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Thoroughly modern

Hugh Pearman

The High-Tech dream lives on

In the heady days of ‘technology transfer’ the conventional building industry was considered way out of step with the modern world.  The much-missed Jan Kaplicky liked to cite how much proper technology you could buy in car form compared to how much building work you could buy. ‘A few yards of brick wall, that’s about it,’ he would lament, as he designed his perfect, never-built, space-capsule wilderness homes.

Nick Grimshaw famously made a staircase in his office with aluminium treads set into a pair of aluminium yacht masts, acting as the main structure

This was when architects got excited about using ready-made components from other industries – typically the aluminium yacht mast. Nick Grimshaw famously made a staircase in his office with aluminium treads set into a pair of such masts, acting as the main structure. It creaked satisfyingly as you walked. And when a young Jonathan Ellis-Miller designed me and my family a lightweight, prefabricated first floor house extension in the early 1990s, its delicate spine truss was supported by – what else? – a modified Proctor yacht mast, rising from the garden. It was a lovely thing, supporting a deep metal-mesh balcony as well. How we hated the district surveyor who insisted we dig a hole, 1m wide by 2m deep, and fill it with concrete to make a secure base for this little mast. A paving slab would probably have done the job. That lump may well remain in the earth long after mankind has vanished from it. 

That aside, this was, even then, an exercise in High-Tech Revisited. We used twin-wall polycarbonate on the curve, as the pre-PoMo Terry Farrell had done at Clifton Nurseries in Paddington, and cheap off-cuts of Pilkington Planar glazing for the flat bits, leftovers from a big job somewhere. The era we were channelling already seemed historic: when Richard Rogers, say, had conceived of a house made of the insulated sandwich panels used on refrigerated trucks, an idea later taken up in bespoke fashion by Norman Foster on his Sainsbury Centre. That was the problem: although everyone loved the Eames idea of using readily-available off-the-peg components, in reality these tended to need so much modification that architects usually ended up designing them from scratch.

Technology transfer, then: not as easy or as rapid as you might think. Even today, with all our smart kit, most of us still leave our wi-fi networked houses and turn to lock the door with a key mechanism the Tudors would recognise. And then fish out our car fobs and press the plip to open the car, seeing nothing odd about two such utterly different ways of opening doors. Kaplicky, I suspect, would find little has changed, that despite certain advances you still can’t buy much building for the price of the average car – because most buildings are still not mass-produced.

But if the early gurus of technology transfer are growing old – old enough to be celebrated in the forthcoming RIBA exhibition ‘The Brits Who Built the Modern World’ – there is also the advance of materials science. Our profile of Zoe Laughlin reveals a way of looking at the world through materials that is both inquisitive and joyous. Maybe we’ll get there in the end.