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.

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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.

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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.