New Generation Architecture
As the work published here demonstrates, architecture is clearly far from dead. The more it seems that architecture is pronounced dead, the more it seems to flourish.
It's a constantly inventive, constantly creative discipline, one that is blithely ready and willing, if not always able, to take on technology as well as philosophy, far beyond the level of its actual competencies. It's ready to operate at the scale of the individual object as well as the megalopolis, to embrace the intensely physical as well as the immaterial.
Architecture can now be a wider range of things than it has ever been, ranging all the way from militant ecological activism to installation art. It's still possible for architects to aspire to the formal purity and detailed rigor of Mies van der Rohe, to use architecture to critique fashion, and vice versa.
Architecture can be the route into urbanism or any amount of entrepreneurial development. It's about mud houses, and steel pods, salvaged sofas from the 1960s in fashionable bars, tributes to Buckminster Fuller and recalibrating conventional geometries.
More to the point, none of these things need necessarily be mutually exclusive. Architecture now is being defined by architects who refuse to allow themselves to be isolated by strict ideological quarantines from other disciplines.
Architecture is more fully part of a wider cultural landscape in Britain than at anytime since Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Smithsons and the young James Stirling first began to congregate in Soho central London, on Saturday mornings in the early 1950s to talk about American pop-imagery, industrial design, and the cult of the "ready-made."
The students emerging from the British architecture schools in the last ten years, and their teachers who are now beginning to build on a large scale, take for granted the formal freedom, and the openness of clients to fresh thinking, And they are ready to seize the opportunity it offers, without the paralyzing self-consciousness of their predecessors.
Of course, the fact that you can build virtually anything now and nobody turns a hair — even Daniel Libeskind's Spiral project for the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, west London, no longer seems out of the ordinary — creates a climate in which sensationalism and shock tactics conform to the law of diminishing returns.
Architecture is constantly changing, at a rate that is perhaps now faster than it has ever been. But it's also, in a sense, staying the same. The architect is given the chance to try to create a sense of order as if one perfectly proportioned, perfectly executed room can exist in the chaos of contemporary life.
But architecture can also be the means with which to engage with popular culture. It is in a position to make clear connections between theory and practice. It is an activity that is far from pure.
It is always open to contamination from other disciplines, partly because architects are such suckers for intellectual fads, and partly because they still, to an extent, labor under a certain inferiority complex. They constantly worry, deep down and in private, that they might not be quite serious enough.
Architecture is riddled with appealing contradictions that make it both worldly and unworldly. The architect is there to be taken advantage of and to take advantage. This is true not simply in the obvious sense of the commercial implications of architecture. Architecture now offers clients intellectual credibility, as well as direct economic advantage.
It's tempting to see these activities as mutually exclusive, to see architecture becoming an increasingly atomized activity, a balkanized group of tribes. Some cling to traditional definitions of making architecture that involve careful logistics and a sense of the physical, others work on the margins between installation and performance art. Others again turn their skills with the screen and the keyboard to good use.
It is tempting, but misleading. In the constantly mutating architectural climate in contemporary Britain, the apparently visionary can quickly be transformed into entirely practical. And vice versa. The rate of change and the constant exploration of new ways of practicing architecture make complacency impossible.
There has never been a moment when the enormously varied definitions of architecture have existed in such close proximity. Once it was possible to draw a clear line between architectural businessmen and architectural artists. Now it isn't.
To survive, the big architectural practices have had to start to pay attention to the ideas that are emerging at the more experimental end of architectural practice, and those experimental practices are themselves being taken more seriously outside the professional hothouse.
We are in the middle, not just of a generational shift, but probably also a paradigm shift about what architecture can be. The conventional notions of what constitutes mainstream architecture have been entirely transformed. At a time when architecture has begun to enjoy a wider audience, its own influences have also become more eclectic.
Architects read more, they write more, and they are interested in a much wider range of references, from Donald Judd to Derrida. Architecture has become a kind of cultural synthesis. The point about emerging architects is that they are not yet locked in stereotypes. They are finding their own voices as they experiment and explore.
What they put forward are the prototypes for new approaches. In a context in which architecture is higher on the wider cultural agenda than it has ever been, they have an energy that promises to make Britain an increasingly visible architectural center.
Deyan Sudjic is editor of Domus and architecture correspondent for The Observer. He has been appointed to organize the Venice Biennale for architecture in 2002.
This article is excerpted from New Architects 2 by the Architecture Foundation copyright © 2001, available from bookstores at $45.00 and from Amazon.com.
The Strawbale House and Quilted Office, Holloway, London, by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, London.
Photo: Paul Smoothy
Thomas Cook Group, call center, Peterborough, by Walker + Martin, London.
Photo: Morley von Sternberg
A reception island in Marakon offices by ACQ, London.
Photo: David Grandorge
Trafford Park Ecology Centre, Manchester, by Bareham Meddings, Leeds.
Photo: Bareham Meddings
Residential conversion, Clerkenwell, London, by KMK Architects, London.
Photo: Clive Frost
Extension to St. Donat's Art Centre, Wales, by Loyn and Co. Architects, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales.
Photo: Martin McCabe
Residential extension, Wimbledon, London, by Wilkinson King Architects, London.
Photo: Paul Tyagi
New Architects 2, by the Architecture Foundation.
Image: Merrell Publishers
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