Last year, Vanity Fair published a fascinating investigation into the way London had become a haven for international finance—think Switzerland with a British accent. The author reserved particular energy for unmasking the residents of One Hyde Park, an apartment complex in Kensington that is home to some of the world's richest and most secretive people. Spoiler alert: lots of Russians!
And this year, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) opened the exhibition “The Brits Who Built the Modern World,” inspired by a BBC series of the same name. The exhibition focuses on the origins of five of the largest British practices currently working on a global scale: Farrells, Foster + Partners, Grimshaw, Hopkins Architects, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (designers of One Hyde Park).
The exhibition excels at portraying the rise of the so-called “high-tech” style. As the British Empire wound down in the 20th century, many of its now-sovereign territories remained unified under the British Commonwealth, linked by a shared language and economic ties. As a result, British architects had many opportunities to export modern design across the globe. Hotels, offices, airports and consulates—often built from concrete—helped modernize cities in the Middle East, India, and Africa, while simultaneously preserving their links to British companies and to the Crown.
But as a new generation of British architects came of age in the 1960s, they became disillusioned with the prevailing style. They looked elsewhere for inspiration, ultimately finding it in technology and popular culture. Early projects, like Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts and Terry Farrell and Nicholas Grimshaws' factory for Herman Miller in Bath, England, used a prefabricated kit-of-parts approach to create lightweight structures that resembled industrial facilities. They followed in the footsteps of early modernists like Walter Gropius, who adapted the industrial design of the Fagus Factory for the Bauhaus school.
British architecture really took off with Richard Rogers and Renzo Pianos' Pompidou Centre in Paris and Foster’s HSBC Headquarters tower in Hong Kong. These projects codified the new style of exposed structure, including air shafts, plumbing, elevators, and stairs. But it wasn’t all systems thinking and rational structure: a brightly-colored section of the Pompidou Centre reveals the influence of Pop art as well.
High-tech wasn’t the only architectural movement in the 1970s; postmodernism also had a brief run, represented here by James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, and by Farrell’s Peak Tower in Hong Kong and Embankment Place in London. However, the exhibition pays the postmodern movement only a brief tribute before dismissing it.
Photo by Carl Yost
Past this, though, the galleries lose focus. A section on branding identifies how contemporary architecture functions as an icon for the client (and designer), yet unlike prefab, systems thinking and pop, branding has no direct impact on architectural form. The swooping curves of Zaha Hadid appear beside the austere minimalism of David Chipperfield, as if to prove that iconic architecture is style-agnostic.
It’s disappointing—the exhibition lacks an explanation for why high-tech design prevailed, then evolved into the minimalist corporate modernism for which the five major firms are known today. Even those who maintain their high-tech reputations, like Foster and Rogers, largely abandoned the exposed mechanical systems and the Pop flourishes; vestiges of the style appear mostly in exposed structural forms.
So what happened? Perhaps, it’s just the general tendency of late-career work to become safer and more staid, compared to the breakthroughs and provocations of youth. It happens to poets and painters, too.
Or perhaps there’s more. In The Organizational Complex, architectural historian and Columbia University professor Reinhold Martin describes how, in the 1950s and 60s, architects like Eero Saarinen and Skidmore Owings & Merrill perfected a systematic approach to design that helped their clients manage the “organization man” of mid-twentieth-century capitalism. High-tech design, with its plug-and-play emphasis on affordable, repeatable building elements, advanced a similar approach in architectural (not social) terms, adding an avant-garde sheen to its alignment with corporate interests.
In this way, high-tech preserved the values of architectural modernism. So when postmodernism as a style faded, and postmodernism as a way of being—as a habit of commodification, branding and image-generation—prevailed, modernist architecture roared back in a big way. As the world emerged from recession, those architects who had made a name for themselves simply surfed the increasingly privatized global economy, along trade lines established centuries earlier by the British Empire.
In the end, many found themselves right back in London, in the surging skyscrapers of the city, the nucleus of global finance, and in posh Kensington, at the corner of One Hyde Park. When it comes to building a modern world, it seems there’s no place like home.
Photo by Carl Yost