Juxtaposed: The Narcissism of Big Differences

By Jo Phillips

‘Juxtaposition’ cropped up early on in my first year of Architecture school. After that, it never really went away, fading in three years from a cool, concept enhancing buzzword to triteness. Allowing for the modest dose of snobbishness that undoubtedly influenced this change of view, this month’s theme got me thinking of how different architects juxtapose, and how it can be anything from subtle delicacy to an excuse for almost anything.

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Astley Castle, Warwickshire. Source: Bustler.

Witherford Watson Mann Architects’ Astley Castle Project in Warwickshire recently won the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize, which this year showed an astounding display of sensitivity on all fronts. Here, a 21st Century holiday home sits within the crumbling walls of a 16th Century Castle, stitching the new into the old in a way that sees the modern being truly reticent. As an approach this seems somewhat underrated; David Chipperfield’s famous restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin is perhaps even more understated, with white concrete columns and doorways patching up bomb damage.

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David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum Refurb. Source: Jim Stephenson.

Catalan architect David Closes’ Auditorium in the Church of Saint Francis’ Convent is a sort of mix of the two, at times subtle restoration and at others breaking out in modern glass geometrics. The remains of a sacked convent that sat empty for over 100 years now stand all the more impressively thanks to their modern counterparts, solidifying the ruins physically as well as aesthetically.

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The Auditorium in the Church of Saint Francis’ Convent – Night. Source: Archdaily.

Given the ability and apparent popularity of these super-sensitive works of restraint, it may strike some as bizarre that Zaha Hadid Architects were recently chosen to tackle a small scale extension to an old gunpowder store that now forms the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The Magazine, dating back to 1805, is a stern, Palladian portico-sporting “house within a house”, lovingly restored with help from Liam O’Connor Architects. ZHA have here, as ever, divided opinion, with a sweeping glass-fiber textile canopy that covers a restaurant space (under which even the food juxtaposes the traditional and modern). The canopy sits on five steel stilettos, giving the interior a far more graceful feel than the glass-walled exterior.

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Serpentine Sackler Gallery Extension – Night. Source: Designdiffusion.

To the casual observer there is no relationship between the new extension to the old building other than physical proximity, the fact that ‘that old building over there has a big new white thing stuck on the side’. Nothing beyond a reinforcement of what we are already aware of comes from this juxtaposition. It is by no means the horror some critics are making it out to be, but it feels like a missed opportunity. For ZHA to state that “the synthesis of old and new is thus a synthesis of contrasts” simply feels like another nail in the coffin of juxtaposition as a convincing concept.