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Stifling architectural creativity brings no joy Add to ...

I think the world’s current economic recession is bad for everything and everyone. I haven’t heard or read a single fact that would cause me to doubt this opinion.

Not everyone agrees. In recent months, the notion that the downturn is, or will be, good for architecture has been making the rounds of the media pundits. The most recent manifestation of this point of view I’ve come across appeared a couple of weeks ago in Slate, the Web magazine. It’s an article by Witold Rybczynski, Slate’s architecture critic and one of America’s most interesting popular writers on the building art.

Mr. Rybczynski opens his essay with a moral tale from Mexico.

During the boom years of the last decade, Mexican architect Enrique Norten – until then an exemplary modernist – began coming under “pressure to produce increasingly unusual and startling buildings more along the lines of the Expressionist anti-rationalism of architects such as [Daniel] Libeskind, [Zaha] Hadid, and [Thom] Mayne.” Alas! Mr. Norten fell victim to this temptation and designed some “gyrating skyscrapers” that, due to the recession, have remained mercifully unbuilt.

Nor was Mr. Norten’s fall from grace an isolated phenomenon. Encouraged by “large budgets, a celebrity architectural culture, and computer-aided design,” architects everywhere crafted “distinctly odd” and “outlandish” buildings. (Mr. Rybczynski examples of excess and irresponsibility include, somewhat oddly, Santiago Calatrava's gracefully twisted apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden, and Frank Gehry's “apocalyptic” Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge – both of them, in my view, artistic triumphs of a very high order.)

Then along came the economic crash, which caused Enrique Norten to repent and return to his former modernism, thereby saving his soul. Mr. Rybczynski reports that, according to the born-again Mr. Norten, “architectural extravagance was a thing of the past. ‘Both architects and clients have become more responsible,’ he said.”

And how will the “anti-rationalists” fare in what Mr. Rybczynski calls “this new, responsible world?” Some of the headliners of the past decade will “coast on their reputations, finding commissions in increasingly obscure corners of the world.” Those crazy frat-house party animals coming out of the graduate schools of architecture, however, are in for a rude awakening – and a good thing, too. “Trained in the arcane arts of parametric design and generative architecture,” Mr. Rybczynski says in his Slate piece, “they will find themselves facing a world of chastened clients who demand discipline, restraint, and common sense.”

I have no problem with Mr. Rybczynski’s assertion that times and the fortunes of architecture have changed. They have. But I strongly object to his conclusion that this change is for the better.

Here’s why.

The history of architectural style has always proceeded in step with the technologies of architectural representation and construction. Design strategies during the most recent building boom were no exception to this general rule. Medieval designers were fascinated by the compass as a drawing instrument: hence the gravity-defying curves and arches in what they built. The modernists loved the T-square and the drafting table, and they appreciated advances in the manufacture of steel, glass and concrete – hence the right-angles, rectilinear steel frames and glazed skins of modern buildings.

What Mr. Rybczynski dismisses as the “arcane arts of parametric design and generative architecture” are merely the latest developments in this ongoing story. Of course, architects using computer-assisted drawing programs have produced some aesthetic failures and off-putting buildings: so-called “blobitecture” comes to mind.

But some wayward results are to be expected in any new adventure of the mind and spirit, and that includes the computer modelling that has made inroads into the schools and studios over the last couple of decades. We don’t usually damn an entire enterprise because some things in it turn out badly. Why Mr. Rybczynski chooses to do so now is bewildering to me. (Even Palladio, the brilliant Renaissance architect and experimentalist about whose work Mr. Rybczynski has written so well, put up a few duds.)

Taking the good with the bad, and giving the good its proper weight, we find that the new imagery of architecture created by computer-assisted design and production technologies has been, on the whole, a downright marvellous episode in the history of architecture. If this development coincided with a dangerously overheated economic situation and much excitement in the media about architecture, then so be it. The best designs by computer whizzes Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne and many other less senior artists were stunning contributions to contemporary urbanism, to civilization’s treasury of beauty and to the legacy of intelligence and imagination we leave to the future.

I am prepared to believe that the new post-crash sobriety – or timidity – among the clients of architecture could set back design 20 years or more. But I refuse to be happy about it.

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