A new transitional architecture movement, dubbed Multiform, has emerged as modernist ideals gives way to digitally dominated thinking, says Owen Hopkins.
Economics is often talked about in terms of cycles. There are periods of economic growth followed by stagnation and recession. Then after a time the economy starts growing again and the cycle repeats. It's the natural ebb and flow of macroeconomics.
Every so often, however, there's a 'supercycle'. This is when technological innovation reaches a critical mass and sets off an explosion leading to a new phase of long-term economic growth. The usual business cycles still play out, but do so within the encompassing supercycle, which over time reshapes almost every aspect of the economy.
Modernism was a supercycle, setting the architectural agenda for half a century
Architecture follows a similar pattern. This is partly due to the close relationship between construction and the broader economic situation. But architectural cycles also emerge through changes internal to the discipline, as we develop new ways of thinking about and responding to the material and cultural changes of the world in which architecture is practised.
By this definition, modernism was a supercycle, setting the architectural agenda for half a century. Post-modernism is usually seen as marking the end of the modernist supercycle, but could instead and rather more interestingly be seen as the start of the next – a supercycle that has also lasted nearly half a century and is now coming to an end.
Today, the question is what comes next. If modernism emerged in response to the advent of the production line, electrification and the motor car, and postmodernism was the architecture of cable TV, de-industrialisation and consumerism, then the next supercycle will be driven by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This is the new world of automation, the 'smart city', the Internet of Things and the total erosion of the distinction between the digital and physical worlds.
Although the pandemic has certainly accelerated many of these trends, we aren't there yet. Instead, the present moment is one of transition.
The next supercycle will be driven by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Looking back, we see such transitional moments manifested architecturally in aesthetic and ideological pluralism, as the unravelling of the previous supercycle allows new ideas to break free. This was the case with modernism, whose early history saw a battle between different 'isms', and it also characterised the competing ideas and ideologies of postmodernism's early 'radical moment'.
And so it is the case with Multiform – the name I use to describe a new and vital sensibility emerging in contemporary architecture and design. Multiform is not a style, but the architectural manifestation of our present moment of profound political, economic and cultural flux.
It is hard to define something that in its very nature is marked by hybridity, heterogeneity and multiplicity. Multiform quite literally takes multiple forms, but can be loosely characterised by design tactics such as collage, reference, quotation, and the bold and expressive use of colour, ornament and materials.
This has led the Multiform tendency to be mis-characterised as postmodern revival, and written off as simply fashion. But this is to fundamentally underestimate its importance and implications. In so far as Multiform appropriates certain design tactics of postmodernism, it does so because of the equivalence between that moment of transition and our present one.
Rather than a stylistic choice, Multiform represents an attempt at engaging with the aesthetic, ideological and environmental chaos of the contemporary world. Rather than pursue one particular agenda – whether political, aesthetic or financial – and seek to impose some kind of order, Multiform accommodates multiple states of being and existing.
Multiform represents an attempt at engaging with the aesthetic, ideological and environmental chaos of the contemporary world
So, if this is Multiform, who are the Multiformers? We can see Multiform approaches in the work of growing band of architects and designers who work in the urban realm from across the world.
We see it in the intense improvisation of Fala Atelier, the strategic urban eclecticism of Bovenbouw and the postmodern inheritances of David Kohn Architects. It's present in the veiled complexity of Johnston Marklee, the disciplinary and typological fluidity of Jennifer Bonner's approach to research and design and the sampling and remixing of Studio MUTT.
Then there's the superabundant joy of AOC, the luxurious thrift of Office S&M and CAN's celebration of the city's ad-hoc formations. It's in the participatory sprit of DK-CM, in Groupwork's crafted approach and, of course, in the exuberant colour and patterns of Yinka Ilori, Camille Walala, and others of the group dubbed 'New London Fabulous' by Adam Nathaniel Furman, himself a notable Multiformer.
The Multiform sensibility is by no means limited to these architects and designers, nor does it necessarily characterise all they do. The ability to pursue a variety of agendas simultaneously is what Multiform is all about. But what is common to many of these practitioners is that they are of a generation who can remember a world before the mobile phone and high-speed internet, allowing them to operate with one foot in each of the analogue and digital worlds.
The ability to pursue a variety of agendas simultaneously is what Multiform is all about
As a transitional tendency, Multiform is by definition fluid, dynamic and shapeshifting. And in being so attuned to the circumstances of the present, Multiform is inherently marginal and fleeting. Although a bloom amidst a dense thicket is more rare and beautiful than a field of flowers, it must be nurtured and prevented from being strangled.
Already there are powerful forces lining up to shape the next architectural supercycle. Neoliberalism's espousal of the financialisation of everyday life – the politico-economic ideology that underpinned the last architectural supercycle – is giving way to a new ideology that aspires to the datafication of every aspect of human experience. The data-driven fantasies of big tech aim at nothing less than the surveillance city where basic and fundamental freedoms are not just curtailed but abolished.
Meanwhile, others of a more populist and reactionary persuasion hope for a reversion to the past, whether this is so-called traditional architecture or warmed-up state-sponsored modernism. In contrast to the vast forces currently being marshalled by big tech, the idea of somehow finding a way of turning the clock back appears rather quaint.
Multiform is not alone in recognising the urgency of this situation and its impact on the public values that define the discipline of architecture. Riven by anxiety over architects' diminishing role, some are looking outside the profession to assert their agency. Yet, while offering short-term succour, this risks architecture becoming ever more diminished as a force for (re)shaping the world for the better.
Rather than retreat from the discipline, Multiform doubles down on what architecture is uniquely placed to do and reasserts its central importance to society.
It resists architecture's instrumentalisation towards external agendas and the mono-cultures that ensue and instead meets the complexity of the contemporary world with ideological diversity and aesthetic pluralism. As we stand on the cusp of the next architectural supercycle, Multiform points the way towards a richer, more joyful future.
Main image is of Office S&M's Mo-tel House in London. Photo is by French + Tye.