Inside the machine: the influence of high-tech architecture

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Ike Ijeh explores the origins, impact and legacy of one of architecture’s most enduring concepts, as we begin a series reflecting on architectural styles through the ages

Historian and broadcaster Dan Cruickshank is hardly someone who springs to mind when considering high-tech architecture, but he is responsible for one of the most succinct definitions of what high-tech architecture is all about. “In short, the building becomes a theatrical demonstration of its functional ideal […] High-tech architecture is, of course, no different in spirit – if totally different in form – from all the romantic architecture of the past.”

High-tech purists such as Richard Rogers or Nicholas Grimshaw would take great exception to the terms “theatrical” and “romantic”, pointing out, rightly, that structural honesty rather than applied artifice lies at the core of high-tech philosophy. But Cruickshank has accurately identified what makes high-tech’s engine tick: functional idealism. 

Last month a new exhibition was unveiled prompted by the 40th anniversary of the opening of one of the founding buildings of the high-tech era. Superstructures: The New Architecture 1960-1990 is being held in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, Norman Foster’s first public building and one of the buildings that helped usher in the new age of high-tech and redefine modernism as a consequence. 

As the exhibition’s title suggests, high-tech was relatively short-lived and by the 1990s had been largely overtaken by movements including post-modernism, deconstructivism and even, most gallingly for high-tech’s most puritanical polemicists, revivalist US-inspired trends such as new classicism. 

But it would be a mistake to think that high-tech is a relic of the past: today its legacy exists everywhere in the built world. Principles and processes that we now take for granted – such as prefabrication, offsite construction, modular design, factory assembly, computer modelling, mechanical efficiency, information technology, portable buildings, and functional and spatial flexibility – all have their origins in the high-tech movement. The influence of high-tech can even be traced in the development in materials such as ETFE and the widespread use of hollow structural sections, which we take for granted in construction today. 

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