"High-tech never went away, though many wish it had"
High-tech architecture is not on the verge of a comeback. It actually never went away, says Owen Hatherley.
Every era comes back as a revival eventually. The fact that, in 2025, semi-ironically liking Make or Will Alsop buildings will be a top edgelord position is depressing, but an inevitability that it is pointless to lament.
But not all revivals are the same. In contemporary architecture, there are major revivals of brutalism and postmodernism, with online cults, books, and a few architects designing in a manner inspired by the original. But the difference between the politicised nostalgia of one and the raised eyebrow does-it-offend-you-yeah tone of the other is glaring. But what if there are architectures that are revival-proof?
Only one important architectural ideology of the last few decades has never returned – high-tech. It never went away, though clearly many wish it had.
Few recent works by the great British masters of the genre have pleased critics much, although a few, like Grimshaw's Carbuncle Cup-winning suspension of the Cutty Sark inside an overengineered glass skirt, have infuriated them.
There is a retrospective on high-tech superstructures on now at one of Norman Foster's finest early buildings, the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich. There, the peculiar fact that these 1970s and 1980s buildings feel neither retro nor nostalgic can be explored more fully.
Few recent works by the great British masters of the genre have pleased critics much
Great glass spans, aluminium panels, ETFE and smooth steel members, services on the outside and a feeling of machine-made luxury and interchangability – it would would be odd for these totally normal features of the 21st-century built environment to provoke the sentimental feeling of distinct pastness that creates nostalgia.
If they were interested in the question at all – unlikely, as architects who have always professed to find notions of style and aesthetics to be mere distractions, and who would consider the idea of buildings eliciting emotional responses to be totally absurd – then most high-tech designers would consider this a victory. Their architecture has always just been an expression of the zeitgeist, nothing more; just 'the style of the day', as that old Hegelian Nikolaus Pevsner, used to say.
At the same time, this is the architecture that most critics and architects under 50 find most infuriating, a global, homogenising slurry of luxury flats, airports and stacked trading floors, devoid of any apparent interest in place, history or urban grain. Worst of all are the ritual arguments it forces us into, the tedious scrap where we have to accept, say, those octogenerian bad boys, the high-tech lords, on the one side, and comedy reactionaries like Quinlan Terry and Leon Krier on the other as the only options for urban architecture.
This is the architecture that most critics and architects under 50 find most infuriating
For all the interest that Richard Rogers, for instance, professes to have in historic piazzas, it is striking how high-tech architects lose the plot most when in historic environments, from the mangling of the Cutty Sark to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners attaching a chunk of Stockley Park to the British Museum or Hopkins Architects' overbearing Portcullis House opposite Parliament. However civic they may look on the plan, in reality these have a CGI-like quality, and the buildings around may as well just be a blue screen.
There's a political dimension to this too. It's increasingly widely accepted that something was seriously lost in the denunciation and destruction of welfare state modernism, but Foster and Rogers, along with Michael and Patty Hopkins and Nicholas Grimshaw, were the first major generation of British architects to never build council housing – unless we count Foster's very early, notoriously non-functional and now-unrecognisable Bean Hill estate of tin shacks in Milton Keynes.
Rogers' bizarre but charming idea, recently expressed, that the gorgeous Eames-via-Blofeld lair he designed for his parents in Wimbledon at the end of the 1960s was "meant to solve the whole of the British housing problem", because it was made of mass-produced components, suggests that this wasn't high-tech architects' fault. This was apparently meant to be a better, smoother version of, say, the large panel systems that were used for thousands of 1960s council flats, but somehow, it never worked out that way.
This is a great example of what Douglas Murphy has described as the solutionism of a certain strain of techno-architecture, always convinced there is an architectural answer to a social, political and economic problem. But it was the zeitgeist, after all, that shifted away from state social democracy into privatisation and property-obsession. In order to get work, of course, you have to accept that, and from Rogers' urban theorising, Foster's peculiar belief that what his firm does is ecologically sustainable, to Hopkins' more-or-less successful attempts to create a high-tech classicism, it's notable that this generation haven't just accepted the status quo, but have tried to make it just a little nicer, just a bit more pleasant. Perhaps that's the real problem.
The most thrilling and enduring high-tech buildings are not tasteful
As the Sainsbury Centre exhibition reveals, the most thrilling and enduring high-tech buildings are not tasteful. Works like Hopkins' Schlumberger Laboratories in Cambridge or Grimshaw's flats and supermarket in Camden are War of the Worlds steampunk kitsch, and all the better for it, exciting and strange in a way that neither firm would be again. The most fascinating of these buildings are outright nasty. They celebrate the Zeitgeist not as an ongoing march of technology, progress and precision engineering, but as something crushing and frightening, something much bigger and more powerful than you are.
In the Centre Pompidou anything too unnerving is hidden by the jugglers, but those two monumental financial headquarters, Foster's for HSBC, and Rogers' for Lloyds of London, are modern architecture at its most daunting and sinister – made even more so by the architects' straight-faced insistence that they were merely carrying out the logic of the brief, the will of the era.
The atria aren't the calm lobbies of today, but vertiginous drops, designed to intimidate. The spiky exposed services of lifts and pipes made these buildings resemble monstrous human threshing machines, oil refineries for people. At the top were monstrous gothic skylines. All this has long since been streamlined and straightened-out, as if it had all gone too far. High-tech was interesting when it reflected the fact that the world is not a nice place, and that the people running it are not savoury. When it tried instead to be friendly, eco and civic, it just became architectural background noise, a mutely approving backdrop.
Photograph is by Ken Kirkwood.