There's no reason to file these ideas under fantasy or science fiction. As William Blake reminds us, what is now proved was once only imagined. And, by golly, we've struggled to prove even a fraction of what was imagined by our visionary colleagues four decades ago.
What causes me to pull my hair out is the number of people who think we've cracked half of this "buildings of the future" stuff, when we've done nothing of the kind. A lot of admiring reviews of the emperor's new clothes have been published by an uncritical press and lavishly illustrated in coffee-table books written by people who have no knowledge of design. And all of this goes unchallenged, thanks to the weedy technical teaching at architecture schools.
So, let's explode a few myths right now.
- The eco-tower. There isn't a single example of a truly environment-friendly, sustainable, low energy tower block anywhere in the world.
- The environmental glass office block. It is not possible to make an environmentally efficient building with a facade made entirely of glass.
- The low-cost, high-quality modular building. prefabrication adds an average of 10-20% to construction costs. But are they high quality?
You may want to ask residents of new schemes about that.
- The intelligent building. Autosensing artificial light control has been available for 20 years, but drive past Canary Wharf at night you can watch thousands of £5 notes burning in a blaze of pointless luminescence.
- Integrated services. The extra cost of putting suspended ceilings and raised floors into tall buildings adds about half a metre per storey to the height. But there are alternatives: go wireless; go naturally ventilated or flaunt your ducts to the world like Rogers and Piano in 1977.
- Computer-aided design. I'm still waiting for a project where all the disciplines, including the QS, worked on the same CAD model, and where the data was fed to the factory to be used in computer-aided manufacture then used to assemble the building on site. I have yet to see a project where no drawings were ever printed out for issue. But doesn't something like that happen at Boeing?
- Minimised structural design. The safety factors in our building codes would make any other engineering profession weep (well, with the possible exception of dry-eyed lift engineers). An aircraft laden with such restrictions would have difficulty taking off. Engineers: those blue books aren't safety nets, but harnesses holding you back. Burn them – and start doing some tests.
I could go on, but I feel a little like one of those magicians who gets kicked out of the Magic Circle for giving away trade secrets. But I'm not here to slag off designers. All I want to do is encourage clarity and honesty in design and the assessment of design. With all the current hype and confusion, it is hard for emerging designers to spread their wings, and they are the people who matter the most.
The low-cost, high-quality modular building is a myth. Prefabrication adds an average of 10-20% to construction costs. And are they high quality? You may want to ask residents of new schemes about that …
If you know where to look, we're certainly not running low on ideas. The best place to see advanced visions of the future is at the Design Research Lab of the Architectural Association (www.aardl.com). A lot of the work is "pre-building" concept design, and blurs the distinction between physical, digital and even electronic aspects of the built environment. In fact, the DRL's imagination may be too far ahead of what the industry can prove: at the last DRL review, a tutor pronounced that "curves were dead". Hey, come on! We've only just worked out Zaha Hadid's work – and even the Bilbao Guggenheim isn't the sinuous dream it appears to be when you peel off the skin.
For me, there is one really interesting thing being talked about by DRL and a few notable others: the use of digital media in architecture. Digital media is web pages, advertising and cultural content provided on a large-scale digital screens. It is a new material – and about time, too: we haven't had too much by way of excitement on the materials front recently.
What makes digital media so great? Cost is a big advantage: projecting light is less pricey than laying bricks and mortar. It's easy to demolish or upgrade digital space, and as so much of architecture today is about theatre and information, digital media is perfect. And with 90% of us owning mobile phones, everybody potentially has their own computer interface to to interact digitally with all of this.
Unfortunately, there aren't many products around that can pump this digital media into spaces: using a slide projector isn't exactly what I have in mind. I've been involved in the development of a technology called SmartSlab, which allows designers to build floors, walls and ceilings out of digital screens as if they were giant bricks. But over the next five years we should also see digital "e-ink", light-emitting polymers, full-colour animated holograms (at last!) and 16 million colour LEDs replacing trusty old light bulbs.
Tom Barker is director of B Consultants, a building design practice specialising in technology and innovation