Are new constructions destined to become “boring” and overtly “modern” structures within our cities?
There’s glass everywhere! Panels of glass. Shards of glass. Towers of glass. Glass-clad timber frames and partition walls made of glass. Sometimes it seems that our cities are infiltrated with modern structures that are starting to feel inhuman and cold. A simple walk around my own city, London, provides a certain amount of research material. It’s a city full of characteristic buildings from St Paul’s Cathedral to St Pancras Chambers, The Hayward Gallery, Balfron Tower, The Barbican Estate and Butler’s Wharf. All of these structures converge, creating a visually diverse landscape interspersed between new-builds. London does remain eclectic in its skyline and inner-city streets alike, but with emerging technologies and more opportunities in creation, why does it seem that new constructions are becoming nothing more than tinted blocks of glass? Is this really the case?
I can’t argue that experimental buildings, architectural installations and a diverse palette of styles aren’t persistent amongst our various landscapes. The forthcoming construction of Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum, to those of the distant and recent past; Xavier Corbero’s constructions; Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and special projects such as Prada Marfa fill our spaces with infrequent visual treasures. And of course not every building, especially today, can be Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the Cologne Cathedral or The Empire State Building. These buildings cannot be repeatedly replicated. They are designed with certain functions, sometimes cultural, and with specific proposed uses including for arts sake- a reflection of their time. They often originate from within arts in lieu of business, and are worked meticulously against constraints and specifically, a monetary one.
In architect-turned-writer John Cary’s TED Talk, he said that: “Thoughtful design can make people feel respected and seen. I went into architecture because I believed it was about creating spaces for people to live their best lies. And yet what I found is a profession largely disconnected from the people most directly impacted by its work”. Comparably, talking about his 76-story skyscraper in Lower Manhattan 8 Spruce Street, architect Frank Gehry said that: “For this building, we [were] trying to come up with a language that resonated with the older buildings around us.” He continues, “That it would have a humanity to it that those faceless buildings that are all over the world don’t have.” What’s interesting in Gehry’s teachings, something I have been lucky enough to have been a part of, is his philosophy. His work ethic is built upon people and the way that they live within a space whether residential, commercial or recreational. Gehry endeavours to create wondrous, practical, fun, clever and unique spaces away from dystopian-esque landscapes we seem to be moving towards. However, if we look at architecture in recent and future development, we can see various sides of the spectrum.
Kohn Pedersen Fox’s design for 52 Lime Street, or “The Scalpel” in London, at face value, is made of glass panels and becomes another “boring” building. Nevertheless, it is designed by clever engineering and more importantly, it has been built with an inter-floor travel efficiency system which in turn, lowers energy consumption. Thought process is not lacking even if the design feels unimaginative. It’s merely a simple, practical and clever building for an agency to take residence in.
On the other hand, other contemporary structures tackle the modern approach differently. Architects MVRDV are planning to create a mirrored building in Esslingen, Germany. It’s an ultra-modern wedge adorned with photovoltaic cells that will be used to reflect its surroundings. It’ll also allow users of the space as well as passersby to interact with the 3D building. It’s a bold high-tech concept capturing the imagination of architects who are working on projects for our mega-cities, and for those who use the cities. Both of these approaches, though ultimately modern, show the two directions that can be taken with “modern” innovation.
As cities move towards the idea of mega cities, sustainable and smart cities, do we run a risk of losing the arts and cultures of architecture?
Alternatively, as part of a social housing project, Stefano Boeri’s design for a 19-storey residential building Hawthorn Tower in Utrecht will be a foliage-filled, tree-clad project. 360 trees, 9,640 shrubs and flowers living upon the balconies and facade of a 90-metre-high building. The building itself falls somewhere in-between a building from the seventies and structuralism architecture with a penchant for a sustainable future. Buildings are constantly emerging alongside society. The tower forms part of Boeri’s repertoire of modern liveable spaces – projects that aim to help tackle the topic of the world’s future through design; including the zealous project of ‘Vertical Forest Seeds On Mars 2117’
There are architects still holding onto tradition via a modern approach and less seemingly extreme.
Studio Air Putih’s own offices are set within a residential area in the Banten province of Indonesia. They created an outdoor working haven surrounded by a variety of red brick and exposed concrete structures. The buildings themselves are varied in size. Minimalism and nature are two key parts of their work ethic. Whilst using what they had, Klaarchitectuur took a chapel in Limburg, Belgium which was in disrepair, and modified it. Though renovation was core to this project in order to restore history, the addition of emerging irregularly stacked boxes as office spaces, starts to bridge a gap between how we see the future of architecture and the past. But what about creating new buildings entirely like the old? Take the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Whilst one side possess Gaudí’s detailed Gothic sculptures and carvings, the newer half is seemingly different- a little less intricate. Times have changed, rules and constraints have been implemented, but has it been too hard to replicate such detail with the abilities of modern crafters? Perhaps.
Today, there is more to think about. As well as practical elements, contractors must consider how built-up areas in themselves provide existing issues, as well as solutions. One must consider building regulations, structural fire protection, permissions needed to offload materials in the street. Licenses for specific scaffolding and creating underpasses for pedestrians and logistics- how will a crane, or vehicles enter the space? Such questions must be answered for practicality as well as for modern laws. The construction of more conceptual projects takes longer to develop as they use newer often unpractised methods of construction and unconventional materials in new ways.
Architecture captures time. An architect’s imagination should inspire those who use the cities and our lives today have different needs. Urban developments are moving towards new sustainable ways of living and cities are already adopting a variety of methods. What is considered “boring” in terms of modern architecture is subjective, as is design as a whole. New constructions may seem to be heading for highly stylised constructions, and though the skyscraper nor glass will be abolished amongst our cities, creativity is flourishing, even if it’s a slow development.
Marianna Michael is a London-based writer, screenwriter, art-director and consultant working within the arts – specifically fashion, film, theatre and architecture.