The 2015 Stirling prize, Britain’s biggest architectural award, was won by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) for six buildings it designed for the Burntwood School campus in south London. A modest exercise in neo-Brutalism in which the composition of concrete panels recalls the stately public architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, they fit tactfully within the school’s existing campus. In September, meanwhile, the Walkie-Talkie won the Carbuncle Cup, Building Design’s annual prize for the worst building in Britain. A 37-storey skyscraper in the centre of London, the tower is named for its bulbous, top-heavy profile – it’s an office that has steroidally bulked up its chest and shoulders but allowed its legs to wither. Prizes don’t make taste but they can point towards the direction in which it’s shifting, and the coincidence of these awards suggests a weariness among tastemakers with the exuberances of contemporary architecture.
This a far cry from the mania for instant icons, which first emerged with the opening of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao. The art gallery’s shimmering, titanium bulges were credited with putting a run-down town in northern Spain back on the tourist map. The “Bilbao effect” was born and a thousand outlandishly shaped buildings sprung up across the world. The face of London is now marked with thrusting figures. First came the Gherkin, then the Shard. The Can of Ham is on the horizon.
The capability to create novel, gravity-defying curves and cantilevers stems from the expansion in computing power in the early 1990s and the innovative digital design tools that developed alongside it. Unconventionally shaped buildings had always been imagined and even, on rare occasions, achieved – think of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Gaudi’s still-unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona and Jørn Utzon’s nose-bleedingly expensive opera house for Sydney. But digital made complex forms, especially curves in multiple directions, easier to design, engineer and construct – and thus more affordable. Information coded into a digital drawing could be used to manufacture components of the buildings themselves – in the precise laser cutting of titanium sheets, for example.
Even more significantly, architects could now fix the limits of a virtual three-dimensional form, then manipulate shapes with these parameters. This technology, dubbed “parametric architecture”, made Zaha Hadid’s architectural vision, for example, more readily buildable. Previously Hadid had built physical models, sliced them into cross-sections, then scanned the slices onto a computer to render her ideas virtually. With computer-aided design (CAD), the limitations of working with paper were obliterated. Architects could now toy with surfaces. They folded and bent thin skins, so that buildings imitated rolling natural terrains, geological formations and biological structures. Architecturally speaking, the past, with its imprecise and unflexible bricks and mortar, had been left behind.
Cities, companies and institutions across the world suddenly demanded similar buildings as the centrepiece of a regeneration initiative, or for the new wing of a museum or a corporate HQ, hoping for their own Bilbao effect. In the commercial world, parametric design, as Zaha Hadid’s sidekick Patrik Schumacher observed recently, perfectly responds to the demands of market-conscious developers, because computers can maximise the rentable floorspace on expensive but constrained sites, like those found in the City of London. The swollen Walkie-Talkie, its upper floors much wider than the plot on which it sits, is a shining example of this phenomenon. And while the curvaceous can waste space conspicuously – impractical extravagance has always been a measure of luxury – it does so with digital efficiency.
Digital design tools also hastened the rise of the global designer, whose signature style could be airlifted in to brand a development as forward looking. The Guggenheim Foundation led the trend in the cultural world, commissioning leading architects in order to present itself as the outrider of the avant-garde. Hadid was joined by Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel and Peter Eisenman, among others. The global starchitect was born and won all the prizes.
Yet the past has persisted and now it is fighting back. All architects these days, bar the occasional crank, use digital drawing packages. But increasing numbers of designers are insisting that they should be the masters of technology, not its slaves. Colour-washed sketches to convey the mood of a place are again being produced after decades of demands for the sterile photorealism produced by CAD. Because creatives are no longer enthralled to its giddy novelty digital technology has become just another tool for those who can maturely blend different approaches – using lasers to cut traditional letterpress type, for instance, or software to extrude a brick arch. Brick is now in such demand for tall residential towers in Britain that there is currently a shortage.
Concerns are being raised about imposing buildings that ignore the urban contexts in which they are built, fail to make any concession to the human scale, and serve only as three-dimensional branding for their creators. These critiques echo an earlier generation’s displeasure with the anonymous global products of post-war Modernism. One response was Critical Regionalism, an approach that sought to humanise Modernism by making it more sensitive to place. The reaction this time around is more akin to the return to analogue that can be observed throughout contemporary culture – in the enthusiasm for vinyl records and handicrafts, for example. In an increasingly virtual world, there is a longing for human touch and a spirit of resistance to the invisible forces in which we find ourselves enmeshed.
There has also been a slow realisation that the beguiling, computer-generated images of glossy and curvaceous parametric buildings often work better on screen than in reality. Their construction still too often depends on a precision that is hard to achieve in practice. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the recently opened Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, promised a diaphanous, perforated veil as its sweeping cladding. Instead, it is far more static, regularly shaped and solid – a concession that had to be made in the course of building.
In Britain in particular, ostentatious architecture did not guarantee the public’s affections. Many ill-conceived National Lottery-backed projects relied on the presumption that an impressive building alone would entice people to flood through the doors. In the case of Will Alsop’s arts centre The Public and Sheffield’s drum-kit-shaped pop-music museum, they didn’t. New uses for the vacant icons had to be found.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in west London is perched on the cusp of the two architectural philosophies. It is in the middle of building a new extension to its South Kensington home, a conspicuously folded form by Amanda Levete. But for its next large-scale project, the V&A East – part of the planned Olympicopolis cultural quarter in the East End – it has appointed Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, who have been quietly crafting buildings on the edge of Europe for some decades now.
Kieran Long is keeper of the design, architecture and digital department at the V&A and involved in the development of V&A East. He sees a deliberate move away from the formal excesses of parametric architecture’s high noon. “I am super happy that O’Donnell + Tuomey were appointed,” he says. “They don’t lapse into the abstraction that the big shape-makers fall into.” He admires the craft that the practice brings to a project. Their buildings, such as the Saw Swee Hock student centre for the London School of Economics, may be made of brick but they are far from conservative. Indeed, digital tools were employed to achieve the inflected brickwork walls of the LSE centre. Long contends that O’Donnell + Tuomey will provide a monumental character for the museum’s new building. It achieves this – in drawings at least – through a measured, rectilinear massing of materials, rather than by resorting to an architectural caprice which reveals all it’s got in a single glance. The V&A East will be a weightier affair: “A more permanent architecture”, says Long, “that contrasts with…the thin, powder-coated steel and glass of a lot of those shape-making buildings nearby.”
English practices such as Caruso St John, Eric Parry, Sergison Bates and Patrick Lynch are also devoted to the craft of construction, and willing to quote historical examples and to use ornament in their work – the antithesis of the slick futurism of the parametric. The same counter-tendency can be found elsewhere in Europe. The work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s work has been described as “slow architecture”, not because it takes an age to build but because it can only be appreciated slowly and through repeated viewing. And while this reaction is primarily European – North America lags noticeably behind European architectural practice – instances of this approach can be found as far afield as China and Vietnam, where architects are reinterpreting the vernacular.
Dissatisfaction with the hegemony of the blob – and with the profusion of architecture graduates who can make a nifty digital image but don’t actually know how to design a feasible building or even sketch an idea by hand – is rippling through the profession. One of the consequences has been the launch of the London School of Architecture in October, a collaboration between academics and architectural practices. It is the first new architecture school in the capital for more than a century. Did it, I asked the LSA’s founder Will Hunter, emerge out of desire for a richer, contextually informed design approach? “Definitely,” he says. “The building of icons to stand out, the fetishisation of the digital, is definitely out of fashion in favour of what’s good for the urban fabric.”
Hunter accepts that parametric design can be an important element of the architect’s toolbox, especially if devoted to more ecologically minded and culturally relevant buildings, but he wants his students to think through drawing, to analyse a site and respond with nuance. What once seemed daring now is obvious and gauche, a novelty act whose shine is losing its lustre. Hunter is blunt about the era of the big, simplistic architectural gesture: “It’s over.”
Grandiloquent, digitally driven architecture will doubtless continue to land in our cities. The tech sector in particular is still in thrall to the parametric. Its latest fashionable exponent, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, has been commissioned by Google, alongside English designer Thomas Heatherwick to design its “Truman Show”-like HQ in California. In London, Google is reported to be thinking of ditching the current design for its King’s Cross building by this year’s Stirling prize-winner AHMM in favour of something by Heatherwick.
But this style no longer represents the avant-garde. In recent years the Stirling prize has been anointing a quieter kind of architecture: the subtle rebuilding of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool by Haworth Tompkins; and Astley Castle, the collaged reworking of a ruined castle by Witherford Watson Mann, who have layered the contemporary on top of the historical, creating a dialogue between the two. This year’s shortlist was especially notable for the absence of bloated buildings. Even the Guggenheim, the original sinner of parametric architecture, did not commission Gehry or one of his acolytes for its latest outpost in Helsinki; it chose instead the sober-sided Parisian architecture practice Moreau Kusunoki. Their design incorporates curves, but as gentle inflections to the walls and roofs of rectilinear pavilions – more Japanese temple than overinflated blobology. The bubble, it seems, may finally have burst.