It’s all very well designing a building whose curves have been inspired by a hippopotamus’ backside, but just how does it fit in to our rectilinear urban jungle?
The shape of things to come is slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails … Or is the Victoria & Albert museum’s “Zoomorphic” exhibition another instance of wishfulness, of extrapolating from present byway to future highway, of grossly overpromoting an undeniable-yet-hardly-significant trend? There is a genus of exhibition that is as much propagandist as it is reportorial and this one belongs to it: banish from your mind the notion of the neutral curator. If Hugh Aldersley-Williams has his way our children’s children will inhabit a world in which the application of Euclidian strategies to buildings is as much an anachronism as, say, the bustle or the flintlock. What was a “right-angle”, dad? Can you remember “grids”, grandma?

Do not, though, expect anything so vulgarly delightful as a dairy in the form of a giant stone cow: the fantasist and pornographer Jean-Jacques Lequeu made such a design two centuries ago. It never got off the ground. In fact, don’t expect literalism of any kind. So, no pork-slurry-and-condom-shaped sausage factories or hippoform stables or rodentine offices for Rentokil or mammarial studios for the “adult” industry. The representational is off limits. Architecture wants to learn from cephalopods and conches. Heaven forbid that it should seek to replicate them rather than listening and workshoping with them.

Forty years ago there was a craze for

“pebble-shaped” cigarette lighters: very cute, sure, but they didn’t work. Thirty years ago there was a craze for “organic” buildings: again fascinating, but shame about the structural inadequacies. There is nothing very new about the zoomorphs: they are late-moderns committed to abstracted forms.

What they possess, what their predecessors lacked, are powerful computers and programs that can translate zoomorphic (or anthropomorphic, geomorphic, ichthymorphic, dendromorphic, osteomorphic and even morphomorphic) caprices into tectonically feasible designs. This incipient architecture is not, however, occasioned solely by technological capability: architecture seldom is.

There is a move towards warm, embracing, douce, matey, caringly soft blobs of corporate feel-goodness

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is a sort of commercially opportunistic programme lurking just beneath the surface. (That is observation, not deprecation.) There is a collective move towards warm, embracing, douce, matey, caringly soft blobs of corporate feel-goodness. What we have here is an architecture appropriate to “concerned” service-providers, “eco-friendly” manufacturers, “accessible” government, “inclusive” institutions.

The trouble is, we know those qualities are lies. We know that being on first-name terms with the boss doesn’t prevent them from “letting you go”. We know that open collars don’t obviate hierarchy. We know that there is a yawning gulf between presentation and performance, between what is said and what is done. We know that we live in the age of the Great Cosmeticians – the guileful spinners and rebranders, the snake oil stylists. Yet we accept the lot. And we’ll accept mollusc-cushion buildings because their very form (whether or not we know where it derives from) proclaims an absence of caste, ranks, them-and-us.

Thus far zoomorphic design projects are mostly landmarks that draw attention to themselves because they are eccentric. They are advertisements for their patron. They are big-scale conversation pieces. Can they ever be anything more? How will an idiom that undoubtedly works in the context of stand-alone essays on reclaimed brownfields fare in the context of straight streets and straight

lines? The visual (and cultural) collisions will be epic. Cityscape has to depend on a degree of consensus – which is not a covert plea for buildings to be “in keeping”, rather an acknowledgment that balance must be achieved. Big-Tech modernism in the third quarter of the last century produced much that was, and remains, remarkable. But even its most devoted admirers must admit that it was largely impervious to urban integration. I feel that animal architecture will suffer the same fate if it is granted the licence.