The way architecture is produced, consumed and understood in the 21st century has been transformed – for better and worse – by digital technology
As we march towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century it seems a fitting moment to reflect on what has and has not changed in architecture since the final decade of the 20th.
There is a greater fluidity and openness in the exchange of ideas between designers around the world. No longer can architecture be known as British, Spanish or Japanese when teams from all these countries come together to make a building. Indeed in my office, British is a minority nationality.
The issue of nationality provokes some interesting thoughts. With the London Olympics just around the corner, I thought it would be fascinating to commission designers to adopt another’s national idiom while retaining a sense of their own aesthetic language. However, having canvassed the idea widely I can’t find anyone else who thinks it is a good one. I suspect that is because it would turn national sponsorship on its head, although I think it would send a message of national confidence and international respect if governments participated in the venture.
Debates are usually with like-minded groups using language that can be impenetrable, and it is only when there is a controversy that the public becomes engaged
There is then the issue of architecture being used for political ends. Politicians still signal their prestige with the physical marks they make on the city – well, not all, but France, as has so often been the case, has led the way with Sarkozy’s vision of Croydon on the Seine. Back here, we have the recent debacle, again, of royal disapproval being enough to stop a developer and a council in their tracks. So on this particular issue, plus ça change.
Digital technology has given us the ability to test, manipulate and refine ideas, and challenge notions of space and development potential by exploring form and context in dynamic ways. This technology is not an end in itself (and without responsibility or editing it becomes mannerist in the extreme). But when exploited by architects with talent who are in control of their tools, it is exciting beyond belief. It is perhaps ironic, though, that something so profoundly technical has tipped the debate about ornament and structure, function and form, frame and skin.
Another exciting, although not entirely benign, development is the way blogs and websites have become architectural arbiters. With instant critiques by anonymous viewers based on a few seconds viewing of a few online images, the speed with which information is spread is exhilarating. We can all use it to our advantage but it is not without risks. It is the rule of the mob. And with authorship concealed, it is a classic case of power without responsibility.
When exploited by architects who are in control of their tools, digital technology is exciting beyond belief
There will always be value attached to the printed image accompanied by informed comment, but the issues being raised by this particular advance are having a profound effect on the relevance of the magazine and newspaper industry in the future. Just look at the impact 15-year-old Matthew Robson’s research note into the media consumption of his peers had on the Allen & Co event in Idaho last week. We know teenagers don’t read newspapers but he told the conference they do not twitter, and even online they find advertising annoying and pointless. Well, there lies a challenge!
The boundaries of the role of the architect are becoming ever more blurred. Architects work in fashion, furniture, industrial design and curation as well as good old-fashioned building. And more is being asked of them as thinkers and social commentators, although I think architecture has become less polemical than in the past. For the top 15% of architects all this is empowering and enriching but it is deeply marginalising to the other 85%, which you could argue is either good for quality or bad for the inevitability of artless buildings designed by default.
There is still the expectation that an architect is the creator of utopian space, which can be a bit limiting when what you want to do is push the boundaries of what is possible and take the public with you. Architecture, though, despite its necessity, is still an introspective endeavour. Debates and discussions are usually with like-minded groups using language that can at times be impenetrable, and it is only when there is a controversy that the public becomes fully engaged. A bit depressing, but until architecture and design are put on the educational curriculum, I suspect that is the way it will remain.
The next 20 years will be pivotal. There is a real awareness now of the power and fragility of our political, environmental and technological systems. We have everything to play for. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to play for all that it’s worth.
Amanda Levete is director of Amanda Levete Architects.