High-tech architecture has strayed far from its environmentally conscientious beginnings, but could rise again if it returns to them, writes Phineas Harper.
The Sainsbury Centre in Norwich weighs 5,618.6 tons. We know this because, when its architect, Norman Foster, took his former mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller to visit the project, the internationally-celebrated inventor and godfather of the high-tech movement asked: "How heavy is your building, Norman?"
Faced with a gallery proposing nothing less than a total reconceptualisation of architecture, Fuller posed a question that might seem surprisingly boring. And yet his prosaic inquiry is the kernel of the high-tech movement's rise and, perhaps also, its fall.
High-tech – an architectural style that took advantage of advances in engineering to emphasise structural elements – was forged in the ecological techno-optimism of the 1960s. German architect Frei Otto's Institute of Lightweight Structures and Bucky's experiments with geodesic domes had established the cultural milieu for a nimble form of environmentally conscientious modernism, into which Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and many other key high-tech figures graduated.
High-tech's adolescence was a moment when ecology and technology were two branches of the same tree
In the heady early years, their drawing boards burst with vivacious depictions of humans and nature living in a rich machine-mediated symbioses. It was the era of Douglas Trumbull's sci-fi film Silent Running, in which a fleet of spacecraft (themselves heavy on geodesic domes) ferry the last plants in the universe to an uncertain fate. High-tech's adolescence was a moment when ecology and technology were two branches of the same tree.
Yet the times were changing. As new neoliberal politics cast out the ailing vestiges of post-war socialism and ushered in an era of free market capitalism that has transformed society and the climate.
High-tech radically changed too. As the movement grew in global stature, buoyed by cash from newly liberated financial markets, it bulked up. Skinny yachting details gave way to muscular structural skeletons growing dramatically in scale and ambition.
In the second term of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, as Rogers completed the Lloyd's building in London, Foster topped out the massive HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong. High-tech suddenly seemed a long way from its eco-utopian roots.
Fuller understood what it meant to live on a finite planet. He implored architects to "do more with less", a design philosophy born from the fundamental understanding that to bring human activity in line with planetary limits, it was necessary to massively reduce the industrial consumption of resources.
High-tech suddenly seemed a long way from its eco-utopian roots
But while early acolytes blazed trails designing featherweight buildings, using skinny truss systems and tensile membranes to enclose space with minimal means, high-tech was hit by mission creep as it ballooned.
Today's high-tech buildings are notable not for their prudent expedience but for their giganticism. HSBC, at the time named the most expensive building ever built, set the tone. Records are still being set, but for huge outputs rather than tiny inputs. In France, Foster built the tallest bridge ever. In London, Rogers competed the most expensive apartments in the world. Grimshaw is currently working in Turkey on the largest airport terminal on Earth.
High-tech has triumphantly lurched towards the "do more" end of Bucky's famous credo, but abandoned the more urgent, "with less".
Today the movement has, in blander connotations, become the ubiquitous architectural face of the globalised business world. High-tech is ever edging away from its ecological and humanistic roots. It has slid into serving more corporate agendas.
Stansted Airport is a telling case study. Completed in 1991, Stansted was hailed as a critical gear shift for aviation architecture. Foster + Partners reinvented the organisation of the terminal building, burying baggage conveyors and emancipating the ground plain for passengers. In the highly mechanical world of airport design, high-tech was a humanising force.
Today's high-tech buildings are notable not for their prudent expedience but for their giganticism
Instead of a convoluted maze from check-in to boarding, travellers would be able to process through the rationalised airy terminal guided intuitively towards the ascending planes visible through the glazed wall beyond. Foster's pavilion brought flexibility, daylight and calm to the frenetic experience of flying.
Today, Stansted could hardly be father from that vision. A low-slung false ceiling now squashes crowds through the tangled intestines of a duty-free Toblerone gauntlet. Oceans of zigzagging Tensa barriers corral hapless holidaymakers through sphincters of stressful security checks and X-ray scans. Super-size signage fails to compensate for the total loss of intuitive way-finding.
Once a step forward for dignified flying, now Stansted digests and spits out people like effluent, draining their pockets and spirit with an architecture that is all about control and commerce. The hyper flexible universal space ultimately proved all too easy for airport managers to reconfigure to serve more miserly priorities.
Whether directly or tacitly, high-tech is succumbing to the very principle its founders challenged. Wanton consumption of resources and ecological degradation were once what high-tech practices stood against yet now too often accommodate.
The number of high-tech heroes of yesterday currently working on polluting airport projects despite declaring a climate emergency is a particularly galling hypocrisy.
Wanton consumption of resources and ecological degradation were once what high-tech practices stood against yet now too often accommodate
At its most nutty, some high-tech architects are now dabbling in extraterrestrial architecture – moon bases and 3D-printed Martian colonies. Once ecowarriors were mocked for their far-fetched visions of a low-carbon economy powered by renewable energy. Yet it is a new breed of space-colonising technophiles who are today's fantasists, promoting the subjugation of the red planet rather than care for our blue one.
Back on Earth, the climate emergency calls into question how we value technology. The jet engine, for example, is a sophisticated piece of machinery, but now knowing its severe design flaw of spewing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into an atmosphere that cannot sustain them, can we still describe jet technology as "high"?
Meanwhile, while traditionally cast as "low-tech", construction materials such as earth, timber and bamboo are, in ecological terms, performing far better than the alloys and aggregates of so-called high-tech. With the urgent imperatives of the climate emergency the carbon-heavy architectural strategies of conventional high-tech projects suddenly seem all too primitive for the job at hand.
Dezeen is right to choose this moment to critically engage with high-tech. The spirit of its beginnings, infused with Fuller's lessons of Spaceship Earth, brimmed with the exhilarating challenge of dwelling well on a finite planet. High-tech has fallen far from its heyday, but with a renewed attitude to its materials and mission, could rise again.