British or international style?

By | Art & Design
Exhibition The Brits who Built the Modern World at Royal Institute of British Architects

The series of events organised by The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA, one of the main bodies regulating architectural practise in Britain), under the name of The Brits who Built the Modern World offers an interesting chance to re-visit the British contribution to modern built environment and look at its future promises. While the first event of the series, the show Empire Builders: 1750-1950 at the V&A, digs into the historical origins of more recent developments and practise of British architecture at home and abroad; two other events, which will begin tomorrow, will focus on the specific architectural style mostly known as High-Tech. These two feature the BBC4 documentary series The Brits who Built the Modern World and the exhibition with the same title hosted by the RIBA headquarters in Portland Place, London.

The Reichstag by Norman Foster (c) Nigel Young

The Reichstag by Norman Foster (c) Nigel Young

The Brits who Built the Modern World 1950-2012 will be launched alongside another exhibition at the RIBA from the above-mentioned series (with title New British Works – today and tomorrow), and will inaugurate the new architecture galleries at 66 Portland Place which will host regular free exhibitions.

Hearst Tower, NY by Foster + Partners (c) Chuck Choi

Hearst Tower, NY by Foster + Partners (c) Chuck Choi

The show traces more than 60 years of history of architecture focusing on how a generation of British architects (Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, Michael and Patty Hopkins and Terry Farrell) has colonised the global architectural and construction market spreading the verb of High Tech style. The show investigates the rise and success of a larger and still popular trend initiated by these successful designers with the display of about 200 items including photographs, drawings, models and more.

At first sight we seem to be witnessing a contemporary version of Hitchcock and Johnson’s International Style exhibition at MoMA (Exhibition 15 – Modern Architecture – International Exhibition, 1932) which celebrated the aesthetic canon of modern architecture as international language. In particular, the exhibition at MoMA and the one of the RIBAhave some key features in common:

  • They represent the end of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde respectively, stripping the avant-garde practise and inheritance of any content-based definition and favouring instead the purely aesthetic aspects of architecture.
  • A national pride/appropriation of the style (the Americanisation of part of the European modern architecture in the MoMA case and the English “colonisation” of the world and spread of High Tech style as a global verb in the RIBA one)
  • The praise of the styles for their international character (they are good because they fit any context).

In some ways the RIBA show is the appropriate step forward to complete what started in the early 30s. The Brits…, even more than the Exhibition 15, by focusing on some aesthetic achievements in the design of High Tech buildings and their more recent relatives, brings up political and economic questions unavoidably bound to many of these projects (especially the built ones).

Rendering for Delhi Station (unbuilt as yet) (c) Terry Farrell & Partners

Rendering for Delhi Station (unbuilt as yet) (c) Terry Farrell & Partners

Though the RIBA show partly narrates how Foster, Rogers and Co. had reached success embracing the language aesthetics of the neo-avant-garde of the post war (including the production of what is popularly known as “paper architecture” which widely continued over the 1970s), on the other hand it highlights how this style became a popular economic and political tool for corporations and “city branding” from the 1980s onwards. Buildings like the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, The Peak in Hong Kong and Madrid Barajas airport, reveal the role that Britain and its designers undertook in the globalisation processes that lie behind the use of this style-code for buildings.

In other words it barely matters if this time the style is defined by colourful pipes and plug-in cities instead of the “masses brought together in light”; at the beginning of the third millennium the RIBA exhibition invites the public to become more aware of the powerful role that building design and the built environment still conserve in our society, even in the ephemeral context of the information age.

What does it mean nowadays to use the word style to define a design trend? In which way the term is still useful to describe and shape the state of the art of architectural practise and discourse?



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