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RIBA Conference 2007, Anthony White Blog

1 November 2007 No Comment
Anthony White, of Michael Sparks Associates posts his thoughts on the RIBA Conference in Paris…

Thursday 25th October

Caught the Eurostar at 10.40 am. Quite effortless – beats flying any day. Sat next to Jason Green from Hamilton’s. Had a rather tasteless Eurostar chicken sandwich, but enjoyed Jason’s story of epic and potentially disastrous holiday in Alaska.Met Julian Howlett and Warren Rosing at the Gard du Nord and walked to the Hotel. Having checked in, I took off to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery just down the road and saw the tombs of Collette, Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Pissaro, Seurat, and Jim Morrison. Missed Oscar Wilde Edith Piaff and Eileen Gray. Gray does not appear on the cemetery map, but she is buried somewhere here apparently.

In the evening I met up with the others in the Corus group and went to the Buro Happold Party at the Cite de l’Architectur, which involved an enormous walk, because I had the bright idea to going to Concorde stop on the metro because of a bomb scare, instead of Ilena. Enjoyable relaxed atmosphere – good nibbles. Interesting chat with a French construction lawyer, Bertrand. Then an interesting browse around the museum, although I did not have the time to go further back in time than the 20th Century.


The Conference starts with Jean Nouvel. I thought his slow delivery may have intimated an interminable discourse, but he turned out to be an economic and interesting speaker, employing the occasional sparkle of humour. Nouvel’s Musee du Quai Branly is worth a visit, I thought. Interesting slide of the aboriginal art that adorns it.

Then Spencer de Grey joined him at the podium for a joint presentation of the Foster/Nouvel scheme for Walbrook Square. No sense of collaboration here – I sensed a slight tension between the two as De Grey failed to respond to Nouvel’s more light hearted and humourous insights to their working relationship. Nouvel did bring up some of the problems of a smaller office working with the mighty South London practice. I cannot help feeling that language can be a barrier sometimes as design seems to involve more talking than drawing. It would not be a problem if designers could only communicate through illustration. Some delegates commented afterwards that Walbrook Square looked as though the bottom of the development was designed by Fosters and the upper part by Nouvel.

Rafael Vinoly followed, giving what turned out to be one of the most interesting talks, offering a somewhat ambiguous account into the merits or otherwise of collaboration, which in this case involved working with a client in the form of a research based medical institution embodied in a close knit group of scientists. The resulting building is a tour de force, a dynamic interplay of functionality and sensitivity to an open site, which may have been a triumph, not necessarily because of the collaborative effort, but of the architect keeping the client in synch with his own ideas.

There was then an account of Terminal 5, a business-like presentation that involved one of the BAA project manager-type blokes whose motivational jargon was something I was hoping to get away from in this event which ostensibly is about architects communicating with each other. Mike Davies, dressed in red as usual, gave a superbly succinct précis of the development of the design, but no interesting details of the finished building were on offer in the slide show. The terminal has been heavily compromised in the design process, but this is not the fault of anyone in particular – just due to the circumstances that intervened. Tzena James, (who is known to my mate Douglas Emslie who chairs the SW London Branch of the RIBA), asked some difficult questions which were not answered by the project manager bloke or the Man in Red. The question was probably silly – “Did the design team collaborate with the residents of West London?” I would have thought five years of Public Inquiry was enough for the residents of West London to get their views across.

Lunch involved cubes of beef and cocktail sticks, and small wine glasses of Coke. The session was finished off by Roisin Heneghan and Tony McLaughlin, talking about their successful competition entries, particularly for the new museum at Giza. Gratuitous triangulation and postscripted theorizing seemed to be the order of the day in explaining the simplistic concept behind this massive project which encroaches onto the pyramids more than any recent expansion of Cairo and, by its sheer volume and scale, embodies the use of more resources, both financial and natural, than I would have thought our society and our planet could afford.

Off to see the Musée du Quai Branly afterwards. Looks good, but I not sure about its relationship with urban context, but then again buildings which are too respectful of urban context are not always that much better either.

Then I dashed over to the Centre Pompidou for drinks. Caught up with my mate Craig Sheach who is here with the Assael crew. I asked him where he was last night. He said “Getting pissed”. They all went to the restaurant upstairs for dinner. Met up with Ian Law, an old mate form Powell & Moya – no change there. He still wears a donkey jacket just like he did twenty years ago. Mused with Tzena James as to why Mike Davies wears red and speculating as to whether this extended to his underwear. Is it religious or is he an old hippy? Then a guy called Scott came up and told me he was a brilliant sustainability consultant.

Afterwards I joined the Corus group for dinner at the Restaurant Jenny just off the Place du Republique, which offered a range of Alsace dishes mostly involving pig. Very tasty. I thought however I should have ordered the pig’s trotter and chips.


Ellen Van Loon started off giving a sparse and workwoman-like talk about OMAs attitudes to collaboration. It was actually very interesting and reflected the very international scene of modern construction practice. I have never shown much interest in OMA, but then I suddenly remembered I visited their Dutch Embassy in Berlin three years ago. That was good.

Will Allsop and Bruce Maclean then gave a refreshing stand up routine explaining their own venture in collaboration, and while the talk was ad hoc and chaotic with not much of architectural interest, but it did nevertheless demonstrate more than anything else in the conference that success of collaboration comes through friendship and common interest.

Duncan Kenworthy, producer of boring movies like “Love Actually”, gave us a long and equally boring talk about how film production teams are structured, as if that was of any interest to us. “This structure does not change”, he told us, “It is the same for every movie”. Well, is this a model for the dynamic and fluid exchange for ideas of teams working in a new collaborative environment? I did not think there was much for us to learn from the world of movies. Rather, I think the reverse is true. Having unjustifiably overshot his allotted time, we missed out on a lot of what the brilliant Odile Decq could offer us in her stunning presentation, and she unfortunately had to hurry at the end, giving little chance for us to appreciate her fantastic work.

A quick tour around the venue, the Communist Party Headquarters, which I last visited in 1974 when I was on a student field trip, and then lunch, which involved the same beef cubes and cocktail sticks as yesterday. Then I was off for a quick walk about town before catching Eurostar home. A great weekend and most inspiring conference, thanks to great speakers, pleasant delegates and to the hospitality of Corus!

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not those of either Corus or Michael Sparks Associates

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