What’s going to happen to architecture now that the tyranny of the icon has ended? Well, looking around at the current state of the art, we shouldn’t get our hopes up
If you want to know what’s going on in architecture, like politics, then it’s the economy, stupid. When the economy is comfortable, nothing changes much. In the past 15 years we’ve been stuck with complacent modernity. But nothing is forever and when the economy crashes, it takes everything with it.
Let’s look at past recessions.They usually happen every seven or eight years but the big crashes seem to be every other one – every 16 years or so. The first big one some of us remember was in 1973. This was the oil crisis, the three-day week and followed hard on the heels of 1968 – the year of the barricades. This ended the post-war political consensus, exchange-rate controls and universal orthodox modernism. If we want to scare ourselves, it took four years to get out of that one. Out of the chaos came neo-vernacular, mechanical baroque (better known as high-tech) and postmodernism. Straight-up-and-down modernism would never be alone again.
The next big one was the early nineties. This ended the Thatcher/Reagan axis, the Russian empire and postmodernism. Harry Enfield’s famous plasterer gave us the “loadsa money” motto for the eighties boom. The joke at the time was, what’s the difference between porcupines and Porsches (the first has pricks on the outside). Pomo was the cynical, loadsa money architecture of the boom and the nineties recession killed it completely. By now all architects were modernists and they’d felt guilty about doing this history stuff all along. They could go back to mother and, to atone for their sins, do penance with dead-end minimalism. The history wonks didn’t disappear but were whittled down to a serious band of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. They found new hope with the traditional urban design revolution.
The sensible brigade are brow-knittingly serious and so, so safe. Stick on some squeaky dunster funnels and eco-bling and they’re not just right-on but righteous
So what about now? We know we’re in deep trouble? It’s bad news everywhere. But we shouldn’t worry – Gordon Brown’s saving the world. Harry Enfield’s plasterer is now a Polish plumber and the new joke is the difference between a seagull and a banker (the former can still leave a deposit on a new Ferrari). There’s not much doubt about what stands for the noughties boom – iconic oddities. It all began in 1997 when the Bilbao Guggenheim opened.This might actually be iconic but, as Gehry’s stuff is really odd, everyone thought that to be iconic was just to be big and peculiar. Now monster Hadid cream cakes, Swiss bird’s nests and wacky cgi-created twisty, spiky, blobby towers are popping up everywhere. Masterpieces of the mastic joint, these mad creations stand for all the excess and folly of the credit bubble. Even the word “iconic” has lost all meaning. Buildings become iconic, they’re not made that way; but now architects are describing their own buildings as iconic – textbook hubris.
As they look over the precipice, lots of architects are crowing over the impending demise of the so-called iconic building – from traditionalists to mainstream modernists. Even the big boys that made fortunes out of peddling their global iconic credentials have seen which way the wind is blowing and are disowning the whole shooting match.
But if the Beijing Olympics and the Shard mark the end of an era, what’s next? Of course all the doomsayers think it’s their turn. The hacks who churned out naff icons by the mile don’t care anyway. When the fashion changes, they’ll do whatever comes along – badly. Minimalism was the cure for pomo but proved too boring even for hair-shirt modernists. Of course I’d like to see traditional architecture take centre stage, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Then there are fashionable oddballs like fat… are they just a cuddly version of iconic oddities, pomo redux or the lego version of caruso st john?
So, what are we left with if not more versions of Foster and Rogers – or will we finally learn that glass walls are downright irresponsible? Looking for something new, there are fashionable oddballs like FAT … are they just a cuddly version of iconic oddities, pomo redux or the Lego version of Caruso
St John? While they might be good, cheap imitations would be awful. What about the pretentiously named “critical regionalism”? Or is this just po-faced modernism with local knobs on? Can you see the join between this and the sensible brigade who never dirtied their hands with icons? They’re brow-knittingly serious and so, so safe. Stick on some squeaky Dunster funnels and eco-bling and – lo and behold! – they’re not just right-on but righteous. These people are big in the shadows, so now perhaps they’ll have their dull day in the sun. Is it me, or is this very depressing?
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects