The top 10 architecture and design controversies of 2023

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Continuing our review of the year, Dezeen looks back at the most controversial stories to hit the world of architecture and design in 2023.

Image by Populous

The Sphere planning battle

This year saw the world’s largest spherical building open in Las Vegas – the MSG Sphere, a concert venue designed by Populous and covered in a gigantic wraparound screen that captivated and divided social media.

Meanwhile, the developer’s plans for a sister Sphere in east London became a political football. Having initially gained planning approval in March 2022 – against the wishes of the local council and MP – London mayor Sadiq Khan last month intervened to reject the scheme, claiming it would cause “unacceptable harm to hundreds of residents”.

UK government levelling up secretary Michael Gove later appeared to be positioning himself to overrule the mayor’s decision, but the project’s developers indicated they will be turning their attention to other cities instead.

In a strongly worded statement, developer Sphere Entertainment said Khan had “hijacked” the planing process. “Londoners should be dismayed that they are not going to benefit from this groundbreaking project, and others looking to invest in London should certainly be wary,” a spokesperson added.

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Image courtesy of Graham Clifford and the New York State Departm.ent of Economic Development

I NY revamp

In March, the City of New York released an updated version of its unofficial “I NY” emblem. Created by graphic designer Graham Clifford, the blocky “WE NYC” wordmark takes cues from Milton Glaser‘s iconic 1977 design.

The update was intended to spread “optimism and civic action” following the pandemic, but among the design community, it seemed to sow cynicism and exasperation.

Adobe’s executive vice president of design Scott Belsky argued the new emblem lacked “anything that feels timeless or iconic”, while Futurism’s design director Tag Hartman-Simkins suggested it had the appearance of being “feedbacked into the ground”.

Design reporter Katie Deighton took issue with the logo’s inconsistent spacing, writing that it would have Glaser “kerning in his grave”.

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Photo by Joāo Enxuto

The Cooper Union’s Soviet architecture exhibition

The Cooper Union in New York found itself at the centre of a protracted controversy over an exhibition about the history and work of the Vkhutemas, an avant-garde Soviet school of architecture.

Originally planned to open last year, the showcase was postponed to early 2023 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, ahead of its rearranged opening date, an opinion piece by historian Peder Anker published on Archinect called for the exhibition to be scrapped and made accusations about the curators, which were subsequently removed.

Following the piece, Cooper Union elected to postpone the exhibition again – in turn leading to more criticism, with an open letter calling the decision a “chilling impingement on academic freedom and education”.

Following extensive deliberation, the exhibition eventually opened in April with additional material added to take account of the context of the conflict in Ukraine.

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Image by Stephen Burks

The Milan racism row

Back to showing in April for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, Milan design week was this year rocked by a racism row.

A collection of glass figurines presented by architect Massimo Adario as part of the Campo Base exhibition drew criticism from designer Stephen Burks and others for “embodying racist stereotypes”.

Adario and Campo Base curator Federica Sala apologised following the backlash, and insisted the exhibition had not intended to cause offence. Burks later reflected on the incident in an opinion piece for Dezeen.

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Image courtesy of Neom

UN experts’ “alarm” over Neom executions

Saudi Arabia’s gargantuan Neom network of developments continues to be the world’s largest and most controversial architecture project. In particular, this year experts on the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned the kingdom’s planned execution of three people, reportedly for opposing forced evictions to make way for Neom.

“UN experts today expressed alarm at the imminent risk of execution of three members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia and urged authorities to halt the process,” read a statement.

In an official response, Saudi Arabia said the suggestion that the death sentences had been passed in retaliation for opposing evictions was “totally untrue”. Instead, it claimed the men had been convicted of terrorist offences.

Aside from human rights, other controversial stories relating to Neom this year included one of its principal architects, Peter Cook, suggesting that the 500-metre height of flagship project The Line is “a bit stupid”.

Meanwhile, German architect Wolf Prix, who worked on a now-discarded design for The Line, hinted at hypocrisy on the part of studios that were engaged in the project but simultaneously boycotting Russia.

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Photo by Dezeen

Thomas Heatherwick’s Le Corbusier criticism

British designer Thomas Heatherwick is no stranger to controversy, and in autumn he entered the fray with his “humanise” campaign to heighten the visual complexity of new buildings.

“Why do the modern buildings that have colonised our towns and cities look so dull?” he provocatively asked while presenting a BBC Radio 4 mini-series on the subject. “And why can’t the whole industry of people who make them see this?”

He took particular aim at Le Corbusier, blaming the hugely influential modernist for a “global ‘blandemic'” in architecture – sparking Dezeen’s most-commented story of the year.

Heatherwick also released a book to publicise the campaign, which was criticised in reviews by Catherine Slessor, Stephen Bayley, Hugh Pearman and Oliver Wainwright.

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso

Architectural Workers United versus Snøhetta

International architecture firm Snøhetta became embroiled in a dispute over unionisation this year.

In May, employees in the studio’s New York office launched a petition to unionise in order to “gain a collective voice in the future of our workplace and our profession”. A successful bid would have seen it become only the second private architecture practice in the US to do so.

At the time, Snøhetta management told Dezeen that it supported “employees’ right to seek self-determination”, but workers later voted 35-29 against the motion.

Amid accusations that Snøhetta had hired a law firm to run a “coordinated anti-union campaign”, labour organiser Architectural Workers United filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the studio.

The suit, which is currently being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board, claimed that Snøhetta had “unlawfully discriminated against several employees for exercising their right to engage in concerted activities”.

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Image by X

Elon Musk’s Twitter rebrand

One of the major ongoing stories of the year has been Elon Musk‘s unorthodox stewardship of Twitter following his $44 billion takeover of the microblogging website in 2022.

In a characteristically unconventional move, July saw the entrepreneur suddenly announce that the platform was being rebranded to X, ditching its famous bird logo in favour of a crowdsourced design.

The change is believed to be part of Musk’s plan to turn X into an “everything app” similar to China’s WeChat.

He described the new design as reminiscent of art deco, but the emblem drew arch criticism from designers, ex-staff and marketing experts. Tech journalist Casey Newton was even moved to call Musk’s leadership of the company “an extended act of cultural vandalism”.

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Photo by Emilie Koefoed

15-minute city conspiracy theories

Paris-based urbanist Carlos Moreno developed his idea for an approach to city planning in which all key amenities are accessible within a 15-minute walk or bike-ride in 2016, later winning the Obel Award in 2021.

But as cities around the world began implementing the idea this year it became highly controversial over concerns about the use of related traffic-controlling measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods.

In the UK, the 15-minute city concept even became the subject of a conspiracy theory that it was part of a wider plan to severely restrict people’s movement in a “climate lockdown”.

Conservative MP Nick Fletcher appeared to echo these theories in parliament, as later did UK government transport secretary Mark Harper. “What is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops and that they ration who uses the roads and when, and they police it all with CCTV,” Harper told the Conservative Party conference.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak then unveiled plans to prevent councils in the UK from creating 15-minute cities as part of a strategy to “back drivers”.

Moreno told Dezeen the move was “baffling” and said the government’s rhetoric was “tantamount to aligning with the most radical and anti-democratic elements” of the anti-15-minute-city conspiracy-theorist movement.

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Photo courtesy of Rezvani Motors

The world’s “most aggressive” SUV

While policies perceived as anti-car were causing consternation in the UK, across the pond in the US car companies were going bigger and bolder than ever.

Early in the year, automotive manufacturer Rezvani Motors unveiled the Vengeance, proudly declaring it “the world’s most aggressive and most capable three-row SUV”.

Weighing nearly three tonnes, the chunky car’s available security security features include bulletproof glass, electrified door handles and pepper-spray-emitting wing mirrors.

Against a backdrop of concern over the public safety and environmental implications of increasingly popular SUVs, the release of the Rezvani Vengeance met with some criticism. The Guardian’s Wainwright dubbed the vehicle a “weaponised SUV set to terrify America’s streets”.

But the Vengeance was not the only car launched to cause a stir in 2023, with Tesla’s recent launch of the Cybertruck also attracting mixed media attention.

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The post The top 10 architecture and design controversies of 2023 appeared first on Dezeen.

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