Wednesday, 13 January 2010

'British' High Tech

Waiting for a train, I recently bumped into a chap I once worked with. We had a chat, and of course when you speak to an architect these days you invariably have to talk about the recession. Based upon his experiences of the early 90s, he suggested that the British architecture scene would come out of this particular trough in a stronger condition. He also mentioned that, in the early 90s, the only two acceptable styles that one could build in were either Pomo, or High-Tech.

Since ‘Pomo’ declined as the dominant force of corporate architecture, High-Tech has been the architecture of choice for business. If there was a block of offices built near you in the last twenty years, then it was probably constructed in this style, the UK’s main contribution to architectural culture of the last generation, always to be associated with the names of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. I’ve been thinking about these two a lot since I visited the ‘First Works’ show at the Architectural Association recently. ‘First Works’ was an excellent survey of ‘critical’ or ‘experimental’ practice from the period 1960-80, although somewhat spoiled by the AA’s incessant self-aggrandisement. In amongst all the usual suspects of ‘radical’ architecture (Hadid, Libeskind, Koolhaas etc…) was a little project by Foster and Rogers, as half of Team 4, the practice they set up with their respective spouses after studying at Yale. If now it seems strange, considering the ubiquity of the style with which they are associated, that these two architects would ever be included in a list of ‘experimentalists’, it wasn’t always thus; the successes their style has achieved have to a certain extent masked the strangeness of their work when its smothering influence wasn’t quite so pervasive.

But oh! How pervasive it has become! Not only the rise of the airport, but the decline of the factory, the all-conquering supermarket and the vast swathes of shimmering glass that house the only people who make any money any more… These typologies and social changes have all been draped in the garb of British High-Tech. I’ve been trying to get my head around this success for a while now – any regular readers will know about my notion of Architectural Failure, and in this instance there’s an almost perfect example of the concept. To briefly explain: the prototypes of modernism in architecture, the iron-and-glass buildings, were primarily built for a number of functions; department stores, exhibitions, glass houses and railway stations. It’s no secret that the British High-Tech architects were deeply influenced by the Victorian ‘engineer-geniuses’ who constructed these proto-modernist edifices, and a strong claim for a direct lineage from Brunel (stood as ever in front of that massive chain) is often made. But this inheritance is problematic, for a number of reasons, not least of which is the utter banality of the contemporary spaces created by our current architects. Just one example; any of you living in London might have experienced Foster’s refurbishment of Spitalfields Market in East London. A more terrifyingly blank, spiritless and depressing space I have yet to experience; this is a version of the city fit only for the smiling ghosts of computer visualisations, a purgatory of Giraffe restaurants and Walkabout bars, ‘media walls’ and used-book stalls that only sell new books by Alain de Botton, all cast in the gloomy shadow of some of the most generic commercial offices you’ve ever seen. When you think that this is the best that humanity can offer itself after a million years of gasping struggle and agonisingly slow cultural development, well…

But that’s enough hyperbole. The only question I’m really grasping at is this – if, despite superficial appearances, British High-Tech is not the unproblematic cultural successor to the Iron-and-Glass buildings of the 19th century, then where does it come from? A couple of texts I read recently have greatly helped to frame this problem.

One of these texts is Architecture and the Special Relationship, by Murray Fraser and Joe Kerr, which makes a very convincing case that, far from being the unproblematic re-enactment of Victorian engineering, British Hi-Tech is born of a naïve dream of an America which never existed. The case hinges around the fact that Rogers and Foster met each other doing their post-grad studies at Yale in the early 1960s, becoming friends and then colleagues. Feeling liberated from the stifling economic, cultural and historical environment of Europe, they studied under Paul Rudolph and John Johansen, travelled around the USA visiting buildings (something they apparently never did while in Europe) and paid particularly close attention to the educational buildings of Ehrenkrantz, early examples of ‘system building’. The lightweight architecture and simplistic rhetoric of this American scene is in marked contrast to the agony, mysticism and weight that you can see developing in European modernism at the time.

Transplanted into the confident environment of the USA, it was here that functionalism began to gradually become solutionism – just take this quote from Rogers;

Returning to Britain to set up our first architectural practice (Team 4, comprising Norman and Wendy Foster, Su Rogers and myself) we realised the importance of the American experience where the architect is a genuine problem-solver rather than a mere stylist. We understood that the traditional European approach, constrained by cultural and formal conventions, could never meet the needs of a changing society that we were going to try to serve.

Basically, in a statement like this you have a complete and utter denial of the ideological aspect of architecture. I mean; if this attitude hadn’t been so damaging in the long term you could find it endearing, this ludicrously naïve faith in the benign nature of technology, this abdication of responsibility… One of the most pernicious things about the Solutionist narrative is the idea that by declaring something insignificant, it will just go away; but time and time again in architecture we see that the cheerfully optimistic dismissal of mere trifles such as ‘style’ or ‘culture’ or ‘form’ leads to vulgarity and re-appropriation. In a mission statement like that above, one can read all kinds of premonitions; not least the impending post-modern concern with meaning and communication.

But of course one cannot merely dismiss culture and form; there has never been an insignificant building. I’ve pointed out a few times before how postmodernist architects are equally capable of working with languages of technology, and in a very Benjaminian way I think it’s vital that if architecture is to improve at all as we move further into this horrible century, the architect will have to negotiate a new cultural relationship to building technology (but that argument is for a manifesto, not these shabby notes). Architecture and the Special Relationship locates the ‘fall’ of British High Tech in one of Team 4’s very first buildings; the Reliance Controls factory:

What was most distinctive – and novel – about Reliance Controls was the fact that the structural forces acting on the building were expressed by a series of slender (and soon widely imitated) steel diagonal cross-braces between the external columns on the two main facades […] The idea of diagonal tie bracing had its first outing over a century before, in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 […] In fact, only one bay on each of the long facades needed to be braced to stabilise the frame against lateral collapse, but Team 4 deliberately opted to have every bay braced, for aesthetic effect […] Tony Hunt was again the engineer, and he pointed out this structural anomaly – as well as others – but visual styling won the day. Hence the Reliance Controls scheme also marked the point at which the structural rationality proclaimed by High Tech architects lapsed into exaggeration and expressionism – i.e. at its very birth.

A number of things are going on here: Tony Hunt is mentioned - he represents a further aspect of British High Tech – the proliferation of excellent engineers in the UK in the 1960s. This is where British High Tech most resembles its 19th antecedents; almost purely in terms of the skill of the engineers involved. However, as I’ve argued before, from at least 1889 (the Eiffel Tower, the Galerie des Machines) engineers had effectively solved the problem of creating any space that human activity could possibly ever require. Although Arup, Hunt and others would definitely push the boundaries of their discipline, it would be mainly in terms of the integration of building systems rather than the limits of scale; a technological revolution half way towards the most recent digital one; revolutions that are less impressive architecturally with every recurrence. The fact that High-Tech could never induce the awe of the original large engineering projects is perhaps one of the reasons that it had to aestheticise itself from the beginning; in place of transcendent size it had to focus on elegance and rationality, both of which are firmly aesthetic considerations.

However, the British High Tech aesthetic is as much born of a melancholy sense that post-war Britain had been left behind by the USA, economically, technologically & culturally, as it is by anything else. Its ludicrous optimism is at least partially performative, born of rationing and the end of empire, as well as being an all-too-gullible internalisation of American innocence. In fact, one can easily see some early High-Tech as just another form of postmodernism, born of just as much internal conflict between stories of progress and crippling doubt as anything Pomo would throw up - Architecture and the Special Relationship certainly allows for this reading, although it doesn’t go as far as I do:

High Tech was at root a vision of what US post-war architecture could have become, indeed should have become, if only American architects hadn’t lost their nerve and succumbed to pessimism and post-modernism.

The focus on a language of efficiency is something that has worked both for and against Hi-Tech. Inasmuch as it was never really genuinely about efficiency, as previously argued, Hi-Tech was vulnerable to being undermined by the very principles it championed, applied faithfully this time. Architecture and the Special Relationship states that one of the reasons that Hi-Tech failed to get much built initially in America was because it was too bespoke and expensive. The very same American ‘can-do’ attitude that influenced ‘High Tech’ so much actually manifested itself in the speedier and cheaper working methods that would come to Britain (in pomo clothes) with the architects of the Canary Wharf development (SOM & KPF etc), and would eventually morph into Design & Build contracts and PFI. These streamlined and efficient legal structures have accelerated the descent of architects from their previous standing as socially-valued ‘Professional’ persons, towards a job that we might call ‘exterior designer’. This is not necessarily a negative development, but the contract revolution has also led to some of the most worthless buildings we’ve seen, mean bastard architecture, not even fit for the render-ghosts.

In Patrick Keiller’s film ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’, he frequently compares the architecture of housing, reliant as it is on ‘wet trades’ (bricks & mortar, concrete), with the standardised, rapidly assembled architecture of retail, especially car-accessed retail. Keiller is very much a product of the time he was educated (mid-1960s), when a radical ‘lightweight’ attitude to architecture was in the air, all tension cables and neoprene gaskets. Foster and Rogers are of course the heroes of this, but there’s also Bucky Fuller and various others. But Keiller’s frequent lingering shots on Tesco stores really hit home; these generic, banal and (if you’re anything like me) depressing structures are like those characters from a Zizek anecdote; they obey the law far more strictly what the Big Other requires of them. A Tesco superstore, with its boring white structure, its boring white spaces and its boring bottom-line materials; this is the pre-fabricated High-Tech future. I’m deeply ambivalent about this situation – a superstore is genuinely the truth of the High-Tech rhetoric, one could even picture it as a socialist’s dream come true, but of course, it might well have been what was demanded, but it certainly wasn’t what was wanted. So, for the umpteenth time, we get to that old mantra of Dr. Lacan: “Don’t give me what I ask for, because that’s not it”.

To be continued…

1 comment:

Markasaurus said...

As an American architect living in London, I particularly appreciated this post- especially now that I have had the opportunity to work under the hideous conditions you describe in the second to last paragraph. Design and build contracts and PFI are the scariest outgrowth of the desire for efficiency that exists- the client never gets the building they really wanted in the first place and the architect basically is a drawing-assembler for the contractor. These programs take the American idea of efficiency and turn it into policy instead of architecture (in a particularly bureaucratic British way, I have to add). I've watched the value engineering begin (with gusto) before our project has even finished being designed and the contract basically forbids the us from talking directly to the client. Bizarre, coming from the US where an AIA contract defines the architect as the client's representative. I am shocked at the sort of things the RIBA has allowed to happen- you are completely right that the architect has been reduced to "exterior designer," as long as you only use yellow brick and two window types on the entire project (if you're lucky you might get throw in a few cheery-coloured doors).