Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Architects, the flow of matter, and the lightness of being.

Recently the habits of millennia have been overturned.  It used to be so simple: look for firm foundations in the earth, erect walls or columns, and roof the space.  Then you had a building.  But now buildings must be free of the earth, without distinction between walls and roof, one continuous free-floating flowing form that moves effortlessly, unimpeded by gravity, appearing as a smooth harmonious stream of matter.   These are some of the digital dreams of architects, the ones that managed to be realised as in a physical form, and perhaps like any such utopian imaginings, they will prove as illusory and transitory as those of the past.  

Recently the habits of millennia have been overturned. It used to be so simple: look for firm foundations in the earth, erect walls or columns, and roof the space. Then you had a building. But now buildings must be free of the earth, without distinction between walls and roof, one continuous free floating flowing form that moves effortlessly, unimpeded by gravity, appearing as a smooth, harmonious stream of matter. The old-style solid square walls are redundant if only because they that create turbulence and an unnecessary barrier to the easy movement of space and materials.
In the recent London Olympics in London, the Aquatics Centre designed by Zaha Hadid has made obvious to all the increasingly liquid dreams of architects. Here ‘the fluid geometries of water in motion’ have become a building. The excuse for this watery excess is the need to depict the movement of a diving swimmer, or perhaps the surrounding river landscape, or even, on a more personal level, the villages of the marshes of the southern part of her native Iraq where ‘... where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together..’. The Aquatics Centre may be at the highest end of the spectrum, but the need for a gushing torrent of matter seems now to pervade the most humble of buildings designed by architects.

What has created this revolution?

Perhaps it was the modern conceit that architecture should reflect the times we live in. The possible explanations seem endless: a couple of generations of architects brought up on science fiction fantasies; greater awareness of space and the continuity between earth and space; at the other end of the scale, a heightened concern with the interconnectedness of our biological existence (the complex exchanges of substances at all levels); possibly the instability of daily lives lived in a ceaseless flow of information (blame the digitalised globalised age); or at a mundane level, simply emulating the design of new consumer products. New construction technologies have allowed architects to use every one of the three hundred and sixty degrees in their work and the turn-of-the-century economic boom (whose aftereffects we are still struggling with) funded the excesses of this very expensive building style.

While these may all play a part, in the end, perhaps it is just architects sitting at their computers playing with their fantasies and wanting to realise these fantasies in the real physical world. The style represents a triumph of the power of computers where all is without weight, infinitely malleable and, almost instantly, comprehensively re-imaginable.

As in the past, the power of new technologies stimulated utopian ideals. Design became separated from ordinary life as architects tried to grasp the infinity of possibilities now emerging. The temptation to try to step beyond the mundane, the here and now, and the constraints of small minds, limited budgets and the slow grind of current events was too tempting. Reality should become a close as possible to the limitlessness of digital space and the convenience of the ‘undo’ button.

The parallels with the Futurism art movement of the early Twentieth century could be instructive. Particularly in Italy, for people like the poet Marinetti, the new machines appeared to promise an extension of human capability beyond what his ancestors could have dreamed of: enormous earthy speed, escape from the ground into flight, and instant power anywhere for illumination or the cheap conversion of materials. There was a desperate desire for the future, an effort to escape the terrible, backward, second-rate present. Technology could not be argued with: unequivocal, unambiguous, unencumbered by history and the compromises of politicians (and therefore, Fascist).

While some of these new technologies ultimately came to be connected with violence and death, others suggested more of a dull de-humanising repetitious monotony, the opposite of desired artistic creativity. Ultimately, the movement proved to be fragile, merely the dreams of a few, not in touch with the broader realities of the stable political system that was necessary to be effective in the long term, a system that could accommodate the societal shifts required for sustainable innovation. The style represented an obsession with the current crop of technologies, not a grasp of the full possibilities of the idea.

Our current obsession with the flow for matter may prove to have a similar fragility as the current falling economic tide reveals the disconnection of the digital classes. The promises of rising freedom may well hit the reality of falling real world incomes. The enormous cost of these digital dreams adds to the potential style collapse. Hadid’s aquatic palace relied on the old technologies of steel and concrete, requiring complex structures hidden behind the seamless skin, not simple elegant engineering. Solvent governments may have sought prestige projects to gather world attention, but the current fiscally-constrained ones not doubt find it hard to justify the limited economic benefits that any new schemes might bring, particularly as the oversupply of large floating forms anchored in would-be global cities reduce potential returns.

The increasingly obvious broken promises of the new technologies may also impact on the dream. The developing sense that the digital world may leave us vulnerable as much as enabling us and, for all its complexity and enormous information flows, reduce the depth of life as the concern for the surface of things increases at the expense of what Marinetti derided as ‘the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth’. It was a pleasant dream while it lasted.

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