Tadao Ando and his Secretive Champion.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s second permanent project in the UK may not be much – a water feature in Mayfair – but it reveals his special relationship with a hitherto little known patron of the arts.

The project, a series of fountains that pour water over embedded lighting, will be built as part of a new landscaping plan outside the Connaught Hotel in London, for the developer Grosvenor Group, which owns a large tract of Mayfair. It is, effectively, a jewel in the crown of a masterplan for the area devised by the Danish architect Jan Gehl who has proposed public art projects throughout Mayfair.

Grosvenor planning and environment director Nigel Hughes says Ando was introduced to the project by the Maybourne Group, which owns the Connaught Hotel. ‘When he found out that there was a proposal for outside the Connaught Hotel, Paddy McKillen – one of the main backers of the Maybourne – suggested Ando,’ he reveals.

According to insiders, the Irish property developer has taken a personal interest in the complete refurbishment of the Connaught, including a new conservatory and a New West Wing designed by Blair Associates Architecture Ltd with Steven Sills advising on the interior of the conservatory. McKillen indeed is a figure whose impact on British architecture in the first decade of the 20th century is only just being appreciated. Ironically as property markets collapse in his native Ireland, the secretive McKillen has emerged as a philanthropical supporter of architects generally.

He is a particularly fan of Ando, who is the master planner of a vineyard that McKillen owns in Provence called Chateau La Coste. McKillen is developing an arts centre there which will include structures designed by five Pritzker winners: Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster and Renzo Piano. Ando told the Bloomberg press agency earlier this year: ‘We’re creating a space filled with water and the gallery will appear to float on top of it’. This water theme is shared with the project in Mayfair.

Ando’s role in France is far grander however. He has been charged with integrating a series of works by famous architects into a single plan for McKillen’s vineyard and cultural complex. The Frank Gehry structure, which, according to the BBC, will be used as a music room, is the Serpentine Pavilion, the clumsy whirl of wood and glass pavilion that he exhibited in London in 2008. A winery designed by this year’s Serpentine pavilion creator, Jean Nouvel, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to an aircraft hanger has already been completed.

Ando’s masterplan, however, is being executed against the background of a potentially crucial court case for Belfast-born McKillen that could have a major effect on his extensive holdings. Through the Maybourne Hotel Group McKillen also has a stake in Claridge’s and the Berkeley Hotel and has properties on Bond Street. He also owns properties in the Place Vendome and Boulevard St Germain in Paris. But despite his remaining relatively unaffected by the property crash in Ireland, the draconian measures adopted by the Irish government to remove toxic loans from the private banking system are having an impact on McKillen.

Ando’s patron is taking the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) to court. The institution manages acquired loans and their underlying assets, with the aim of achieving the best possible return for the taxpayer within a seven to 10 year timeframe. McKillen insists that he is able to repay his loans and that having them taken over by the NAMA will have a negative effect on his ability to do business, largely because of the stigma attached.

In an affidavit presented to the High Court in Dublin, the man who is paying a fistful of architects more than a handful of cash in Provence claimed: ‘whether through prudence, good business decision or good fortune, I managed to stand back in amazement while this gross overpaying for property and sites was going on and avoided acquiring development land in this market.’

In the meantime, Grosvenor is rolling out the test for a wider masterplan of simpler, less cluttered streets in Westminster using a uniform palette of stone. The masterplan was devised by Gehl who also pedestrianised parts of Copenhagen.

The influence of the patron looks set to continue: Westminster City Council has provided a £10m loan to Grosvenor which will use the cash to carry out improvements to streets in Mayfair, enabling it to raise rents and thereby repay the money. Thus patrons can influence not only commercial ventures but the areas around them.

This article was first published in Blueprint magazine in November 2010.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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