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And what will tomorrow bring?

In this conclusion from his new book of collected architectural writing, Classic Columns, Robert Adam looks in his crystal ball and sees only endless pluralism

Landscape of the Architectural Aesthetic, 2009. Adam observes that the post-postmodern thicket has now been breached.
Landscape of the Architectural Aesthetic, 2009. Adam observes that the post-postmodern thicket has now been breached. Credit: Robert Adam

Prediction is dangerous. Our judgement can only be based on our experience of the past – recent and remote. Too often we just extend our optimism or pessimism into the future. From experience, however, we know that the unexpected often confounds all expectation. In the end, the only thing we really know about the future is that we don’t know what it is.

In architecture and urban design we do, however, have the advantage of a very slow-moving phenomenon: inception to completion for a significant project would be a minimum of five years and is often much longer; the complexity and perils of designing major building projects means that they are most often entrusted to middle-aged or older practitioners who have rarely advanced their ideological thinking beyond the end of their formal education. Add to this the fact that core functions based on human need change very little and new developments in building materials and techniques require long-term testing before they make any impact on construction.

Most significantly, architecture and urban design are not society’s prime movers; politics, economics and social change are the principal drivers of change. It is inevitable that architecture and urban design will – most likely with a time lapse – reflect changes in politics, economics and society. In the final analysis, for all the intellectual and artistic posturing, it is developments in these phenomena that architecture and urban design must and will serve.

So, any anticipation of the future of architecture should first look at the way society is changing. However, while the relationship between architectural and societal change can be remarkably clear in retrospect, any such prediction can only be expressed as a broad tendency. The aesthetic response will be less certain.

To gain some more detailed idea of how these changes might be expressed we can look at how the experience of up-and-coming age groups differs from that of their predecessors. As noted above, the structure of the design professions means that what we are seeing now is the product of ideas circulating two or more decades ago. Future design will be in the hands of younger architects whose background and ideas have not yet had a major impact on the profession.

Social, economic and political change

The tension between the forces of globalisation and localisation, which began in the early 1990s, has entered a new phase but shows no sign of ending. At the end of the last century, the establishment of a global market as Russia, China and India became part of a globalised economic system, together with low-cost travel and the creation of the internet, created a financially and socially interconnected world that penetrated all levels of the world population to an unprecedented degree. This social and economic standardisation was accompanied by apparently contradictory political fragmentation. In the same time frame, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia broke into constituent parts, India and Brazil federalised their regions and indigenous populations began to assert long-suppressed ancestral rights.

More recently, the forces of homogenisation and fragmentation have continued in new ways.

The global crash of 2008 revealed major weaknesses in the North Atlantic domination of the world financial system. The influence of the Chinese economy has reached a level where this, and not just the US economy, has become one of the barometers of the global financial condition and China has grown to be a major global corporate investor. Dormant structural weaknesses have opened up in the European Union (most recently signalled by an impending British exit) and have begun to threaten the position of the once-dominant continent in world affairs. At the same time, international corporations have continued to free themselves from national boundaries, exposing the inadequacies of the post-World-War-II nation-based taxation system.

  • Adam's 1986 capriccio of a Classical Street features architects of the past including Lutyens, with Adam and Quinlan Terry front left and right.
    Adam's 1986 capriccio of a Classical Street features architects of the past including Lutyens, with Adam and Quinlan Terry front left and right. Credit: Robert Adam
  • Another capriccio. Adam, far right, with solar specialist Ray Maw and the clients for their Solar House, Brenda and Harold Carter.
    Another capriccio. Adam, far right, with solar specialist Ray Maw and the clients for their Solar House, Brenda and Harold Carter. Credit: Robert Adam

While these homogenising forces continue and develop, the fragmentation of the nation state has taken on a new and darker turn. In response to the cultural domination of first Russia and then the United States, a militant assertion of Islamic identity began in central Asia. In a chain reaction, international terrorism led to a US-led war and the destabilisation of Iraq. An unbalanced youth-dominated demographic in Middle Eastern and North African countries and the impact of social media led to a destabilisation of a number of dictatorships in the, so-called, Arab Spring. Rather than democratisation, which western nations anticipated, the impact of the revolutions led to further fragmentation, civil war and the rise of a form of aggressive Muslim identity. Regions with the ambitions of statehood but without the military infrastructure have resorted to increasingly savage terrorism to assert their position. One consequence is accelerated global migration which has driven some European nations to retreat into their own ethnicity, fragmenting the federal ambitions of the European Union.

The internet itself has come to share the tension between global and minority interests. Digital communication is a major globalising phenomenon but, by changing the way information is disseminated, it has undermined both established news media and the state control of news. Social media have created alternative and unconstrained channels of mass communication which have facilitated the formation of new groups and given them the freedom to sustain particular and extreme ideologies.

We now seem to be engaged in continued tension between globalisation and localisation, expressed economically by the global free market, socially by the world reach of the internet and the local impact of social media, and politically by the old hegemons of the established nation states – held together by coercion or old-fashioned patriotism – and fragmentation into regional, ethnic, faith- or ideology-based loyalties. 

Architecture and urban design as a reflection of wider social change

We should expect the same broad phenomena to be reflected in architecture and urban design.

It is easy to identify the hegemonic and globalising tendency but an equivalent fragmentation is harder to identify. The fundamental architectural philosophy of modernism is a global phenomenon, once known as the ‘international style’. The creation of a global market and the association of modernism with North Atlantic culture and corporate success led to it becoming a universal architectural style, certainly from the 1990s onwards but with a much earlier international impact.

On closer examination, however, modernism today is not as monolithic as it might appear. Its adherents range from literal followers of its 1930s origins to radical free-form expressionism. It includes a kind of regional style articulated with highly abstract forms as well as quite explicit metaphors of local (but never quite literal architectural) phenomena. There is even occasional, if oblique, reference to historic architectural decoration or form.

The global unity of modernism through this diversity is maintained by a series of factors: claims to follow the precepts of its pioneers, creating a tradition particular to its adherents; widespread public disaffection which unites its exponents with a feeling of exclusivity and reforming zeal; the existence of a very small but opposing movement that resembles the explicit traditionalism that its pioneers originally opposed; and above all, the underlying idea that it is historically imperative to constantly reinvent and change in order to make each era different and so ‘of its time’, which ideal allows the most extreme expressionism to be supported by more conservative practitioners.

There are inherent contradictions in this apparently unified movement. The pursuit of novelty has established a cult of global star architects which command huge fees, often creating dramatic but impractical structures. This is almost precisely contrary to the messianic rationality, modesty and socially reforming objectives of the modernist pioneers – which objectives star architects nonetheless claim to follow. The opportunities of CAD have eclipsed any concept of stripped-down functionalism and the machine aesthetic has become little more than nostalgic decoration. Any revival of an aesthetic derived from the pioneers themselves is contrary to their insistence that architecture should change to reflect its time – there is little in computing and space travel that modernist pioneers would recognise.

Adam's sketch for a new neoclassical New York skyscraper.
Adam's sketch for a new neoclassical New York skyscraper. Credit: Robert Adam

The passage of time itself is likely to increase the variety of styles that come under the banner of modernism. As its pioneers become more distant and their original background becomes increasingly less relevant, modernism itself becomes a formal century-old tradition. Furthermore, any architect that has qualified since the early 1990s has never experienced any realistic challenge to the hegemony of the movement. Postmodernism, the last major counter-movement, died out dramatically and completely in North Atlantic countries in the financial crash of the early 90s. The surviving traditionalist movement is no real threat; its routine denigration is little more than a taught reflex and is increasingly being replaced by tolerance, curiosity and even the adoption of traditional elements in modernist design.

What unity remains is largely restricted to North Atlantic countries or amongst those trained in North Atlantic institutions, where modernism originated and is culturally embedded. There is little adherence in principle to modernism as a dominant philosophy in emerging economies, except in as much as it has status as the representative of the culture of free-market success – an increasingly irrelevant economic concept. Indeed, postmodernism still flourishes in secondary architectural practice in these countries and even the most dogged North Atlantic disciples of modernism have been led to adopt literal metaphor, of a kind they would have rejected out of hand only a decade before, in order to obtain work in these markets. As the dominance of the North Atlantic economies declines, so will the ideologies that they espouse.

The term ‘modernism’ itself has largely been abandoned to more generalised epithets such as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, which has led many practitioners, who nonetheless adhere to its core philosophy, to deny that they are modernists at all. In the final analysis and common usage, however, euphemisms such as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ mean no more than ‘currently occurring’, leaving the description of what is left of modernism open to wider interpretation. As more variants emerge, it is likely that the significance of the key unifying ideas will become so dilute as to become irrelevant and the phenomenon will be reduced just to architecture itself. The traditions of early modernism share an origin with later inventive classicism and, as the dogged opposition to all that is traditional fades, the more open-minded members of the two currently opposing movements could find common inspiration in a shared past.

In urban design, where the failure of early modernist thinking is so stark that it has largely been abandoned, this process is more advanced. The rhetoric of modernist and traditionalist practitioners has converged. Human scale, walkability, context and other concepts are almost universal. It is only when the architect-urbanists turn their plans into buildings that any difference in outlook becomes evident. Any stylistic debate in urban design, however, pales into insignificance when faced with the overwhelming crisis of urbanisation in the developing economies.

The consequence of rapid urbanisation is the informal settlement or slum, where temporary housing and casual industry are erected without planning on expropriated land. In many developing nations this creates a crisis in sanitation, servicing, crime and land control. The response takes two forms, one centralised and the other heterogeneous. Most common is partial or total clearance and replacement with apartment blocks, often in towers. This centralised approach is relatively easy to administer but revives discredited modernist planning, leaving open the possibility of a repeat of the social problems of the mid-20th century. The alternative is to provide land rights to the occupants and provide services without extensive demolition. This is harder to manage and control but retains the natural efficiency and social energy of the settlements.

It is possible that we are witnessing in architecture and urban design precisely the dialogue between homogenisation and fragmentation that is found in society, economics and politics. We are, nonetheless, likely to see the continued espousal of the cult-like doctrine of modernism; the attraction of exclusivity, radicalism and historical determinism will take a long time to pass. As a consequence, the persistence of what has become an almost ritual disparagement of traditionalists will continue. This will not only allow traditionalists to define their identity as an opposition but, by being an opposition, will give an increasingly diverse modernism the last refuge of its own distinct identity. But while lip service to legacy philosophies may carry on, changes can occur at a more fundamental level until protagonists eventually realise that their arguments are hollow.

Things are identified as much by what they are not as by what they are. As the inheritors of modernism bring more and more into their compass, eventually they will have no singular identity. I believe we are witnessing a fragmentation of universal modernism to an extent that, if the process continues, we will just be left with ‘architecture’ redefined individually into its complementary parts.

© Robert Adam. This is an extract from Classic Columns, 40 Years of Writing on Architecture, published by Cumulus, £40