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The Big Rethink Part 1: Towards a Complete Architecture

AR’s new campagn is launched with a critical broadside at the many “Starchitects” of the industry from Peter Buchanan

Constant change has been the backdrop to our lives. But now the nature of change has changed. Instead of, or besides, being subject to the forward propulsion of ‘progress’, we are in the throes of comprehensive systemic collapse. Along with other potent forces for change, this suggests these are times of major transition – times in which to rethink almost everything, including architecture and the design of the larger environment it is part of.

The initial unambiguous signs of this systemic collapse were, and continue to be, the many dimensions of the environmental crisis afflicting the seriously overstretched systems of our earth. These include the many forms of pollution (of air, water and soil), the degradation and loss of topsoil, and the diminishment of biodiversity to the point where the sixth great mass extinction of species appears unavoidable.

And, most urgently challenging of all, particularly for architects whose designs contribute so much to it, is global warming with all its many consequences in changed weather patterns, more extreme weather, climate- induced migration of humans, as well as other species and so on.

But, no matter how direly threatening are the consequences of global warming, no real progress is being made in effective global agreements to curb it. Yet it is also now apparent that global warming could be seen also as the symptomatic fever, the raised temperature of an ailing patient, heralding an even more widespread breakdown that requires even broader and more difficult-to-achieve measures and transformation.

The no-holds barred cityscape of Dubai transplants inappropriate and unsustainable Western models into the desert sands. Photo: Jochen Helle

The no-holds barred cityscape of Dubai transplants inappropriate and unsustainable Western models into the desert sands. Photo: Jochen Helle

Now a more immediate challenge to architects, to their individual professional survival at least rather than that of mankind, is the economic downturn. So far, as those economists who predicted it also forecast, it has not been resolved (nor will it be) by politicians’ attempts to save banks and vested interests rather than undertake radical restructuring, particularly of the financial sector. And so we are sliding into what promises to be the prolonged second phase of a double-dip recession, if not outright and lengthy depression.

In the US, political process is now so gridlocked as to seem impotent in the face of the urgent action required to fix the world’s largest individual economy; and the problems of the Eurozone, collectively an even larger economy, appear similarly intractable. Already, with the knock-on effects of this impasse only in their early stages, Britain has seen social stability rocked by rioting of the economically and educationally disadvantaged. 

These are just some of the interlinked forms of systemic breakdown, of which many of the causal links are not yet widely acknowledged. For instance, the role our dependency on fossil fuels plays not only in the environmental crisis but also the economic meltdown is insufficiently acknowledged – despite the original crash of 2008 starting within 60 days of oil reaching an unprecedented US$147 (£95) per barrel.

Without a radical restructuring of our energy and distribution systems, our having passed global Peak Oil (after which supplies decline as demand continues to rise) will inevitably wreak havoc with any economic recovery.

To assert that in the present economic circumstances we cannot afford to invest in green measures is to seriously misread our predicament and delay the transition to what has been called the Third Industrial Revolution,[i] the most promising road to economic recovery.

But as well as these immediate ‘sticks’ that should be provoking a radical rethink and restructuring, only a few of which have been mentioned here, there are more positive ‘carrots’ (such as the advent of the Third Industrial Revolution) that should also be drawing us forward. These will be elaborated in a future essay.

In the past, major downturns in architects’ workload, and the free time and incentives to reassess things that this afforded, resulted in major rethinking and reorientation in architecture. Hence abstractly Functionalist Modern architecture emerged after what was seen, in part, as the purging effects of the First World War.

But the abstract forms were not universally popular and weathered badly; so after the Second World War the palette of materials and forms used by architects became considerably enriched to enhance the appeal of Functionalist buildings. Now again, architecture will be compelled for many reasons to undergo major changes in the near future.

The AR does not subscribe to the apocalyptic predictions for 2012 that are currently so prevalent – the end of the Mayan calendar and so on. But this widespread discussion about the meaning of 2012 reinforces the notion that this is a timely moment to rethink architecture, both to better meet the challenges ahead and progress beyond current confusions, and also because so many now have the time and incentive to engage in such an exercise.

The AR will thus commit a part of each of this year’s issues to a cumulative and comprehensive rethinking of many aspects of architecture and urbanism, an exercise we encourage readers and others to participate in and that, where possible, will be connected with other features in each issue. Among other things, this rethink will draw on emerging areas of thought and theory that, although powerfully appropriate to architecture, have barely been applied to it. This will also set the discussion of sustainability, a defining concern of our times, in a larger context than heretofore.

Adventures in Brobdinagian geometry with Santiago Calatrava and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia. A sculpture bloated into a building. Photo: Inigo Bujedo Aguirre

Adventures in Brobdinagian geometry with Santiago Calatrava and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia. A sculpture bloated into a building. Photo: Inigo Bujedo Aguirre

But first it is useful to briefly take stock of the current architectural scene, which in many ways is lively, diverse and exciting. Yet, whereas until less than a century ago we seemed to have no problem in creating buildings people liked and that aggregated into satisfactory urban fabric, any candid assessment must accept that much, if not most, of what is being built today is pretty dismal and does little to heal the fragmentation of our cities wrought over the last century.

Architects repeat the same excuses for these failings: it is what the client insisted upon; it is all that the budget permitted; and in any case the horrors constitute that majority of buildings not by architects. None of this will wash: many of the worst buildings are by architects and good buildings have been delivered on tiny budgets to difficult clients. Besides, most of what we now see as exceptionally stupid design concepts – such as the ubiquitous, a-contextual, energy guzzling, air-conditioned glass box – were initiated by architects and once hailed as exemplifying Modernist ideals.

Jean Nouvel’s ‘Stealth Building’ at One New Change, an unpleasant glazed brown shopping palace without coherent form or civic dignity. Photo: Riddle Stagg

Jean Nouvel’s ‘Stealth Building’ at One New Change, an unpleasant glazed brown shopping palace without coherent form or civic dignity. Photo: Riddle Stagg

Generally, architects seem to have become incapable of producing the cheap, plain buildings with a quiet, unobtrusive dignity that were once commonplace, in part perhaps because we no longer build with local materials and local craftsmen.

Instead – partly because of the materials used and the extruded nature of modern construction and facade treatments – no amount of the desperate fad for jazzing up facades in syncopated ‘barcode’ patterns and other jittery rhythms, and jollying up with strong colours can conceal the tawdry, mean-spiritedness of the design and the flimsy thinness of much construction. (Even inoffensive seems beyond us.) These faults are largely the inevitable consequence of the rhetoric of cheap and ‘efficient’ utilitarianism promised by Modern architecture.

Nevertheless, some fine architecture is also being built, respectful of history, decorum and context, functioning well and socially vibrant, and designed and built with extraordinary technical expertise so as to last. These buildings have been made possible by a whole range of technical advances that include computer-assisted modes of analysis and calculation, component manufacture and the coordination of construction. But also architects have taken seriously the legitimate comments of conservation groups and Postmodern critics.

With these buildings, modern architecture could be said to have at last reached full maturity. Yet it must also be acknowledged that, for all their technical expertise and formal finesse, even the best of these buildings lack the compelling depths of the technically cruder works of those of a few masters of early modern architecture, for reasons that will become apparent in a later essay.   

For examples of these mature works, let us limit ourselves, from what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly large field to draw on, to London-based architects. Some of those whose work represents this complex maturity are Hopkins Architects, Edward Cullinan Architects and MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard.

Their buildings display an admirable breadth of design concerns, responding to history and context, and are aptly inventive (without being contrived) formally and technically as well as in social organisation and environmental strategies. (Hopkins and Cullinan are among the world leaders in green design.)

Their buildings are also well-detailed and constructed in a broad palette of materials, many ‘natural’, that help the buildings blend into their settings and weather gracefully. Importantly too, they are generally popular with users and public.

The Betty and Gordon Moor Library at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge. Edward Cullinan Architects were ahead of their time in designing in a centrally controlled natural ventilation and cooling system, which regulates the internal environme

The Betty and Gordon Moor Library at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge. Edward Cullinan Architects were ahead of their time in designing in a centrally controlled natural ventilation and cooling system, which regulates the internal environment for 24-hour use. Photo: Peter MacKinven

Many of today’s most accomplished buildings are by highly professional mainstream practices, perhaps partly because of the resources they can command, such as collaborating with the best consultants. These architects, not the avant-garde, constitute the leading edge of practice that other architects study and emulate.

Yet, in academe and the media, they tend not to get the recognition they deserve – or at least, not all of their works do. Four buildings by Foster + Partners, very different from each other, illustrate the range of what mature modern architecture can deliver.

The first two are well-known and, though they perform brilliantly, their exteriors do not relate particularly well to their contexts, nor can people relate to them – the usual problems with ‘blobs’ of which these are two of the few convincing examples.

But they are the products of great technical expertise and have fine interiors, the potential of one of which is not properly realised, while the other is used with an intensity and flair that way surpasses expectations. The other two, both of which merge with and enhance their contexts, are very little known and hardly published, perhaps in part because they are more restrained and recessive. Indeed, only an alert architect might notice them when passing by, and then only on studying them become aware of just how successful they are[ii].

 

Although it is a masterpiece of computer modelling and highly specialised environmental design, Foster + Partner’s 50 St Mary Axe does little to engage with its surrounding context. The innovative diagrid efficiently uses 20 per cent less steel than a con

Although it is a masterpiece of computer modelling and highly specialised environmental design, Foster + Partner’s 50 St Mary Axe does little to engage with its surrounding context. The innovative diagrid efficiently uses 20 per cent less steel than a conventional rectilinear block. Photo: Foster + Partners

In London, 30 St Mary Axe is a widely recognised icon that – as an a-contextual, standalone, glacially inscrutable building – still displays typical faults of modern architecture. Nor is it used as intended, as a naturally ventilated building with the air-conditioning off, as would be indicated by triangular glass panels projecting open from the spiralling bands of dark glass.

But that potential is there in a building that is in many ways a highly synthesised technical tour de force, an efficient machine that realises also that other modern dream of resembling an organism in its form and metabolism.

The diagrid structure is both very rigid and uses 20 per cent less steel than a conventional structure while the slippery, double-curved form of the external envelope avoids turbulence and downdrafts. It also encloses maximum internal volume for a set area of curtain wall; and it avoids the extremes of differential air pressure found at the corners of rectangular towers so this curtain wall can be more lightly engineered.

Yet it is the variations in air pressure around the building that drives the movement of air up or down the spiralling ‘atria’, so sucking air in through the floors of the petal-like, roughly rectangular areas of office space.

None of this could be achieved without the computer, used for structural calculation and modelling the various aspects of internal and external environmental conditions, as well as the parametric modelling to resolve the many complexities of the external envelope, including the twisting geometry of the planar sleeves cladding the sloping circular columns.

Updating drawings and coordinating those prepared by all the different disciplines involved – architects, engineers of various sorts, contractors and sub-contractor/manufacturers – could easily have introduced errors that would have undone such precision construction; so the same electronic models were shared and passed continuously between all these parties.

The computer also coordinated all aspects of construction and now constantly monitors and adjusts the building’s various systems for energy efficiency, security and so on. The result is a building of a technical sophistication that was inconceivable only a couple of decades ago.

The semi-public indoor street of the much-admired Sage Gateshead is overlooked by balconies, bars and cafés from above. Foster + Partners have successfully created a flexible and vibrant building that confidently looks over the Tyne River to Newcastle’s

The semi-public indoor street of the much-admired Sage Gateshead is overlooked by balconies, bars and cafés from above. Foster + Partners have successfully created a flexible and vibrant building that confidently looks over the Tyne River to Newcastle’s City Centre. Photo: Foster + Partners

Although the curving carapace of The Sage Gateshead, a concert hall and music education complex, sets up fortuitous formal echoes with the curves of the bridges across the Tyne, the building sits somewhat uncomfortably in context when seen from directly across the river.

This is partly because the original concept of the concourse-foyer being part of a forcefully expressed route extending through the building and sloping down to meet the riverside by the Baltic Exchange got lost during all the complexities of design development.

But once inside, the building is a triumph, both because of its clever organisation and the brilliant way in which its managers and users make the most of all its designed-in potential. It is another technically sophisticated building, particularly in its adjustable acoustic arrangements.

But more remarkable here is the vibrancy of the life within the building, which changes in mood and in the range of ongoing activities, and the interactions between these, throughout the day from early morning to late at night.

Right from the start, the building was conceived of as bringing together a range of differing kinds of music, their performers and audiences, together with serious music students who use the rehearsal rooms and recording studios on the lower ground level, and amateur performers and enthusiasts of all ages who make use of all parts of the buildings, in a way that provokes lively intermingling and mutual appreciation between all of them.

Much of this happens in the concourse-foyer, a sort of indoor street that extends across the riverside front of the building between the entrances on the two side ends and swells into a piazza-like café at its midpoint. This concourse is overlooked by galleries and bars serving the various levels of the halls whose stalls are a level up above its floor, the audience-spectators on the galleries thus on show to further animate the space. The educational facilities below the concourse connect to it aurally via a gap along to riverside glazing, so at times the singing of choir rehearsals fills the volume above.

The concourse is an example of a recurrent theme in some of Foster’s work, the ‘urban room’. This encapsulates the identity and spirit of the institution the building houses, and is where the public meet as participating equals with the specialist users of the building, so taking possession of it as their own.

Here this is all played out against the backdrop of the Tyne below and Newcastle rising on its other bank. Any architect suffering doubts about architecture’s capacity to enhance life and create the most flexibly functional yet intensely convivial of settings should spend a day in the building.

The undulating shell of the Sage Gateshead pays suitable homage to the historic Tyne bridges’ covered iron trusses. Photo: Foster + Partners

The undulating shell of the Sage Gateshead pays suitable homage to the historic Tyne bridges’ covered iron trusses. Photo: Foster + Partners

Watching and experiencing both the great diversity of activities that happen during the day and the interplay between them can only inspire a renewed faith.

Yet the Sage was built to a tight budget; to achieve the highest standards possible in the halls, money was not scrimped there; but elsewhere detailing is minimal and surfaces cheap while the whole is enveloped in a shrink-wrapped steel roof – the most frugal of solutions.

The Gerling Ring in Cologne is a large speculative, mixed-use development, understatedly designed for long-term flexibility in a future of unpredictable demand. The same structural section is deployed throughout the complex for both offices and housing, so allowing for future switches of use. Yet the complex fits surprisingly unobtrusively into its setting while also intensifying urban life around it.

This being Germany, it is also a naturally ventilated, low-energy building with thermal inertia provided by the exposed pre-cast concrete structure, particularly the wavy ceiling soffit.

The standard section is extruded as a pair of mid-rise slabs along the long sides of the site, between which are three towers in which hidden parts of the structural section are modified slightly to permit clear spans across the central court. Using a standard kit of parts, each façade is then glazed and fitted with sun-control louvres according to function, solar orientation and external noise levels.

The elevations facing a busy street to the west and an existing small square that was enlarged to the south, with outdoor tables for a new café below one of the towers, have an extra layer of glass outside the conventional windows. Fresh air is admitted into the cavity between the layers of glazing, and exhausted from it, via a band of louvres and noise-attenuating devices at each floor slab level.

In the west-facing cavity are vertical pivoting louvres while those in the south-facing cavity pivot horizontally. Black on one side and white on the other, all louvres can be set not only to block direct sun but also to reflect or absorb heat.

Adjusted and readjusted by those working behind them, louvres set at differing angles and with contrasting tones facing outwards impart to the elevations a liveliness missing in most fully glazed facades. Elevations shaded by overlooking the quiet central courts have conventional opening windows with Venetian blinds.

The housing along the quiet street to the east has a more complex elevational treatment that includes inward opening French windows, sliding shade screens of wood louvres and fixed grilles of steel tubes in front of windows that can be safely left open for night-time ventilation and heat purging. A few glazed bays project forward to mark the entrances to the housing and mirror very similar bays across the street.

Similarly well-handled is the street level where the glazing to shops and entrances to offices and housing is set back to expose the precast columns that rhythmically punctuate the pavement. Projecting from the columns – and together with them providing sheltering, pedestrian-friendly scale – is a canopy that steps up to mark the office entrances.

For a big building, it is exceptionally hospitable to the passer-by while the shops and cafés at this level – together with the increased density of workers and residents, and the people on the generous balconies at the ends of the mid-rise slabs – all enliven the neighbourhood.

Of course, not all Foster buildings achieve these standards. But other big name architects are inconsistent too, as evidenced by a clutch of awful buildings recently inflicted on London by ‘starchitects’, so offering further immediate concrete evidence of the need to rethink architecture.

For instance, Renzo Piano is a fine architect whose buildings in America are mostly very good. But the same cannot be said for the trio under construction or recently completed in London; these are contextually insensitive, not least in being vastly over-scaled and conceptually lazy.

Whatever the real reasons for the contrasts in quality between the buildings in the US and London, it is difficult not to get the impression that American clients had approached a good architect in the expectation of ‘doing the right thing’. And, by contrast, cynical British developers had said: ‘You are a star: prove it by getting away with something outrageous’. The result is buildings that speak of greed more than civic values, although two of them make significant contributions to the public realm.

The Central St Giles mixed-use complex appears too big for its setting, but conforms to the intention of planners to increase the density of the area. What offends many are the garishly coloured facades in what looks like plastic (actually glazed ceramic) that read as a patronising gesture to jolly up the excessive bulk. But what is more dismaying to those who know Piano’s work is how devices used with better-considered purpose elsewhere have here been reduced to a seemingly unthinking repertoire as he recycles and debases these devices.

Here the coloured facades that extend beyond what they enclose are the pointless vestige of the independent outer glass skin that on earlier buildings extended outwards and upwards in a poetic gesture that asserted the (semi) independence of this layer and suggested a relationship with sky and wind and other aspects of context.

Similarly, other Piano schemes create a new piazza that is positively shaped to expand and convey the essential spirit of the scheme; here it is mere residual space between perimeter blocks. This sort of conceptual laziness extends through the St Giles and the other London buildings by Piano.

Designed by Renzo PIano, London Bridge Tower, nicknamed the Shard, was part of a mayoral drive to give London a ‘world-class’ city skyline. But though it extols its mixed-use credentials and will improve the public realm, it is an incontrovertibly overbea

Designed by Renzo PIano, London Bridge Tower, nicknamed the Shard, was part of a mayoral drive to give London a ‘world-class’ city skyline. But though it extols its mixed-use credentials and will improve the public realm, it is an incontrovertibly overbearing presence in the London streetscape. Photo: Andy Stagg

London Bridge Tower, commonly called the Shard (of Glass), is in part a consequence of ex-mayor Ken Livingstone’s notion that London needs a ‘sky line’ to be a credible world city, a preposterous idea urged upon him by architects anticipating the resultant commissions.

Although the scheme will result in considerable improvements to the public realm, such as an enlarged bus station at its base, and will include publically accessible facilities high up within it, it is much too tall and big for its setting – and ugly also. It and all the people who will work and reside in it threaten to overwhelm the small scale and variety of the surrounding historic areas, one of the most characterful in London.

And now UNESCO threatens to repeal World Heritage status of the Tower of London because of the Shard’s looming presence across the Thames. These problems will be brutally compounded by London Bridge House, another behemoth (though less tall) that will overpower Borough High Street and Southwark Cathedral, to which it shows no deference at all.

Across the street from the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral, and contrasting with the curved apse and sculpted detail, all in Portland stone, is One New Change. It is a new shopping complex by Jean Nouvel, its facetted forms in brown glass detailed with an insouciance that suggests the architect could not care less about the rigours of construction.

The architect aptly describes it as a ‘stealth’ building, its forms the mute product of the various constraints of light and viewing angles that apply to the site. Its slimy, slippery shapelessness has also led to it being called, equally aptly, the Turd, its form squeezed by the rectum of these same constraints.

But the negative presence of a stealth building is utterly inappropriate to a site of such civic importance. Here the role of architecture should be not to skulk away but to stand up, assert its presence and take its place in the world and enter into dignified dialogue with its neighbours.

The most expensive apartments in the world at Hyde Park One. Here, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners redefine the London mansion block for stealth wealth. Photo: James Winspear

The most expensive apartments in the world at Hyde Park One. Here, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners redefine the London mansion block for stealth wealth. Photo: James Winspear

A similar although less extreme problem with presence is found with One Hyde Park by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners: it is simultaneously overbearing yet lacking in appropriate presence. This seems to be the most reviled new building in London, and not only because its mind-bogglingly expensive apartments, mostly owned for tax-avoidance purposes by offshore trusts, symbolise the pathologies of the current world with its obscene polarisations of wealth and poverty.

It is a building that only takes from its setting and gives nothing back, not forming a proper edge to the park or addressing it in a suitably civic manner, but instead sucking views of it deep into itself. It too is a negative presence, completely lacking in the architectural good manners that should be displayed on such a key site; again the lack of awareness of such niceties in even a high-profile architect accentuates the urgency of our rethink.  Also swaggeringly insensitive is NEO Bankside, new housing blocks by the same practice next to the Tate Modern.

NEO Bankside apartments by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; luxury living by the Tate Modern, but cut off from its surroundings. Photo: Edmund Sumner

NEO Bankside apartments by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; luxury living by the Tate Modern, but cut off from its surroundings. Photo: Edmund Sumner

Richard Rogers, as do some other architects, dismisses criticisms of his work as fuelled by nostalgia. But few architects’ work is as nostalgic as his, in his case nostalgic for a future – one that fetishises an old industrial technology – that nobody else believes in anymore. Besides, Modern architects missed something important in rejecting unease about their buildings as nostalgia.

The word derives from the Greek, nostos (a return home), and there are ample reasons why people do not feel at home in Modern architecture. These need to be addressed to achieve sustainability, which will only be possible when we cease to be alienated from the world and feel at home in it again.

Of the stars who have built in London recently it is, perhaps surprisingly, only Rem Koolhaas/OMA who emerges with any credit. The new headquarters for Rothschild Bank might be somewhat quirky but at least it is reticent and refined. So how did we get into this situation where even big names fail to produce decent architecture?

In London, part (but only a small part) of the problem must lie with Britain’s reactive rather than proactive planning system. With the exception of such things as protecting specific views, planners usually offer little or no initial guidance to the architect but instead respond to design proposals and negotiate changes to them.

And even then, after weeks of this, there is no guarantee how members of the planning committee will respond. It is a stupid and wasteful system that leads to arbitrary judgements of approval or non-approval (how did some of these schemes, for instance, get approved?) and favours the legal profession and the rich who can employ it to make appeals against these judgements.

But at least in London these buildings (except the Rem Koolhaas/OMA one) are generally acknowledged by architects to be, at best, hugely problematic. Besides, these buildings have their equivalents around the globe where much other current architecture may be less nasty but more nonsensical.

An obvious extreme are all those museums and galleries that seem to try and defy exhibiting in them because the walls slope (typical of Daniel Libeskind’s museums) and/or are curved, the spaces are too big and/or wrongly proportioned, the lighting systems are overwhelmingly assertive and it is impossible to create a coherent curatorial sequence.

A mistake here is that the curators and their architects want to create compelling artworks rather than mere architecture; but artworks compete with the art and cities cannot be made up of individual artworks each clamouring for attention – the core problem of the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron.

Another prevalent extreme is in part art-influenced, minimalism, which comes in various sorts, ranging from that which emphasises the forceful presence of materials to that which seeks an evanescent dematerialisation. But much, if not nearly all, of it highlights a characteristic of Modern and contemporary architecture that increasing numbers of writers and architects are troubled by, a creepy deadness as found in some of the works of David Chipperfield or SANAA.

SANAA’s arts centre in the Dutch satellite town of Almere fetishises a much imitated glacial imperviousness that has become curiously emblematic of many Japanese architects. Photo: Edmund Sumner

SANAA’s arts centre in the Dutch satellite town of Almere fetishises a much imitated glacial imperviousness that has become curiously emblematic of many Japanese architects. Photo: Edmund Sumner

Another extreme are the ‘Parametricist’ blobs, once bodged together but now increasingly well made, that cannot define urban space nor relate to other buildings, and to which we cannot relate. And these are only the problems with the exteriors.

There is also the ridiculous fashion for icons, again mostly blobs realised with parametric software, which are sculpturally assertive but signify nothing but the vanities of self-expression and the vacuous pursuit of novelty. And then there are the preposterously pretentious works illustrating some spurious theoretical position, most egregious and perniciously influential of all being the works of Peter Eisenman. How does he continue to get away with it? Are people really that gullible, devoid of common sense and visually undiscriminating?

Common to all these architectural approaches is that the buildings fail miserably in urban terms. Yet surely one of the most fundamental requirements of architecture is that it aggregate into satisfactory urban fabric? But these buildings relate neither to their neighbours, nor define and articulate public space.

Nor can they create a sense of place. Conceived of as isolated object-buildings oblivious of all around them, they exacerbate one of the most pathological aspects of Modern architecture – ‘sunset effects’, all of them, and irrelevant to the future.

And yet behind most problematic current trends, of which only extremes have been mentioned, is both the collapse of the simple certainties of Modern architecture, with its reductive concerns and criteria, and the advent of Postmodernity, the relativist mode of thought rather than the architectural style.

Postmodernity offered a useful critique of modernity and has melted the hegemony of simplistic Modernist thinking. But it has its own serious inadequacies and particularly in academe has become a major obstacle to the embrace of useful new modes of thought, including those arising from science (‘just another narrative’) and the inclusive big picture visions arising from cosmology, evolution, ecology and so on – all of them Grand Narratives rejected by Postmodern thinkers.

In architecture, Postmodernism’s essential relativism (one person’s view is as interesting and as valuable as another’s), and so its aversion to discriminatory judgement, has helped spawn and legitimate the pluralism so evident in the current architectural scene.

Modern architecture was always more pluralist than the caricature of it some Postmodernists paint and subsumed a wide variety of approaches and personal styles. Yet pluralism now is also a mask of confusion and chaos, the inability to discriminate and prioritise (which smacks of hierarchy, another Postmodern taboo), recognising one approach as more relevant than another.

Compounding this is the spreading influence of academic Postmodern theory that has crippled, if not largely killed, criticism: theory tends to weave a web of obfuscatory verbiage spinning away from a subject while criticism is concerned with a penetrating engagement and discernment.

Making matters yet worse is the pursuit by academe and the media of the new and up-and- coming. This inflames the pursuit of spurious novelty, the too quick adoption of a stylistic brand and so the inability to slowly develop and mature.

Combined with the widespread lack of clarity about what is an architectural approach relevant to the future, or even on the criteria of quality and lasting value, it is little wonder that many architects decide instead to engage in the frivolities of form and theory and pursue momentary fame and fortune. Yet the advent of the computer might be bringing matters to a head.

Now that it is possible to conceive of and make buildings and components of any form we are provoked to ask the question as to which forms are really pertinent to architecture and, particularly, the many ways people relate to it – a fundamental question the Parametricists, among others, still ignore.

The west elevation of MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard’s New Court extension to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, using the same dark grey brick as the original college buildings. Photo: David Borland

The west elevation of MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard’s New Court extension to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, using the same dark grey brick as the original college buildings. Photo: David Borland

Thoughtful architects tend to be dismayed by the confused state, pretentious posturing and irrelevance of much of the current architectural scene and architectural education. They recognise that many of the problems seem to have started with the arrival of Postmodernism and may have something to do with it. 

They are also aware that we face urgent and near-overwhelming problems ranging from the environmental crisis to housing the masses flooding into the cities of the developing world – issues Postmodern thinking is unsuited to dealing with.

Many of these architects have welcomed the quest for sustainability as a way of returning dignity and serious purpose to architecture – as the end of Postmodernity and a return to modernity. But the quest for sustainability must bring an end to modernity as well as to Postmodernity.

Much very good architecture is being produced in the pursuit of the green agenda. But the common flaw in this work is that it focuses on objective issues such as ecology and technology; it does not yet give due emphasis to the subjective dimensions of psychology and culture.

The conceptual thinking still conforms to the paradigm of modernity. But as Einstein pointed out, a problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking as created it. Unsustainability is utterly endemic to modernity.

Today’s green architecture, the accomplishments of which are immensely admirable and hugely valuable as research, is only making things less unsustainable. To approach true sustainability, the subject of the next few essays, will involve the embrace of very different modes of thought, and even of notions of reality.



[i] Rifkin, Jeremy, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Rifkin argues that industrial revolutions come from the confluence of new energy and new communication technologies. Thus the first industrial revolution came about with steam power and steam powered printing of mass media. The second industrial revolution was the product of oil and electronic communications. The third industrial revolution is being brought about by distributed green energy and the internet.

[ii] For more detailed illustration and discussion of these buildings than the brief summaries here see the essays by Buchanan, Peter in the relevant volumes of the Foster: Works series, Prestel Publishing

Readers' comments (9)

  • At last! An absolutely brilliantly piece of writing, bravely and fiercely independent. This is what we want from our journals! I hope that this heralds an exciting year for a new trail blazing AR, independent as is possible, and speaking for humanity, especially the rising tide of protest from the younger generations, and for the health of the planet. Lots more of this kind of writing please!

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  • Congratulations to Peter Buchanan and AR for a brilliant and challenging piece of work. Among the many provocative points made, the assertion that the best work today is coming not from "starchitects" but rather from "highly professional mainstream practices" strikes me as one of the most original insights of the article. I look forward with relish to the next installment.

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  • Fantastic to start the new year with such a significant article. Without cultural evolution we are stuck in the pastiche world of match existing twiddle dee and twiddle dumb pseudo vernacular, funky facades and solar gadgetry blowing hot air. The public sector which commissions 40% of the work and gives consent to the rest needs to be empowered and able to think more boldly about our cities and towns. We are more worried about the look of things rather than human welfare. Britain has some of the world's leading expertise and it is about time there was a cultural shift in our planning departments to use this talent so that we can evolve out of our heritage not into it.

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  • A wonderful piece that hits the nail firmly on the head. It really is all about people and places and less about statements and ego. I look forward to the death of the 'starchitect' and remainder of this series of essays.

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  • Glad to read something reasonable about the future of architecture. For us lesser mortals, architecture is relatively rarely about "making context", and much more about interpreting and enriching context. This also is becoming increasingly difficult, with tight budgets and increasingly constraining regulation which rightly puts energy efficiency at the forefront of the debate.

    One issue though that needs clearly highlighting; there is not enough done about whole cost building rather than capital cost thinking. Maybe governments need to legislate more. In social housing, increased energy efficiency only interests the organisations insofar as the renters have less financial pressure on them from heating costs and so are more likely to pay on time.

    Construction financing that took into account the lifecycle cost reduction through improved performance seems like a great way to relaunch the economy and start to really deal with global warming.

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  • Great article. You might add another fashionable crime - the fetishisation of materials. So many projects seem to make the distinctiveness of the facade their prime architectural idea whilst leaving the interiors impoverished both conceptually and materially. One example of many that stands out in this regard is the Ravensbourne College in Greenwich by Foreign Office Architects. A spartan and uninspiring interior wrapped in a lavish but ill fitting cloak of recondite geometrical pattern making.

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  • Thank you. Thank you. At last, a recognition of much that is wrong with our buildings and the damage that many do to historic cities, world-wide. I would like to suggest that it is time to revisit Pevsner's (1941) seminal question "why is Lincoln Cathedral a work of Architecture and a bicycle shed a mere building. The difference, I suggest, is that the former evokes an aesthetic emotion. New findings on the brain promise that emotions are evolutionary survival mechanisms. The field is rich for an explanatory model.

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  • Sympathetic to the direction here, but also frustrated because to me it promises more and I'm not sure there's really much new here.

    I'd add that a more careful review would have picked up that at one point we are promised a discussion of four Foster buildings, two of which are well known and two less so. Stupidly we get pictures of the two well known buildings, but not of the third, and there's no further mention of the fourth.

    It adds to the sense that this is half-baked.

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  • We are finally realizing that we do indeed live within the space we occupy. A building is a mini world, does this mini world contribute to the whole or does it take or intrude? We are beginning to understand the connective reality of the environment about us, allowing to some degree a surrender of our desire of control; architecture as a statement of environmental control, hence control of nature and until we come to realize our architecture is based more on fear than practicality we will continue to build buildings that address philosophical perspectives rather than complete utilization of the space they occupy. The question is what sort of architectural dialog are we leaving for the generations to come...

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