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Opinion: Luxury architecture has gone wrong

Opinion: Luxury architecture has gone wrong

The London cultural elite and their ‘starchitect’ friends are at it again. Following the completion of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and the Philharmonie in Paris, certain people in London have decided that the UK’s capital city needs its own world-class orchestra venue.

This 2,000-seat London Centre for Music, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is billed as a “concert hall for the 21st century” and will include performance, education and rehearsal spaces alongside its set-piece hall. It will be shaped like a twisted pyramid with glass staircases and vast wooden interiors.

It will be built on the southern edge of the Barbican Centre as part of the so-called “Culture Mile” stretching from the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral and onto this new London Centre for Music – which is where we run into the major issue undermining the idea.

The problem is that the Barbican Centre is already a 2,000-seat concert hall which is both well-used and beloved. So why build a new one only a few metres away? Apparently, there are extremely subtle flaws in the Barbican’s acoustic performance which render it second-rate – and the only solution is to spend almost £300m on a brand new structure down the road which, as an aside, will also require the demolition of the former Museum of London.

From the outside it is hard not to gape at this thought process with a sort of disbelieving amazement. Spending such a large amount of money to solve an acoustic problem which is imperceptible to all but a lucky few is an incredible example of misplaced priorities. At no point does there seem to have been a discussion about simply renovating the existing Barbican Centre – itself a sublime example of brutalist architecture.

The whole situation bears a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding the now-defunct Garden Bridge over the Thames where a collection of ultra-rich people and high-profile architects decided that what London really needed was another statement bridge over the Thames. Despite largely being funded and maintained at great public expense, the bridge would be closed in the evenings for private functions.

Much like the London Centre for Music, this is a proposition that could only have been justifiable at the dinner party where it was originally conceived. As soon as it was viewed in the harsh light of day it was clear the Garden Bridge was nothing more than a display of egotism. And much like the Garden Bridge, it is likely that the London Centre for Music will end up needing huge amounts of public money over its long lifespan – as these projects always seem to.

By way of contrast we will look at a few other things going on in London.

The people of London live under the cloud of debilitating air pollution thanks to the incredible levels of traffic which pass through every day. Low emission zones have started to make a dent in the issue, but there is mounting evidence to show that children living in the inner city – including boroughs within walking distance of the London Centre for Music – have reduced lung capacity thanks to the pollution, as well as increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, poorer cognitive development and an increased risk of dementia. There is not enough money available to properly fight air pollution.

More than 3,000 people were found sleeping on the streets of the capital in Q3 2018 by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network. This represented a rise of 20% over the previous quarter and 17% over the previous year. Tragically, this number included more than 1,300 people who were sleeping rough for the first time. Homelessness is a social, cultural and economic disaster for any city, as well as being a serious moral failure. There is not enough money available to properly fight homelessness in London.

Architecture should serve everyone, not just those who have money, and building this new concert hall would be another confirmation of the twisted priorities which shape our cities. Space for culture is vital but, like the aborted Garden Bridge, all this new concert hall does is emphasise the uncaring hubris which exists at a time when so many are in such dire need.

A big new concert hall does not count as “culture” on its own. A city which builds a wildly expensive and unnecessary high-art trophy building, at a time when an unprecedented number of accessible low-budget art spaces are being closed, has lost its way.

As the urbanist Richard Sennett argues, spending on culture is a zero-sum game. Every pound put into vanity projects meant for tourists and the rich is taken directly from the wider community. “What the elite gains, the masses lose,” Sennett says.

Let us hope this new concert hall never gets built. There is no rule saying that the upper echelons of society are entitled to new concert halls. We deserve better than this. We can do better than this.

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