Contemporary World Architecture

This book is about building types, but it is also an oblique search for consensus. The last 30 years have been pluralist times in architecture, after all, but pluralism is not a style, a dogma, a movement, nor an underlying structure. Pluralism is merely what happens when there is no defining orthodoxy. Any direct attempt to chase the chimaera of a new global style, a replacement for what some have seen as the united front of the old International Style – and which others regard as a giant mid 20th century con-trick – is as likely to succeed as a quest for the Yeti. The beast may be out there somewhere, but it does not choose openly to reveal itself. Likewise the mood of architecture is today caught fleetingly in sidelong glances and snatches of sound.

This study attempts no more than to condense thinking across thirteen broad categories of buildings at what is, by cheap jerseys from China any measure, a significant moment in architectural history. The architecture considered ranges from the radical to the conventional, but as always certain preoccupations with elevational treatment tend to span the categories in a way that the plan and section generally cannot. There are ways of accommodating particular functions and activities – a concert hall auditorium, say, or a factory production line, or an airport terminal – that an architect challenges at his peril, whereas the outward appearance offers far greater freedom. But in comparing the hundreds of examples of any given building type with those of other categories, there are moments of concurrence. An assonance, a half-rhyme, sometimes becomes apparent.

To see how far architecture has moved during our chosen period, consider what was coming to an end, and what was beginning, at the start of the 1970s. In 1972, Louis Kahn completed his Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas, a year after Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano won the competition for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the prototype mediatheque. In 1974, Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan of SOM completed the Sears Tower in Chicago, destined to remain the world’s tallest for many years. in In 1975, in Ipswich, England, Norman Foster completed the amoebic black glass form of the Willis Faber Dumas headquarters. It is now a protected historic building, classified Grade 1. In 1978 the Mexican architect Luis Barragan built his last house, and that same year, in Sendai, Japan, the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa died. He was buried in his masterpiece, the Brion family cemetery at Treviso, Italy, in a tomb designed by his son Tobia.

In the 1970s, it seemed as if one architectural world – the world not only of international modernism, but also of craftsmanship, of conservatism – had died with Scarpa while another world – the world of high-precision, machine-made, radical, architecture – was taking over. No comparison can readily be made between Scarpa’s last significant work, the Banca Popolaire di Verona, with its geologically-incised plinth and hand-rendered façade of mixed lime and brick chippings, and Foster’s impending Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, its components shipped and flown in from all over the world.

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So the decade of the 1970s was the fulcrum, the time when the ambitious background boys elbowed their way to the front as the old order finally (or so it seemed) crumbled. This, then, is the natural starting point for an exploration of the sea change that has taken place in architecture, worldwide, in the 30 years leading up to the Millennium.

Mies van der Rohe repeatedly remarked that one cannot invent a new kind of architecture every Monday morning: however in the final third of the twentieth century, it seemed at times as if the world was trying to disprove that assertion with movement after movement, style after style. We have seen new vernacular, new classicism, new regionalism, post-modernism, high-tech, organic architecture, deconstruction, eco-architecture, cosmological architecture, ultra-minimalism, and the inevitable return to the period of heroic, “white modern” architecture by a new generation. The 30 years in question were quite long enough for the avant-garde to become absorbed into the mainstream. Thus “high-tech” – which photographs very dramatically and is the preferred architectural style of magazine picture editors everywhere, which partly explains its continuing appeal – came to be seen as just another style, virtually a kit of parts, to be called on by any competent architect when the sistēma need arose. This it mostly achieved in hands other than its progenitors. Buildings by Rogers, Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano continued to be highly crafted one-offs, though Foster achieved something like a production-line effect with his lesser steel-framed, glass-clad buildings, and Piano developed an oft-repeated private language of terracotta panelling, developed over many projects. Instead, high-tech fell into the hands of more anonymous “commercial” practices who took up the products and methods developed by, or in the wake of, these pioneers. In this sense, the dullards of the architectural business came closest to the future so enchantingly previewed in the Eames House: an architecture made of readily-available component parts. Scores of tasteful shiny buildings in business parks the world over testified to the strength of the original vision, their cost per square metre falling almost as rapidly as the cost per gigabyte of computing power contained within them. As ever, it is the details that count: but as Mies discovered, the effect of over-familiarity with a given idiom is increasing pressure on the big names of the business to continue innovating, rather than refining. For a while these big names were European, but simultaneously American corporate steel-framed building techniques, refined over cheap NBA jerseys the century since William Le Baron Jenney and Louis Sullivan, were quietly conquering Europe n their wake. The big American practices regrouped, took a global (as opposed to merely Middle Eastern) perspective, and by the century’s end had achieved a new domination in Pacific Rim nations – though not without considerable challenge from the architectural powerhouses of Japan and, increasingly, Australia.

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This book addresses the broad movements in architecture over this period not by “ism” – выглядят architectural categories are notoriously slippery and mutable, though they serve their purpose and are by no means ignored here – but by building type. The most basic changes in architecture occur not because of academic theory or pure experiment, but because of changes in the way people live, work, are governed, travel, entertain themselves, regard the outside world. And, most importantly, fund their buildings. It is now axiomatic that form follows finance just as much as it follows fashion or function.

Aalto said: “It is not what a building looks like on the day it is opened, but what it is like 30 years later, that matters.” It took only 15 of those 30 years for the Willis Faber building – Foster assisted by Michael Hopkins – to make its unprecedentedly rapid journey from radicalism to officially acknowledged heritage icon. And it took less time still for Deconstruction to move from being a parlour game played between Peter Eisenman, Jacques Derrida, and Bernard Tschumi, to the completion in 1997 of the melting forms of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, as purely sculptural a building as Frank Lloyd Wright’s original in New York, though perhaps kinder to the works of art it contained: in essence a jewelled shrine intended for – though at first denied – Picasso’s Guernica. For some (including this writer) one of the great buildings of the era, for Outcomes others the Bilbao Guggenheim had a darker purpose. Basque separatists were caught planting mortar-launchers in Jeff Koons’ giant floral “puppy” placed outside the building, shortly before the museum’s official opening in late 1997. There was a shoot-out: a policeman died. The building had come to be seen as a symbol of American colonisation – a franchise like McDonald’s – rather than, as the Basque government had intended, as a proud icon of cultural independence. That small, ugly incident was the downside of what had become one of the phenomena of the 1980s and 1990s: the cult of the globe-trotting, international “signature” architect. “Richard Meier everywhere” as Rem Koolhaas laconically put it: he himself being of the same set.

Alison and Peter Smithson put forward the notion that, in urbanistic terms, a net of routes of equal value is a better way to traverse a city than a hierarchy of major, median, and minor roads. Perhaps the pluralism of architecture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries may be likened to that Smithsonian net – they are all leading somewhere and, once the congested terrain is traversed, the destination will become clear. That, at the time of writing, seems just about possible, if admittedly unlikely. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, pluralism’s finest fantasist, invented a more frightening notion: the Garden of Forking Paths. Endless junctions, endless choice, no easy turning back, a future only of infinitely expanding possibilities. No conclusion, ever. This too, though powerfully attractive in other ways, does not quite hit Obituary the mark. To introduce a third metaphor: for all that architects have been rattling the bars of their cages these past few decades, they are still in cages, and the cages are becoming smaller.

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So has anything emerged from the muddle? These thirty years have seen a restless quest, by architects of extremely different opinions and beliefs, to find an architecture appropriate to the age. Banham was right, back in 1978, to predict the rise of a new modernism in the hands of the technology-based practitioners, starting (with due deference to SOM’s Hancock and Sears Towers) in Europe but spreading rapidly over wholesale NBA jerseys the Atlantic and Pacific. Banham was also pushing at an open door: everyone who did not wear a blindfold saw high-tech that way and surprisingly few people looked at the baroque characteristics of a Rogers building and saw post-modernism instead. Similarly, among his supporters, James Stirling was usually taken to be a modernist rather than the ‘freestyle classicist’ that some tried to label him. It seemed that it was the attitude of the author that counted, and anyway the real classicists had no intention of claiming Stirling as their own, since they were too busy fighting among themselves. As it happened, virtually no architect lumped into the post-modern category agreed with it. The same was true of Deconstruction a decade later. To return to High Tech (also a term routinely rejected by its practitioners), discussion in the 1990s tended to ignore the roots of the movement by looking no further back than Paxton and Fox’s Crystal Palace (1850-51) or, at a pinch, Turner and Burton’s Palm House at Kew (1844-48). However an appreciation of the movement’s true lineage – which goes way back through the Tudor “prodigy houses” through the great Gothic cathedrals to the late Romanesque, and is all to do with refining structure to achieve lightness and drama – does nothing to dispel the power of this ostensibly modern approach. This mode of designing and building is, it can be argued, more than just one of the forking paths in the garden, more than just another strand in the net, but a highlighted route.

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During the last third of the twentieth century, there was rather more for architects to consider than the increasing impermanence of their built oeuvre – which anyway was a change well signalled by the theorists of the 1960s from Cedric Price and the Archigram group onwards. New building types began to emerge, some more resistant to the attention of architects than others. The covered shopping mall, for all its 18th and 19th century roots, was reborn as an American invention of the 1950s, and achieved global dominance during the 1980s and 1990s. Mall-thinking came to inform the other great building type of the era, the airport terminal. If a Martian came to look at airports of the period, from Paul Andreu’s rotunda of the Roissy 1 terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, designed in the late 1960s, to Kisho Kurakawa’s cruciform Kuala Lumpur airport designed in the late 1990s surrounded with its specially-planted belt of rainforest, he might conclude that airports were mankind’s way of working out a wholesale MLB jerseys peculiar obsession with geometry. In a way, they were – a geometry concerned with establishing the shortest walking distance within the terminal while allowing steadily growing numbers of planes to plug into it – but, working against this purity of design intent, they also became mankind’s way of delaying the moment of departure long enough to force a bored captive market of passengers to shop, and for a very good reason: competition among international airports had driven down landing charges to a point where the operators could no longer generate a sufficient profit from passenger movements alone.

While the shopping mall proved a graveyard for many architectural ambitions, the airport – and transport buildings in general – became a way to make, or confirm, a reputation, second only to such cultural buildings as art galleries, concert halls and theatres. Both cultural and transport buildings, as it happened, learned much from the despised retail sector. This was not to do with expressed architecture, but the science of moving people around a building – a science developed into an art by the retail specialists, who were honour bound to give each store the appropriate amount of passing trade and who thus developed sophisticated methods to ensure the right distribution of shoppers, particularly in multi-level malls. The concept of the “anchor store” was both to act as a destination in its own right and to work in concert with other “anchors” and a mass of subsidiary shops and restaurants in the bigger malls. These attractions in turn were balanced by the presence and accessibility of car parking. Thus the mall became a consumerist version of Ebenezer Howard’s famous “three magnets” diagram of the Garden City, and can be seen as the late 20th century’s greatest contribution to urbanism.

This may seem a curious conclusion, given the anti-urban qualities of many shopping malls, but it was noticeable, as the end of the century drew near, how many cultural centres began cheap jerseys to be designed along remarkably similar lines. As America invented the modern shopping mall in the form of Victor Gruen’s Northland Center in Detroit (1949-54), and rapidly evolved it subsequently, so America invented the modern cultural mall in the form of New York’s Lincoln Center (1962-66, by Harrison, Johnson, Foster, Abramovitz, Saarinen and SOM), providing a choice of opera, ballet, symphonic music and drama like rival department stores in a mall. Just like a successful mall, the Lincoln Center has extended itself at intervals, providing other cultural attractions which add to the “destination” status of the place. Like London’s South Bank Centre (1951 onwards) it has proved durable and adaptable. London’s cultural mall slowly evolved over 50 years into a classic retail dumbbell shape: the South Bank Centre at one end, the Tate’s Museum of Modern Art at the other, and a gallimaufry of subsidiary attractions, including housing, cinemas, restaurants, shops – even a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – closely associated. This cultural mall separates vehicles and pedestrians in the classic post-war manner of shopping centres, with the Thames-side walkway acting as the car-free zone and acres of car parks plugged into the vehicular spine route behind. The shift in London’s centre of gravity that it represents – the most significant change this century in the way London functions – is a wholly unconscious tribute to the art of the retail designer, and an exact parallel with the Lincoln Center experiment, which itself colonised a rough end of town.

While the shopping mall was easing its tentacles into transport and cultural architecture, society at large was rather more concerned with another shift, particularly in the mature economies of the West: the decline of heavy industry and the rise of high-technology industries and office-based working. The very specific flow patterns of the traditional factory – raw materials in, finished products out – were modified to accommodate manufacturing at micro-scale that required conditions of absolute cleanliness and freedom from vibration but which nonetheless had an astonishingly high rate of failure in the finished products, which had to be recycled. Factories thus came to resemble laboratories.

Office buildings, in the meantime, found that gearing up for the electronic information revolution meant rediscovering their early 20th century roots, in the form of tall-ceilinged rooms arranged around an atrium. Despite the presence of this historical readymade, more research went into the design of offices than any other aspect of the built environment, from the ergonomic design of chairs and keyboards to the ability of the heating, lighting and airconditioning to cope with the loads put upon them by rooms full of personal computers, fax machines and printers. The profession of “space planner” was born to add a further layer of consultancy between architect and client. In many instances, the floorplates of the building would be determined by the space planner (who himself could be an architect, but for arcane reasons usually not the architect of the whole building). Since all big office buildings came to share the same American-derived steel-frame construction system, and since others would nearly always come to fit out the finished building, once again only the external elevations were left for the named architect to have any fun with. Even there, his design role came close to being usurped by globalized cladding manufacturers and their engineers, while his traditional supervisory role was routinely removed from him by large construction management companies. “Fast-tracking” became the buzzword as huge office developments sprang from the ground on accelerated contracts while they were still in the process of being designed. Meanwhile the stock of the services engineer rose considerably as that of the architect fell. Masters of the black art of cabling and ducting, they could upset an architect’s equilibrium as surely as a Chekhovian stove-mender could wreck domestic tranquillity with a strategically placed brick in a flue. To this day, architects who are perfectly willing to sing the praises of certain structural engineers can hardly ever find it in their hearts to do the same for their services brethren – unwilling, perhaps, to accept that, at least for a time, the office building became less like a piece of architecture, and much more like a very large piece of office equipment.

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The exposed-services cliche of early high-tech buildings represented an attempt to architecturalize, and thus reclaim, the increasingly large services element of the building’s budget. Research into the energy-efficient building – an immediate response to the oil crisis of the early 1970s – however ran ahead of available technology, which only began to seem capable of meeting the challenge of drastically reduced power consumption at the century’s end. It was not until the advent of “green” buildings, for offices, universities and the like, that a different language began to evolve: the architecture of wind towers and turbines, solar chimneys, cross-ventilation or tholos-like stack-effect atria, double-wall glazing, heat-sink heavy masonry or lightweight solar-powered skins. Architects became keen on “green” buildings not only for environmental reasons, but because the green agenda allowed them to reclaim some lost design territory, take control of a larger proportion of spending on a building. A revival of interest in the use of timber – both structurally and, more frequently, as a cladding material – can also be seen as having a darker purpose concealed beneath its “renewable” credentials. With timber cladding (indeed with the use of most “traditional” materials), the architect is once more in charge of design and out of the hands of the components manufacturers. Consequently a great deal of experimentation with trad materials, used modernistically, began to take place from the mid 1990s. The other side of the coin was the first generation of “green” high-tech buildings, where the use of a limited selection of suitable industrialized systems meant that a building by one architect could end up looking uncannily like a building by another, with such notable exceptions as the work of Hamzah and Yeang in Malaysia. This sameness may change as the industries develop more products. It is arguable – but perfectly possible – that the “green” movement signals the biggest shift in the appearance of architecture since the advent of heroic modernism in the 1920s. Then again, stylistic inertia is a powerful force in its own right, with architects often readier to adapt old forms than to embrace new ones. This skeuomorphic tendency is inevitable and ancient: thus the Greeks faithfully copied all the details of timber temples into the new technology of stone.

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All styles, however, do not suit all building types. Even though Rafael Moneo could conceive an airport terminal as a broadly traditional building, few others do. Those experimenting with sappy forest thinnings and turf as building materials, along with those recycling discarded products such as tyres and bottles, would not attempt to apply their approach to sports stadia or skyscrapers. A religious building, you might think, could be anywhere and be made of anything: but not so, it would seem that in most cases a certain opacity and solidity is required. Theatres and concert halls have acooustic and lighting demands that partly militate against lightweight architecture: the architecture of public spaces, in contrast, can be positively ethereal. Office buildings need natural light and often – as air-conditioning comes to be seen as an ecological evil – cross-ventilation: art galleries and museums, as much as shopping centres, must turn their backs on the world with windowless spaces, but can counterbalance those with their ‘low’ recreational elements – the cafes, the shops. Schools must contain a certain variety of spaces and carry out certain functions that tend to be expressed, by all architects everywhere, in a limited number of plan forms – relating the big communal space to cell-like teaching space, a form adopted increasingly by office space planners. Factories, however they are dressed up, must respond to the nature of the manufacturing process they shelter. Few homes look like offices, and even fewer offices look like homes. All this may seem truistic, but in the relentless categorising of architectural styles – as if style was something that floated above the function of the buildings – it tends to be forgotten that buildings in their unformed state, as a set of needs, have their own demands, and that those demands may well suit one approach rather than another.

At the start of this introduction, I mentioned those relatively rare but always stimulating moments of concurrence when briefly – before things go haywire again – it appears that all the needles on all the dials are pointing in the same direction. One of these moments is experienced more often, and registers more strongly than others. Across all building types – even skyscrapers – one encounters the remarkable and increasing international popularity of the architectural approach that started in the Decon parlour but which, now greatly diversified, can be dubbed “the displaced grid”. This is the skewing and overlaying of geometries in plan, section, or both, thus establishing tensions within what would conventionally be orthogonal structures, and which erupt sometimes violently but often beautifully into the expression of the building’s exterior. Unlike other more shallow stylistic moments, this one has the potential to transcend fashion since it cannot easily be merely skin deep. Nor can it be in any respect functionalist. It necessitates an architectural repossession of the entire building form, and thus has hovering over it the ghost of a manifesto. It is moving, as high-tech did before it, from the hands of high-art practitioners into the mainstream. At the new century’s start, if there is a dominant element emerging from the past 30 years of pluralism, this looks a more likely candidate than most.

Building typologies continue to shift their ground, wax and wane in relative importance, and to overlap. We have seen how retail mall design has wormed its way into cultural, transport and leisure architecture. Sports buildings, meanwhile – encouraged by non-stop television coverage – have become highly fashionable, to the extent that they are now symbols of civic pride in much the same way as the theatre or city hall, and not only for those cities hosting the Olympics. Health buildings, no longer such an important category, are subsumed into the civic realm, where the cult of the ‘signature bridge’ shows how architects, having lost ground in some areas, can reclaim it in others.

In the next century the evolution of the office workplace will continue to fascinate: just how long can the big corporate headquarters survive as a building type? Similarly, how necessary will a physically cohesive university campus prove to be in an on-line age? One-off houses and places of worship will remain a testing ground for ideas, and have not yet exhausted their capacity to surprise. Architects are still fascinated, as the Futurists were, by the dramatic possibilities of industry. The building type that can include all others, however, is only now moving to maturity after a century of development. The supertower – mixed-use, land-conserving, capable of meeting more and more of its own energy needs – will be the lodestone of the new century. Achieving the sustainable tower – which means the sustainable city – is the greatest challenge now facing architecture. If that can be got right, everything else will follow.