Enrique Norten and architecture in the Great Recession—it's for the better.

What we build.
Jan. 13 2011 7:36 AM

The Return of Common Sense

How the Great Recession has changed architecture—for the better.

Five years ago, I wrote an essay for Slate about Mexican architect Enrique Norten. I characterized Norten, whose work I admire, as belonging to the rationalist tradition of Modernism. I also observed that, judging from some of his recent designs, he was succumbing to pressure to produce increasingly unusual and startling buildings more along the lines of the Expressionist anti-rationalism of architects such as Libeskind, Hadid, and Mayne. "It would be a shame if Norten were pulled in this direction," I wrote. "The theatricality weighs uneasily on his unsentimental and tough brand of minimal modernism." Well, he was pulled. In the following two years he designed a number of gyrating skyscrapers whose fey whimsy rivalled the anti-rationalists. Thankfully, none were built—the Great Recession saw to that.

It is impossible to exaggerate the chilling effect of the economic slowdown on the architectural profession. For a developer or an institutional client faced with a weakening market or a diminished endowment, the easiest thing to do is simply pick up the phone and cancel any project that is not actually under construction. Even if it's under way, there is still time: In Las Vegas, a 49-story Norman Foster-designed hotel stopped at 28 floors. Between 2007 and 2009, the Dodge Index from McGraw-Hill Construction, which measures construction activity in the United States, dropped from 135 to 85. As a result, architectural firms shrank drastically, layoffs of 50 percent or more were common, small firms simply closed up shop, and older architects took early retirement. Since the recession was global, even international practices like Norten's were not insulated from the slowdown.


Construction is a cyclical industry, and the architectural profession is used to weathering periodic periods of boom and bust. This particular dip, however, may have another effect. The last boom coincided with a loosening—some would say abandonment—of architectural propriety. Building booms often encourage excess—think of the Gilded Age—but this time large budgets, a celebrity architectural culture, and computer-aided design combined to produce a spate of distinctly odd buildings, such as Santiago Calatrava's twisting apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden, and Frank Gehry's apocalyptic Stata Center at MIT. Anything that could be imagined was built. Architecture is highly competitive, and it was common practice for clients to invite several leading architects to submit designs before awarding the commission. The pressure to outdo one's rivals pushed designers to propose increasingly outlandish buildings. Because originality was rewarded by media coverage, clients encouraged this tendency.

Rendering of Guerrero state capitol.
Rendering of Guerrero state capitol courtesy Enrique Norten/TENArquitectos.

Responding to a question following a recent public lecture, Norten observed that such architectural extravagance was a thing of the past. "Both architects and clients have become more responsible," he said. The change is reflected in his own work. Having weathered the brunt of the downturn, his practice has revived and is busy again: a residential tower and cultural facilities in the BAM Cultural District in Brooklyn, a just-completed contemporary art museum in Mexico City, and a state government center under construction in Acapulco. The designs of these buildings suggest that the architect has returned to his roots. They are simple structures that derive their organization from the activities that they contain, and whose forms are grounded in construction rather than in arbitrary shape-making. "This work is not about graphics," Norten said, referring to the kind of computer-generated designs that characterize the work of many of his contemporaries.

What will happen to the anti-rationalists in this new, responsible world? It's not easy for an architect to change his spots—just look at the diminished fortunes of Paul Rudolph in the 1970s, or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the 1980s. The big names will coast on their reputations, finding commissions in increasingly obscure corners of the world. Turkmenistan, anyone? The losers will be the current generation of young graduates. Trained in the arcane arts of parametric design and generative architecture, they will find themselves facing a world of chastened clients who demand discipline, restraint, and common sense. Big chill, indeed.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
The Vault
Sept. 18 2014 9:57 AM “The Sun Never Sets Upon the British Empire,” Explained in GIF by an Old Children’s Toy
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Sept. 18 2014 8:53 AM The Other Huxtable Effect Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?