Designing the unbuildable has had its day. But what’s next?

Robert Adam

The new year is the traditional time to look forward.  This new year will also be remembered as the beginning of the end of the worst global downturn since the Depression. Architecture, like everything else, follows the big social, political and economic trends and big changes in those mean big changes in architecture. But architecture is a slow-moving beast. Not only are architects, for all their purported radicalism, conservative but buildings take a long time to get from concept to completion. It would take decades to shift the dyed-in-the-wool modernism that by now has been part of the education of all practising architects. And most of the major buildings completed in the last five years were commissioned in the heady days of the boom. 

There are some signs of change. While praising Zaha Hadid had become a radical credential, the worm began to turn with her Serpentine Pavilion, perceptively called by Observer critic Rowan Moore “an instant period piece”. In the meantime, Valencia is suing Santiago Calatrava because his eccentric giant armadillos are falling to bits, Will Alsop’s ironically named “The Public” has closed its doors, and with wonderful symbolic resonance Wolf Prix’s Frankfurt European Central Bank tower is three years late and three times over budget. While architects think they’re beyond fashion, of course they’re not and the days of the weird and unbuildable has to come to an end some time, and this may be the time. It will, however, be slow in coming and expect more arrogant blasts from the fading fashionistas of the last architectural season.


Architects had to sell their souls and their designs with bizarre metaphors – buildings like gas flames in Russia or a desert rose in Qatar

This is the past but where do we look for the future? If the principle that architecture follows social, political and economic trends – slowly – this is where we should look for clues.

In 2008 an unprecedented 18-years of economic growth came to a devastating end. This growth was fuelled by the entry of China, India and Russia into the world economy, otherwise known as globalisation. This was a period of rampant internationalism, the rise of the starchitect and the global rush for iconic buildings. When it came, the 2008 crash affected the old free-market economies in Europe and North American much more than the new and emerging economies. Starchitecture lived on in the new economies but straight modernism wasn’t part of their cultural baggage and architects had to sell their souls and their designs with bizarre metaphors – buildings like gas flames in Russia or a desert rose in Qatar.

In the meantime, the internationalist political climate started to move into reverse gear. The USA has its Tea Party, Holland its Freedom Party and Britain UKIP. Nations are not just turning inwards but breaking up. Scotland will have a referendum, Catalonia wants one, the Lega Nord is out for an independent northern Italy, and Ukraine is resisting the deadly embrace of mother Russia. While the extreme nationalists may never be mainstream, established politics have absorbed their policies and under-the-counter barriers to trade and immigration are being raised.

Where will all this take architecture? Chinese, Middle-Eastern and Indian investors are buying up European and American development keeping alive the pre-crash aesthetics they once imported enthusiastically. Meanwhile, culture can be expected to turn inwards to the nation and region. But how will the descendants of the International Style deal with this? Will it be versions of the old anti-pomo Critical Regionalism, where “critical” just means unrecognisable? Or will younger modernists forget their predecessor’s rabid antipathy to representation and turn the fashion for abstract metaphor into metaphors of regionally traditional buildings? We know the new directions are out there, but can we tell which will win the race for the future?

Robert Adam is a director of ADAM Architecture