Published  22/06/2001

RIBA in Ecstasy: British Architectural Awards 2001

RIBA in Ecstasy: British Architectural Awards 2001

‘Swinging on chandeliers’

Ecstasy and fatigue, according to neuro-psychologist Richard Gregory, go together. ‘Ecstatic states of mastery over, or of oneness with, all things, are to be treasured, but they can lead to overconfidence, say while climbing a mountain, or piloting an aircraft’. Certainly, there is little of intellect required to reach the state that Gregory describes, which makes it the more accessible and appealing to most seekers today.

In Regency England, it was the chandelier that ‘dazzled and puzzled’. Circa 1812, at the Prince Regent’s residence Carlton House, such chandeliers formed the grand visual climax to the circular drawing room, as Sacheverell Sitwell enthused:

‘…the cut glass chandelier, of immense length, representing the jetd’eau of a fountain and playing from the centre of the room up to the painted sky, reflected in the four pier glasses opposite, which repeat each other, and the lesser chandeliers, in endless repetition. The chandelier, we may remark, was an article of furniture dear to the Prince Regent, and characteristic of him.’ (British Architects and Craftsmen, 1945, p176)

Similarly, the Brighton pavilion was recorded in meticulous drawings by the elder Pugin, who found the chandeliers ‘beyond comprehension’. Webster’s Dictionary (1815) then described ecstasy as:

‘Any passion by which the thoughts are absorbed, and in which the mind is for a time lost; excessive joy; rapture; enthusiasm; excessive elevation of the mind; madness; distraction.’

This was of course the age of Nash, and the end of Soane, and with peace after Waterloo came dislocation and national exhaustion, as well as regeneration, a new elegance and stylism. There followed a year ‘without summer’ when crops were ruined, Frankenstein invented, and a frantic search for new stimuli was on. Similarly, in the momentous decade since l987, and after, with the ending of the Cold War, then the Gulf War, and lesser civil wars the way has become clear in 2001 to focus on currency wars, drug wars, and style wars. Ecstatic spaces were on offer.

Nicholas Grimshaw’s proposals for the world famous spa at Bath (l998) had something of the quality of a vast Regency chandelier; here glass, light, steam, and water are correlated brilliantly in a last ditch attempt to revitalise the ancient baths. Future spa fans will be enthralled by a dramatic wall of steam drawing them towards the new treatment zones, Jacuzzis, and swimming pools.

Alsop and Stomer’s recently premiated (Stirling Prize) Peckham library allows a similar infusion of light with colour to dramatic effect; as with their Erotic Museum in Hamburg, ecstasy is orchestrated deliberately (physical at Hamburg, cerebral at Peckham) with this architect as sorcerer and spellbinder. Here again, a somewhat seedy environment in decline is regenerated by a suffusion of wit and colour, with all of the resourcefulness a structure can display to contrive that ultimate moment of ecstatic fulfilment.

Ecstasy was encapsulated, as simulated in David Hockney’s l960s masterpiece, ‘A Bigger Splash’ in Hudson Featherstone Architects’ Swimming Pool (l998) for a house in North Devon. There, the light ripples across the pool and behind a tamarisk hedge protected by a flesh-coloured end-wall. This supports a chandelier-like fountain amidst Corbusian detailing that conveys an ironic semblance of parody. Hodder Associates are awarded here for their equally outstanding Walsall Swimming Pool (RIBA Award 2001).

In contrast, Damien Hirst’s l991 installation ‘In and Out of Love’ demonstrated where ecstasy — or horror — ends, and the sublime begins. The happily wafted butterflies in the upper room of the installation (the ‘in-love’ space) were in stark contrast to his downstairs ‘out of love’ space, which emphasised haphazard, accidentally or deliberately dead insects.

Michael Hopkins and Partners Organic Earth Centre, Edinburgh (Award 2001) notably combine to simulate the beauty and pathos of the natural environment, as on a more botanical note does Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project at St Austell, Cornwall (Award 2001). Wilkinson Eyres’ Magna Centre at Rotherham (Award 2001) likewise stimulates wonderment in the visitor’s eye. MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, at the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, (ably guided by Curator Andrew Nahum) also projects that sense of amazement (Award 2001). At Bristol, Wilkinson Eyre creates a visitor centre (Explore Bristol) that initiates literally a voyage of discovery for tourists (Award 2001).

There were in all fifty-four awards in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 2001 pursuit of excellence, to buildings representing numerous requirements and types. What is increasingly evident, is this new propensity by British architects to seek out ‘ecstasy’ in the pursuit of delight. Clearly, this is also what the public wants; long may it last. Ecstasy in architecture can in fact be described as an experiential climacteric in space — expanding to reach out in the 21st century; sensual, hedonistic, pleasurable, as well as subliminal, cerebral, and life-enhancing.

The projects that will come forward for consideration for RIBA Awards in 2002 look equally exciting. It seems as if the long night of mediocrity has passed, and we can all swing again on the chandeliers.

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