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High-Tech: another British thoroughbred

Peter Buchanan’s essay on the High-Tech, another British thoroughbred

Originally published in 1983

This issue is about British High-Tech- with some emphasis on the underacknowledged role of the structural engineer in shaping these thoroughbred buildings. Since the departure of Reyner Banham the AR has had a rather ambivalent attitude to High-Tech - impressed by the buildings as objects, but with reservations about them as humane architecture or urban model. Peter Buchanan’s essay traces the development of British High-Tech and assesses its relevance to architecture generally, concluding with a similar ambivalence. High-Tech is of course a term many architects reject. They dislike its largely American connotations as a mere aesthetic- introducing artifacts designed only for industrial use into home and office- and/or they resent the implication of being interested in technology alone, to the exclusion of other architectural concerns.

Nevertheless High-Tech remains a useful and apt label to characterise a particular approach to architecture in which high-technology inspires the imagery of the building as much as being used in its production and assembly process. A few British architects practice this approach with a degree of seductive finesse found nowhere else. This does not mean that these firms make more rational, economic, efficient or even innovative use of high-technology than architects elsewhere. Indeed Buckminster Fuller, Jean Prouve, Renzo Piano and Frei Otto and his collaborators arguably succeed in these terms better than anybody here. But the British place a priority on, and achieve, a visual magic and conviction (ironically often by eliminating on purely aesthetic grounds eminently suitable High-Tech forms and materials- such as plywood or cardboard) that for these others is more of an occasional and coincidental product of their approach.

The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. Ever since, a large section of its male population has been obsessed with machines and their performance, particularly with cars, trains and aeroplanes. The curious phenomenon of the train-spotter is still very common; and until recently Meccano sets and Eagle comic’s explanatory cut-aways of modern machines were part of most boys’ upbringing. Whether or not this has anything to do with the present prestige and pre-eminence of British High-Tech architecture is difficult to know.
It is easily argued, though, that High-Tech extends an intermittent British tradition of introducing rationalised industrial technology into building construction. Ignoring all the heavyweight concrete systems, which in any case were largely imports from the Continent, this tradition can be traced to the cast-iron prefabricated component construction of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace and Decimus Burton’s Palm House at Kew.

It continued in the great railway sheds and more modestly in the cast-and corrugated-iron homes in Australia and in the catalogue cast-iron balconies and balustrades that adorned buildings throughout the colonies as well as such booming cities as Manchester in the late nineteenth century. Britain’s best architecture between the two World Wars was built by the engineer Owen Williams. The fusion of efficient engineering unabashedly displayed in sculptural form with contrasting cool and minimally articulated industrial glazing, and the ingeniously imaginative interpretation of programme make a building such as the one for Boots at Beeston an exact and inspiring forerunner to the best of High-Tech.

After the Second World War lessons of design and organisation learnt during it were applied in the system-built schools movement initiated in Hertfordshire. A limited set of components allowed speed, economy and flexibility and an aesthetic of bright, cheerful interiors and crisply repetitive exteriors. Until recently similar ideals informed HighTech. Closing the circle, there are those who see today’s High-Tech shed sitting in countryside or industrial park as the modern equivalent to Paxton or Burton’s greenhouses in their parkland setting, and so quintessentially English.


What we now think of as the British High-Tech movement started in London’s architectural schools in the late 50s - nearly a decade before the first actual buildings appeared. First at the Regent Street Polytechnic and then at the Architectural Association, from which issued respectively the magazines Polygon and Archigram, a few student designs exploited modern materials such as grp, sprayed concrete, curved and suspended clear plastic, and pressed steel to reinvigorate architecture with a new formal vocabulary that was as much vitalist - suggestive of organic or animate life - as technological. This was the period of ‘Bowelism’ in which the tubes of modern servicing and circulation came to the surface of the building and of buildings wrapped in insect or armadillo-like carapaces. From these vitalist origins Archigram moved to more mechanistic forms and then to a space-age vision of an environment defined mainly by service networks into which shelter was plugged as capsules, or around which it was inflated or clipped together. These comic book visions were an exuberant celebration of technology as liberation

An immediate and influential antecedent to HighTech as built was perhaps Stirling & Gowan’s Leicester Engineering building with its building-as-machine Constructivist aesthetic which rendered even such a previously non-committal material as patent glazing powerfully expressive. (It is also possible to detect in this building, though heavily disciplined by geometry, a vitalism quite close to that of the student schemes of the time). Stirling’s display of ventilation equipment in the glazed roof of the Cambridge History faculty and his sleek grp skin for the Olivetti Training Centre at Haselmere, though not forerunners of High-Tech, must also have been influential. But even more important as stimuli to the development of High-Tech and its acceptance in Britain were the designs and polemic of Cedric Price and the prolific and popular writings of Reyner Banham. Price represents the opposite pole of HighTech, the antithesis to the vitalists. His emphasis is on ideas, not forms, which seldom get beyond the gridded or sketchily diagrammatic.


Yet many of the most immediate and fruitful sources of High-Tech are not British. Among the most important of these are: the designs and teachings of Buckminster Fuller - specially the concepts of ‘anticipatory design science’ and doing ‘more with less’ as the route to universal well-being on a planet of finite resources yet increasing population and expectations; Jean Prouve’s development of pressed metal components and ingenious curtain walls (such as the sinuously sleek one for Niemeyer’s Communist Party headquarters in Paris) and his cooperation with other architects on such proto-typically flexible buildings as the Maison du Peuple in Clichy (surely an inspiration for Piano & Rogers’ Pompidou Centre); Eero Saarinen’s General Motors building in Detroit, a potent symbol of technological control where the gasket glazing techniques of the car industry were first adapted to buildings; and Max Bill and Herbert Ohl’s teaching at mm, their research into flexible building systems and concept of produkiform.

Several key influences are Californian: Ezra Ehrenkrantz’s SCSD school systems in which spaceframed roofs packed with air-conditioning plant and ducts hovered over flexibly partitioned teaching areas; Charles Eames’ beautiful use of new materials and assembly processes in his furniture, and his house assembled from catalogue industrial components; and the open-plan steel and glass case-study houses illustrated in Arts & Architecture. Other, less important influences are perhaps the Japanese Metabolists and Yona Friedman’s megastructural cities. But two of the greatest influences are much earlier, from the heroic age of modern architecture. Bijvoet & Chareau’s Maison de Verre, particularly the design of the bathrooms and storage fitments (obviously an influence on the coffee exhibition centre by Michael Peters & Partners) and Le Corbusier’s comparisons in Towards a new architecture of architecture with the most advanced machines of the period-ships, cars and planes. Today’s equivalent, and equally influential on HighTech, is the super high-technology gadgetry of the space programme.

Another important antecedent to High-Tech was the increasing role of structural engineers, or structural forms, in shaping some well-known modern buildings like those by P. L. Nervi, Eduardo Torroja, Felix Candela and in Britain, as already mentioned, by Owen Williams. (The beautifully sculptural precast concrete systems by Mangiarotti & Morassutti might be an inspiration, while the lightweight structures by architect Renzo Piano certainly were, and continue to be, influential.) The role of the structural engineer has proved so important to British High-Tech that it could not have taken its present form without the creative input of imaginative engineers such as Frank Newby, Tony Hunt and the engineers from Ove Arup & Partners and Buro Happold. The Renault Centre, for instance, seems to be Foster’s and some of Ove Arup’s engineers’ riposte to Rogers’ and Peter Rice’s (also of Ove Arup) less muscular, but perhaps more conceptually elegant, Fleetguard factory Similarly Rogers’ Patscentre, Princeton, is clearly Peter Rice’s bold simplification of Tony Hunt’s beautifully elaborate structure for Rogers’ Inmos factory.

The first High-Tech buildings in Britain reflect mainly foreign influences. The seminal Reliance Control factory of 1966 by Team 4 (Norman and Wendy Foster, Richard and Su Rogers) looks very Craig Ellwood, while Foster’s subsequent projects again show clear inspiration from California, this time from the SCSD schools.

The first peculiarly British High-Tech building was . Farrell & Grimshaw’s bathroom tower plugged-in to a Paddington terrace in 1968 (and plugged-out again a year or so ago) which was clearly inspired by Archigram. In those early days High-Tech was still essentially anti-art, concerned with process and indeterminacy and promising jolly fun for all. Most typical of the times, and very influential too, were Cedric Price’s projects for the ‘Potteries think belt’ and ‘Fun Palace’ for Joan Littlewood (the latter concept eventually partially realised as the Interaction community centre 1977).

How things have changed … British High-Tech is now quite different. No longer anti-art but high art, the buildings strive to be not so much pragmatic and playful process as refined and elegant thoroughbreds. The turning points were Foster Associates’ Willis Faber Dumas and Piano & Rogers’ Pompidou Centre - the latter as realised if not as conceived. It is not only in horseflesh that the British prize good breeding, but in machines as well. Citroëns may be brilliantly ingenious engineering and beautiful in their own way but Aston Martins or Jaguars have the powerful sleek sensuality of the thoroughbred. Similarly Prouvé’s buildings are the conceptual epitome of High-Tech but have a Gallic anti-objectivity, a lack of material refinement that highlights conceptual idea at the expense of tactile and visual sensuality.

By contrast the buildings of Foster or Rogers, whatever their conceptual rigour, manage with their sleek finishes and beautifully sculpted structures and joints to invest mechanistic forms with a seductive sensuality and sense of vitalism that both recalls its origins in student High-Tech and evokes the thoroughbred. This inherent vitalism explains why High-Tech is absolutely convincing only with freestanding buildings and why for all its supposed concerns with larger issues of process it is more concerned with creating stunning individual.buildings (with buildings as objects) than with more general problems of architecture and urbanism.


It is in the thoroughbred quality that the essential Britishness of High-Tech lies - though the Heath Robinsonism of the amateur is also appreciated, as Peter Cook points out. Its appeal is to a nation for whom horse and technology substitute for the sensuality its culture otherwise lacks, and which in any case tends to prefer the natural or quasi-natural - to the artifices of culture. (Italian design is sensual too, but in its voluptuousness promises satisfactions less charged and lasting than those of the thoroughbred. Nevertheless a turbo-Ferrari-or a Porsche-is closer to British High-Tech than any car made here today.)

The image of the thoroughbred, coolly superior, refined and efficient, is what makes High-Tech so attractive to those organizational clients-often dealing in high-technology too-wishing to be perceived in similar terms. So whatever else it may have to offer as an approach, High-Tech is the perfect corporate style. And with two huge and prestigious new corporate headquaters now under construction, one for Lloyds in the City of London by Richard Rogers & Partners, the other for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank by Foster Associates, British High-Tech is riding the crest of a wave. Though the thoroughbred quality accounts for the public and corporate appeal of High-Tech it does not sufficiently explain its grip on the imaginations of its architect-protagonists. For them, its fascination is deeper than its formal seductions and rational justifications. It lies in a more compelling vision, which because it cannot really be substantiated, must be accounted myth.

The essential myth is that in technological control lies not just the thrust of human evolution but also the promise of liberation. Paradoxically control and freedom need not be contradictory. Indeed, a central quest in the most inspiring modern architecture was suggestively to define a set of minimal but appropriate constraints that would liberate opportunities for relatively unhampered activity. The High-Tech version of this quest imagines that if environmental conditions are suitably tempered and a sufficiently flexible physical framework is provided, then occupants are freed to do almost anything - provided they can manipulate and fine-tune the contraption as one would a racing yacht or sailplane.

This vision can be pushed to either extreme, of conditioning only or framework only. While HighTech’s expressed ideal would be a suitable balance, its most exciting works would tend to one extreme or the other, or both simultaneously. At one extreme the building evaporates completely leaving its occupants exposed in nature but protected from wind, rain and temperature differentials by fast-moving curtains of tempered air, with power and communications delivered, and marauders kept at bay by force fields. This arcadian extreme was brilliantly articulated, though not at quite this extreme, in Reyner Banham’s provocative 1965 essay ‘A home is not a house’. The other extreme is that of the infinitely flexible framework-which in its attempt to get out of the way of whatever might happen, tends to enormous clear spans (often achieved now by suspended structures).

The prime example is the Pompidou Centre where the original intention of awesome flexibility to absorb any cultural function has paradoxically resulted in a monument to only the idea of functionalism or perhaps flexibility, in which the huge, structural elements (some of which were once intended to move) impose their presence on whatever happens inside. And outside, instead of being a framework for moment-to-moment change on an electric billboard front, it has acquired a potently monumental rhetoric- again both mechanistic and vitalist (displaying service duct entrails and arm-like gerberettes).

So there are two further myths behind High-Tech; a sort of Arcadia in which architecture has evaporated in an enveloping nature, and a sort of Utopia in which architecture is pure facility, a huge flexible framework. (While Rogers’ buildings tend to the latter myth, those of Foster sometimes attempt to fuse the two as at IBM Cosham, to some degree at the Sainsbury Centre and even, in its slippery shyness, at Willis Faber Dumas.) But whichever subordinate myth they subscribe to, what freedom is offered by these costly contraptions of control? The freedom to fulfill Banham’s very ’60s High-Tech-hippie dream of picnicking naked in nature unworried by cold, rain or bugs-yet constrained from gambolling like fauns or satyrs because of the prying eyes of voyeurs? Or freedom to move furniture and partitions in the corporation’s dream of an open plan panopticon which squeezes maximum productivity from a workforce under constant surveillance?



Ultimately High-Tech’s promise of freedom and flexibility lies in limiting what is stable and fixed. Or more precisely the traditional fixes of spatial subdivision and functional designation (which inevitably imply something of human scale, culture and meaning) are reduced to mere fixes of structure and service run-implying an architecture of pure objectivity, stripped completely of symbol or meaning. (Of course, in reality High-Tech structure is very much shaped by an aesthetic of looking like functional and sophisticated engineering that is in itself highly symbolic. The Renault Centre would have been much easier to fabricate, and with probably little more steel, if in simple portals.)

High-Tech tends to evacuate all iconography, all human and cultural references from building-even entrances are notoriously difficult to find. Workflow planning replaces conventional (cultural) hierarchies, and human scale and function are designated by transient furniture, partitions and equipment. Indeed the buildings themselves are equipment rather than architecture which is why it is easier to imagine some sci-fi High-Tech city than to conceive of a High-Tech urbanism or civitas. So the freedom High-Tech promises is much more utopian than complete functional flexibility. HighTech is nothing less than modern architecture’s most extreme attempt to transcend history, to escape from culture and all its irrational rituals, its time-wasting formalities. The goal is buildings that do not so much shape - or even reflect - lifestyle as to be its willing servants, ever ready to be pushed around into different configurations and adjusted for optimal conditions.

Here life can be reinvented as if from scratch, rationalised and streamlined to maximal productivity. Even leisure is provided for with a cool efficiency in the pressurised ‘work hard, play hard’ protestant ethic of the American executive. But as we have learned from the failures of modern architecture, trying to escape history and traditional culture for an entirely ‘rationalised’ modern lifestyle is a shallowly conceived and deeply alienating project. Like culture, architecture cannot be reduced to rational purpose, for the most essential function of both is to compartmentalise life into manageable chunks of experience to give a reassuring psychic security and alleviate the need for a continuous defensive alertness. Then each chunk of experience can be savoured, explored and elaborated in reverie, scientific investigation and art. This is how we have created our marvellously complex world, our understanding of it and our sense of being at home in it.

Yet High-Tech, whether the vision is arcadian or utopian, tends to explode these compartments, and strip away the traditional articulations and boundaries of culture and architecture. We are left, like the pre-historic or post-apocalyptic nomads of Archigram, exposed and overwhelmed in a forest of trees or machines. It is a setting only for a certain kind of Modern Man - the psychically driven and compulsively busy kind whose industry and intensity of focus is sufficient both to tune - out its distractions and justify the vast amounts of energy being consumed. Psychologically this vision, if not naive, must surely be pathological.


It is not technology that is at fault but the idolatrous use of it. Technology offers much more sympathetic alternatives than today’s High-Tech if it is again properly seen as a means and not an end in itself. Throughout history mankind has tried to surround and control nature with technology. High-Tech climaxes this drive. But now with the miniaturization of technology, where a hand-held computer driven by tiny batteries can do man years of work in seconds and communications travel by airwaves, then this project can be inverted and technology can nestle into and be surrounded by nature.

Such an arcadian vision is beautifully captured by one of the few architects who in some of his designs uses technology to truly poetic ends-Emilio Ambasz. His designs for houses and agri-tech communities are gently enfolded in the earth using a technology no more sophisticated than that used for building suburban swimming pools, yet also powerfully evoke the rituals that are at the heart of any supportive culture. Technology if understood as a tool rather than in terms of products can easily co-exist with, and indeed revive, craft and local tradition. This is an aspect of technology being explored by Renzo Piano whose continuing emphasis on technology as process and craft continues the best of High-Tech’s original intentions.

If it is to Ambasz we must look for a poetic arcadia and the High-Tech furnishings of the workplace, then it is to Piano that we must look for the use of technology to preserve and enhance tradition and urbanity. And what to make of British High-Tech? Though an enterprise with serious limitations, it undoubtedly produces some of the most exciting buildings today. They are potent probes and research tools extending the boundaries of the possible. From this and from the sheer expertise with which they are accomplished all architects can learn much- including an appropriate sense of awe. For these buildings are like thoroughbred racing cars, whose technical breakthroughs will eventually be passed on to more versatile, homely - and yes, symbolically richer family saloons.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Terri Boake

    It is so nice to see this article resurrected! Someone ought to send it in to Wikepedia... I had just coincidentally glanced at their High Tech Architecture entry yesterday which attributes the movement to Santiago Calatrava! I always knew it was not a highly trusted source for information.

    Please keep adding articles to the archive. They are a valuable source of information!

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