What are the major global trends in architecture today, and what does this tell us about society?

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30 November
15:18
13 January
13:41

Firstly, these are very broad questions, so I’ll define some parameters, then I’ll outline a couple of scenarios and finally I’ll give you my opinion.

I’m going to assume when you ask about “trends in architecture” that we are talking about the design of buildings. That might sound self-evident, but architecture has always been concerned with more than just buildings. For example, Vitruvius’ ten books on architecture, De Architectura, are as concerned with geometry, the specification of materials, engineering and machines as with temples and types of houses. Or, considered from a different perspective, what is the difference between ‘mere’ building and architecture?

"As Building Design’s annual Carbuncle Cup demonstrates, even if an architect has designed a building, it doesn't guarantee that the result is architecture!"

Although it is a criminal offence in the UK to call yourself an architect if you are not registered, or even to use the initials RIBA, RIAS or RSUA after your name, there is no requirement in the UK for a registered architect to be involved with a building at any stage. Yet, as Building Design’s annual Carbuncle Cup demonstrates, even if an architect has designed a building, that does not guarantee the result is architecture!

  • Plymouth's Drake Circus shopping centre, winner of the inaugural Building Design Carbuncle Cup for 'crimes against architecture'

I’m going to go further, and suppose you are actually asking about “style”, although I personally think architectural styles are less about architecture and more about the retrospective classifications of critics, historians and curators trying to tidy up a messy reality as a neat story. That is not to say, however, that architects have not also promoted their ideas as, affiliations to, or rejection of, ‘movements’. Philip Johnson’s MOMA exhibitions were the architectural equivalent of Hogwarts' sorting hat. The International Style in 1932 and Deconstructivism in 1988, architectural styles were conjured out of just their proximity in these displays and architects were judged in or out of the gang.

Charles Jencks’ famous horizontal lava-lamp of a diagram, which he reworked between 1973 and 2000, attempted to show architects, movements and concepts cross-fertilising, rather than competing and superseding each other. Although Jencks’ diagram suggests there are tears in this fabric for periods of time, essentially there is still a linear progression, if not a beginning or end point. The strands that make up the continuities of architectural themes he defines as “logical”, “idealist”, “self-conscious”, “intuitive”, “activist” and the “unself-conscious 80% of environment”.

"It would not be unreasonable to say Deconstructivism was the logical conclusion of Post-Modernism, when both the abstract and expressionist strands of 20th Century modernism were welcomed into the dressing-up box."

Jencks’ genealogy is useful – up to a point – not least because of the arguments it provokes, and as a snapshot of how styles or movements were perceived by him at particular times. For instance, Brutalism is shown morphing into Post-Modernism, rather than Po-Mo being a rejection of abstraction and modernism, whereas Deconstructivism is shown as emerging separately and in parallel with Po-Mo during the mid-1980s. However, in retrospect, I think it would not be unreasonable to say Deconstructivism was the logical conclusion of Post-Modernism, when both the abstract and expressionist strands of 20th Century modernism were welcomed into the dressing-up box.

  • Frank Gehry's deconstructivist Building 32 (aka the Ray and Maria Stata Center) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

If you want to forecast future trends, I think you need to look at what is fashionable in Schools of Architecture. Architectural education is based on precedent and what Jencks’ diagram does not show, is the two-generational cycle of fashion. When considered on a timescale of decades, it should not be surprising that Brutalism is belatedly being re-evaluated and appreciated by a new generation, even as the original examples are being demolished, or that Post-Modernist buildings now find themselves under threat.

Just as Brutalism and Post-Modernism were both attempts to reconcile international modernism to regional differences, and both professed their moral superiority to one another through their “ugly and ordinary” aesthetic, so there has been a reaction against the international signature-style 'Starchitects' of the 1990s and 2000s, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, who were all featured in the MOMA Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition. In the run up to the Millennium, the “Bilbao Effect”, the term used to describe the regenerative impact of landing a major cultural institution – the Guggenheim Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry, which opened in 1997 – into a formerly industrial city could, for a time, sprinkle the fairy dust of the service and tourism economy into areas of social and economic decline.

"Technologies such as 3D printing have been over-hyped in a way redolent of the introduction of robotics into factories in the 1960s, but have the potential for massively reducing wasted materials in the construction industry."

As the pendulum has swung back towards the regional rather than the international, a concern for architecture that is representative of the spirit of its place, the Genius Loci, rather than the genius of its designer, has brought about a resurgence of interest in the physical qualities of the materials and how they are put together. Words like “honesty” and “craft” are applied to brickwork, but not glass curtain-walling. Technologies such as 3D printing have been over-hyped in a way redolent of the introduction of robotics into factories in the 1960s, but have the potential for massively reducing wasted materials in the construction industry and for making bespoke and complex buildings affordably.

Above all, there is an aspiration to design buildings which have the feeling of mass, plasticity of form and the marks of making which have previously only been achieved in reinforced concrete. Improved technologies and chemical engineering mean that concrete can now be made resilient to the effects of weathering. Even existing buildings can be treated retrospectively.

Currently there is a perception that both the embodied energy in the production of concrete buildings and the need to minimise the energy consumed in maintaining them at a habitable temperature makes a full-on Brutalist revival unlikely, even if there are key examples of Contemporary-Brut, like Grafton Architect’s award-winning UTEC Building, Lima.

However, commercial buildings are still largely constructed of concrete; they have just been hiding it under a decorative skin. Nano-technologies, like carbon-capture concrete which might offset the carbon cost of producing concrete, could radically alter the sustainable balance of concrete buildings and bring concrete back to the facade. After all, few people object to infrastructure projects showing their concrete bridges and retaining walls.

If we concentrate on styles, we also miss the implicit, but critical, economic and political influences on architecture. In Anglo-Saxon countries, since neo-liberalism replaced social democracy as the common ground of mainstream politics in the 1980s, from Margaret Thatcher, who subscribed to George Bernard Shaw’s description of professions as a “conspiracy against the laity”, to Michael Gove’s Brexit rejection of all expert opinion, traditional professions have been under attack from politicians.

"Architects themselves have been all too willing to embrace cut-throat competition whilst surrendering their central position in the construction industry to an army of consultants with a better grasp of spreadsheets."

While solicitors and lawyers have benefited hugely from the litigation ushered in by the neo-liberal experiment, created by the 'rights not responsibilities' society and the petty officiousness of the state ceding functions to for-profit companies and busybodies with a clipboard and a Hi-Viz vest, architects have been a whipping boy, easy to accuse of monopoly practices and arrogance. Architects themselves have been all too willing to embrace cut-throat competition whilst surrendering their central position in the construction industry to an army of consultants with a better grasp of spreadsheets.

At the same time, there has been an academizing and professionalization of almost all white-collar activities, with qualifications replacing experience and higher education portrayed as a means to a better paid job, rather than a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The doomsday scenario for architecture as a profession is that it reverts to being a hobby for the wealthy – or becomes little more than the title of ‘exterior decorators’. On the other hand, despite the length of qualification, architecture remains a competitive and popular degree subject and, in countries with emerging economies, the profession of architecture is still perceived as a means to personal social mobility and local economic and environmental improvement.

Some of my Masters students are currently working on a project which includes cultural exchanges with students in Shanghai, China. This is part of an international student project organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) called PolyArk IV. The original PolyArk project was devised by the late architect, Cedric Price, as a radical disruption to the master and pupil model of architectural education inherited from the Beaux Arts and apprenticeships.

The first PolyArk involved a group of Architectural Association students converting a double-decker bus and touring the country picking up and dropping off architecture students along the way until the bus broke down. The current incarnation of PolyArk relies on digital networks for virtual travel, collaboration and exchange. This project is only just beginning, but already suggests that the architecture students in China are also trying to reconcile Chinese history and sensibility with the breath-taking rate of development and the ubiquity of ‘western’ culture.

Shortly before Christmas I was invited to visit a School of Architecture in Lima, Peru. The majority of students’ work was deliberately seeking a Peruvian sensibility based in the landscape, in the familiar and ordinary, trying to incorporate and value their built history and to design buildings which were environmentally responsive. The social and economic conditions in Lima, in Shanghai and in Newcastle upon Tyne could not be more different. The sensibilities with which the students are approaching these are culturally-specific. But there feels a commonality of intent, which values the local over the international. Critically though, this is not nostalgic or isolationist, but an attempt to enrich the quality of the encounter and experience.

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