Man and Machine

Robert Indiana’s 1928 HOPE, partner of LOVE, in front of the Sears Tower, Chicago / Credit: Gwen Webber

The Modernist idea that technology can democratise production and liberate workers has been eroded by the lack of risk-taking and experimentation on a large scale. Although the d-shape 3D-layering machine has the potential to revolutionise the way buildings are produced, in trying to gain support from investors its inventor Enrico Dini came up against emphatic rejection. Having touted the technology around architectural practices and private equity firms in London, Dini appears finally to have found a customer in the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which has expressed interest in testing a working prototype. But others’ reluctance to get involved with the technology highlights an attitude that is endemic in both construction and mass-production.

The situation is symptomatic of a wider problem of parochialism in architecture. Historically, technology was used in Modernist ideology as a tool to improve the quality of life through labour-saving devices and the democratisation of production. When Reyner Banham wrote A House is Not a Home in 1965, it was with the intention of highlighting the possibilities of a specific technological phenomenon, services such as heating and ventilation, to create new ways of building. As with Buckminster Fuller, this enthusiasm for experimentation to bring about change reflected a belief in technology’s ability to create alternative living environments. Experimental architecture should not necessarily imply just the shapely buildings and attention-seeking landmark architecture that has been built over the past 12 years. In most cases it is the product of a climate of social change in which risks are taken with novel modes of practice.

It was through forward-thinking investors that Le Corbusier made manifest his claims to modern living in the Unité d’Habitation; and a sense of excitement about what architecture could symbolise that enabled Richard Rogers to build the Lloyds building, the first high-profile high-tech architecture in the UK. Today there is little evidence of enthusiasm for experimental architecture. Instead, ambitious projects are tainted by vitriolic criticism on moral grounds, as in the case of the recently completed Burj Khalifa, now the world’s tallest building. It often falls to engineers to maintain a sense of ambition about the future. Discussing the controversy over the Burj Khalifa, its engineer Bill Baker who is a partner in architect SOM (the firm that designed the building before chief architect Adrian Smith took it over in his own name) said defiantly: ‘I think all skyscrapers are symbols of hope. People who build skyscrapers are optimistic about their times and their future. Skyscrapers are dreams rendered in steel and concrete.’

It seems a gross contradiction that technological experiments in the production of luxury commodities are deemed acceptable, while large-scale building projects that may bring wider benefits directly or indirectly, are not. Thomas Heatherwick’s use of manufacturing machinery from the aerospace industry to make limited edition art works, and Basso and Brooke’s digital printing process that creates bespoke high-fashion find themselves exempt from such carping.

So where is the democratic impetus of Modernism? Where is the ambition to use those technologies to make building components and inexpensive products for mass production? In 1853, when the elevator was unveiled in New York, its inventor Elisha Otis offered a chance to change the existing concept of inhabitable space. The sky really did become the limit. Now that ambition had access to technology, people were able to raise the bar. By the middle of the 20th Century, with the failure of social revolutions and growing dissolution with the project of socialism, Modernism become bound up with technological determinism. Later, the link between technology and dystopia became a favourite subject for writers and filmmakers, and by the 1970s modernist architecture was being held up as a warning of the danger of experimentation.

One area in which technology-driven design still has a firm footing is in the consumer goods market, where constant innovation means that access to relatively inexpensive, novel products is wider than ever before. Amazon’s most ‘gifted’ item last Christmas was its inelegant Kindle e-reader, while the iPhone’s inexhaustible apps are changing how we navigate our environment, as well as affecting how we communicate.

Often it seems that designers are held back by the conservativism of builders, yet there is new evidence that contractors are introducing technology for economic reasons. Contractor Laing O’Rourke recently announced plans for a factory using Japanese robotic technology to make prefabricated housing. In January the firm was given a boost by the announcement of a government agreement to build several thousand new homes, laying the basis for the firm to make a multi-million pound investment in the technology. However the design of the homes, which is based on a timber and steel-frame system and looks identical to homes built using traditional techniques, is at odds with the technology behind it. Architects should be knocking at their door with ideas about how to use this construction method in ways that no one has yet imagined.

This article was published as the View opener in Blueprint magazine, March 2010. www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk

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