David Chipperfield Architects will open in weeks and they will re-set the bar in terms of major cultural projects in this country. The irony is that Turner Contemporary in Margate and The Hepworth Wakefield may also become rather tragic architectural terminal moraines in a cultural landscape glaciated by government cuts.
The Hepworth is not graceful: the brusque compaction of its irregular concrete segments has created a strangely provocative grey mass, hunkered on the dreary headland of the Calder river. The building might almost be a supersized Cubist sculpture, a last hurrah as the cultural ice sheet creeps across the land.
Turner Contemporary is more straightforward, with an orderly massing and articulation that conveys its "cultural" purpose. The only question mark concerns its ability to spark significant regeneration in the centre of Margate. The museum will no doubt have a shop and a comfortable restaurant. But will the chatterati hasten eastwards, beyond Wheelers Oyster Bar in Whitstable, and strike out to Margate, only to spend two or three hours in Turner Contemporary before leaving? Will they take time to stroll around the Dickensian Old Town?
Chipperfield's competition in cultural projects (if there are any) will come from long-established practices such as Dixon Jones Architects, which has delivered blue-chip projects at the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. Its latest makeover, for the Crown Estate, at the Regents Palace Hotel in Piccadilly, will be completed in 2011. Dixon Jones has a sense of history and restraint, though it can seem bloodlessly refined.
There are other practices bristling with more provocative intellectual and cultural voltage – Eric Parry Architects and Caruso St John, most obviously; and among the new wave, Lynch Architects, Maccreanor Lavington and Dow Jones. The last named has shown considerable skill and civility in the way it has developed projects at Christ Church Spitalfields and the Garden Museum in London. A shortlisting for the Cast Courts at the V&A Museum was no surprise.
But wait! Chippo gives good "commercial" too! In Europe, his reputation was partly made through big, brilliantly executed commercial projects and he is designing two mixed-use buildings in London, one at Waterloo, the other in the massive King's Cross Central development. Chipperfield is likely to be shortlisted automatically for most big commercial projects in historically sensitive parts of London. And this means that practices competing with him will have to think of something better than glitzy facades or brightly coloured architectural doodads. Such a cynical, Lego-cum-Crayola approach to architecture is turning swathes of our towns and cities into gormless urban romper rooms.
Meanwhile, the minister for tourism and heritage at the Department of Culture Media Olympics and Sport, John Penrose, has added architecture to his department's remit. After Penrose's appointment, his spokesperson said that the quality of Britain's built environment was crucial to "our tourism offer to the world". A most terrible mistake has been made. What Whitehall really needs is a Department of Eat Shop Tweet Leave.
Thank heavens we can look forward to John McAslan + Partners and Arup's completion of the £300m modernisation of King's Cross, towards the end of the year. This great station has become a grim shambles of shameful, cheapjack alterations but the wave-form canopy of the new western concourse will be the most striking piece of British railway architecture since the marvellously crafted articulations of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw's Eurostar concourse at Waterloo in the 1990s.
A few miles further east, on the 2012 Olympics site, one suspects that less will be more. Zaha Hadid's grandly flaring "manta ray" aquatics stadium will become the image on the most popular Olympic stamp but it may well be gracefully upstaged by the super-svelte velodrome designed by Hopkins and Partners.
In Bath, Eric Parry's extension of the Holburne Museum is likely to be a gem – one that was nearly derailed by a local lobby of nimbys who seemed to want to see the museum close rather than evolve into the 21st century. Parry has produced a new segment, facing the Sydney Pleasure Gardens, and its novel lattice-form facades will certainly infuriate the fusty few. Fortunately, they will also charm the many who understand what history has always proved: that places and buildings cannot always move forward in predictable ways.
That ideal of innovative change is hard-wired into Baron Foster of Thames Bank (and Switzerland) – but in a very different way. Two projects due for completion in 2011 illustrate his new design explorations: the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan and Spaceport America in New Mexico. Both buildings point to more organic form-making – the former in terms of its almost Art Nouveau canopies, the latter in the way the building hunkers into the desert landscape.
In a 21st-century architectural zeitgeist of controversial bigness, Spaceport America, built for Richard Branson, is almost beyond criticism. It is an Ur object in an Ur setting for an Ur purpose– roughly equivalent to the legendary ziggurat that was built in the Sumerian city of Ur, 21 centuries before Christ. The spaceport project, close to the 16th-century Camino Real trail that was created by the Spanish explorer Herná* Cortés, also marks a crucial point in Foster's career.
It is no secret that his earliest inspiration was Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and the concept of "spaceship earth". Bucky, as he was known, once asked Foster how much one of his buildings weighed. Now we have a spaceport that is about leaving spaceship earth and entering conditions of physical and existential weightlessness.
How weirdly apt it is that Foster + Partners has also been working with the European Space Agency to see if it is possible to use moon dust in what is, in effect, a large ink-jet printer, programmed to spit out lunar structures made of moon-dust cement – as if they were being printed in lines of structural text, composed of tiny, viscous pellets.
No, you didn't read that wrongly. Just picture it: Norman Foster, boyhood devotee of Dan Dare comics, gazing out of the cockpit of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft as it slips the surly bonds of earth. A static-stippled voice is relayed from 110km up: "This is Major Norman to ground control..."
In 2150, when Major Norman is no longer with us, the Minister of Eat Shop Tweet Leave might well look down from the same cockpit. And he will surely feel a thrill of cultural pride to know that all over Britain, huddled masses of tourists will be gawping at yet more towers and groundscrapers by even the most unimaginative and commercially ruthless architects, the monstrous printers' cement-jets going ptt-ptt-ptt as the structures, slowly and remorselessly, take form.