Architects can't predict the future; why the fad for avant-garde architecture?

What we build.
Jan. 30 2008 7:32 AM

Don't Count Your Titanium Eggs Before They've Hatched

Why architects can't predict the future.

CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, by Rem Koolhaas. Click image to expand.
CCTV headquarters in Beijing, China, designed by Rem Koolhaas

Abu Dhabi has recently announced plans to turn itself into a sort of Arabian Left Bank, with cultural venues designed by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel. Beijing, meanwhile, is completing the giant steel bird's nest of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's Olympic Stadium, and also has Paul Andreu's titanium-egg National Theater, and Rem Koolhaas' unusual state television headquarters, which locals have dubbed "the twisted donut." An obscure sheikhdom on the Gulf and the world's largest Communist dictatorship have unexpectedly become the latest hotbeds of avant-garde architecture.

Avant-garde is a French term that originally meant the advance guard of an army, and in the late 1800s came to refer to pioneering painters, particularly the Impressionists, who considered themselves to be at the forefront of art. Since that time, the concept of an avant-garde has become popular in architecture, where "mainstream" has become a term of opprobrium, and anyone worth their salt is "experimental," "innovative," or "cutting edge." The clear implication is that buildings designed by avant-garde architects are ahead of their time. But are steel bird's nests, titanium eggs, and twisted helixes really a portent of the future?

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In some ways, the term architectural avant-garde is an oxymoron, since an architect, unlike a painter, is able to experiment only within relatively narrow bounds. Buildings are expensive, and they are intended to last a long time, so the people who build them tend to be risk-averse. But even an architect who finds a patron—like the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, or the Chinese government—willing to take a chance, still faces the limitations of building regulations and existing construction materials and techniques. True experiments in building are few and far between.

Even if a building succeeds in breaking the mold, that is no guarantee that it is showing the way, for innovative buildings rarely anticipate the future. There have been exceptions. Frank Lloyd Wright's first Usonian house, built in 1936, with its one-story living, open plan, carport, and low-slung roof, did foreshadow the ranch houses of the '50s and '60s, and Mies van der Rohe's novel Lake Shore Drive apartment towers in Chicago, completed in 1951, were the first example of the steel-and-glass-curtain wall that would dominate commercial architecture for the next two decades. But the white Cubist houses of the '20s, which were often described as avant-garde by their makers, did not herald the future (except in the sense of producing Richard Meier's revival, 40 years later). Le Corbusier, one of the leading white-box practitioners, soon got bored and turned to rougher, more sculptural, raw concrete. New Brutalism, a term coined by architectural historian Reyner Banham, seemed to be the coming thing. But buildings such as Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, proved unpopular with the public, and within a decade or two, Brutalism was dead and something else—Postmodernism—had come along.

The truth is that buildings belong firmly to their own time. This is especially true of architecture that self-consciously attempts to predict the future. That's why the settings of old sci-fi movies are often so funny; the future never turns out the way people imagine. Most buildings have a shelf life of 20 to 30 years; that is, it takes 20 to 30 years before they are perceived as "old-fashioned." This doesn't mean that the buildings are ugly, or not useful, or not cherished—simply that they now represent the past. That's not necessarily a bad thing—it would be disorienting to live in an environment that never aged (actually, it would be like living in Las Vegas).

One day, say in 2050, people will look at Herzog and de Meuron's bird's nest, Andreu's egg, and Koolhaas' twisted donut, and think, "Pretty good for its time," or, "What was all the fuss about?" or perhaps, "How quaint." For whatever the architecture of the day, it almost certainly will not include bird's nests or titanium eggs or twisted donuts. The real question about new buildings should never be "Are they cutting edge?" but "Are they good?"

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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