Modern architecture has abandoned functionality for the sake of the creation of shapes

Robert Adam

At last, central London has its first permanent building by the global architectural superstar, Zaha Hadid. Darling of the British architectural profession, unprecedented as twice winner of its most coveted award, she has built a small café alongside the Serpentine gallery in Hyde Park. Her trade-mark peculiar shape has already earned the little building the nickname, ‘the jellyfish’ – a sure sign of iconic status.  

Made possible by a huge donation, this is a victory for Julia Peyton-Jones, queen of curatorial one-upmanship, and is seen as the latest attempt to rectify the UK’s failure to recognise its most famous architect in her adopted country.  While cities and nations around the world fight for another of her visually and financially extravagant structures, dull and pragmatic Britain’s principal contribution to her success was an early and high-profile rejection of a competition-winning opera house in Wales.

Today, critics clamour to heap praise on Hadid. Few dare question her talent lest they seem reactionary.  She is lauded for her gender as much as her notorious temper, her originality as much as her ubiquity.  Her work is presented as the most modern of Modernism, an architectural style that defines itself by its modernity. 

Indeed, Hadid herself claims to be the inheritor of the pioneering spirit of Mies van der Rohe, Eric Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, set down in the 1920s.  To those who know the theories of these giants of modernism this seems strange. It was Mies van der Rohe who sought “clarity of economy” in office buildings and “minimum expenditure of means”.  Eric Mendelsohn believed that it was the task of the architect to “replace … exaggeration with simplicity”.  And Le Corbusier’s Five Points towards a New Architecture specifically eschewed “aesthetic fantasies or a striving for fashionable effects.”  You could describe the exaggerated, fantastical, extravagant and fashionable work of Hadid as the polar opposite of the principles of those she holds out as her heroes.

The founders of Modernist architecture were fighting against the traditional architecture of the early 20th century, who designed in what Le Corbusier thought were the ‘clothes of a past age’

The founders of Modernist architecture were fighting against the traditional architecture of the early 20th century, who designed in what Le Corbusier thought were the “clothes of a past age”, as part of what they believed was a social as well as an architectural revolution.

Today’s modernists have long since cleared out the traditionalists from their academies. Now there is no enemy left to attack and it’s even acceptable to work for unsavoury dictators. The only enemy left is being out of date. Those who claim the leading edge today – Gehry, Eisenmann, Hadid, Libeskind and others – can only resort to a hollowed out remnant of the principles of their predecessors. Believing that the only way to lay claim to modernity is to be different from anything that went before, they are locked into a perpetual striving for newness.

Their theories come and go and disappear into their own obscurity but, in the end, newness is expressed as nothing more than unusual shapes. Freed from real and metaphorical squareness by the three-dimensional capabilities of computers, buildings can be nothing more than huge but always abstract sculptures. They have discovered and clients have come to accept that, in the interests of creativity and genius, it’s always possible to do something with odd shaped corners, sloping walls or windows on the floor. So free have the buildings become from their intended use that museums are displayed empty as art works in their own right before they’re cluttered with exhibits and galleries are built to display themselves rather than the art for which they were intended.  

Novelty has become the empty gesture of modernity where just looking different is enough to claim a place at the cutting edge of history. Ideas of function, economy and social reform have been abandoned and the avant garde are only left with the creation of shape. Fashionable architecture has just become sculpture into which functions must somehow fit. 

Robert Adam is a director of ADAM Architecture