WELCOME TO THE AGE OF AUSTERITY. The moralizing backlash against the architectural excesses of recent years has already begun. In October, The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted the spectacularly bad timing of Hadid's Chanel Mobile Art pavilion, a multi-million-dollar paean to a handbag, erected in Central Park as part of a six-city world tour. “The pavilion's coiled form,” Ouroussoff wrote, “in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations, straying farther and farther from the real world outside, is an elaborate mousetrap for consumers.”
There's no denying the valuable contributions of Frank Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, and other shape-makers of the early 21st century, but I can't shake the feeling that today there are more pressing matters to address than the design and construction of radical form. In 20 years, or 200, history may recall such works without moral bias, the way we've disassociated the Roman Baroque from the conservative excesses of the Counter-Reformation. (Remember, while Bernini was building the baldacchino at St. Peter's, his patron, Pope Urban VIII, sicced the Inquisition on Galileo for daring to suggest that the Earth revolved around the sun.) Can we forgive Hadid for fiddling while Baghdad burned?
Methinks the profession's 10-year love affair with Shock Value Modernism is nearing an end. This is cause for celebration, not because Modernism lacked value at its inception or because we have nothing to learn from it now – we do, as Clay Risen observes in “Looks Good, Good for You” [page 41] – but because the current, form-follows- fashion version is totally disassociated from the movement's socially minded origins. The torch has passed to a different kind of architect, one concerned not with global spectacle but with saving the planet. Given what's at stake, I hope we can agree that salvation's the better product.
GET READY FOR THE GREAT LEAP BACKWARD. With the passing of extreme Modernism, so too will go the obstinate faith that technology can solve all of society's problems.
When did buildings start to look the same on all sides? At some point, seduced by air conditioning, artificial lighting, and other apparent necessities, architects forgot the ancient, elemental strategies of environmental design. The time has come to remember. Try this one: “Summer triclinia should be towards the north,” Vitruvius wrote in De Architectura, “because that aspect, unlike others, is not heated during the summer solstice, but, on account of being turned away from the course of the sun, is always cool, and affords health and refreshment.” Granted, the translation's a bit dry, but the idea is hot.
Innovation will persist, even flourish, in the new era, with its epic challenges, but many of our efforts will concentrate on the recapturing or refining of long-neglected technologies, as MacArthur “genius” John Ochsendorf is doing with load-bearing masonry [page 37]. Twenty years ago, who could have imagined that a windmill would epitomize the future of energy? Building-performance experts say that the architecture of the future will look – or, more precisely, work – a lot like the architecture of the past. The new model office, for instance, will adopt strategies from the high rises of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their setbacks, light wells, and narrow floor plates to encourage daylight and airflow. Even the risk-averse, cost-conscious development community is beginning to grasp that sun and wind come free of charge. Indeed, all across the nation, prejudices are fading in the face of necessity. Some architects may even overcome their superficial stylistic objections to the New Urbanism and begin to appreciate the value of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities.
Many advances of the next decades will feel an awful lot like retractions, as we undo decades of damage to our built and natural environments. Ultimately, the goal is to consider the built and natural environments with one all-encompassing vision. Just imagine the aesthetic possibilities of nanotechnology and biomimetic design. The reformation of architecture doesn't have to result in a creative setback – nobody has to wear a hair shirt. We can do just about anything, so long as we do it naturally.