As part of a series of interviews for Thought Economics, Vikas Shah spoke to Martha Thorne (Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize), Richard Rogers (architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyds building and Millennium Dome in London and founder of Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners) and Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design). The three respected industry experts discuss the very nature of architecture itself, how it relates to culture and topics ranging from the nature of cities, how buildings influence our lives and the future of architecture itself.
Q: What is the fundamental purpose of architecture?
[Martha Thorne] That's a very simple yet complicated question. Architecture exists to create the physical environment in which people live. Obviously that's a very simple answer, but if we deep digger we see the complexities. What is the built environment? what constitutes quality of life? how do architects determine whether something is positive, helpful or relevant for individuals and collectives?
[Richard Rogers] It serves society and improves quality of life. It's a physical manifestation of the society's wishes to be civilised! ...public domain being the obvious place which encapsulates this as buildings, alongside being art and science, are part of the public domain.
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Architecture should fulfil multiple criteria. One of its purposes is to itself. A lot of people believe to some degree, in the autonomy of architecture as a discipline which means that part of the purpose of architecture is to construct new forms of knowledge that relate to the enhancement and advancement of the discipline itself. In a way, this is inseparable from the performance or performativity of architecture in terms of its responsibilities to engage with the society at large. There is, in a sense, a purposive dimension to architecture which really provides the symbolic ideas of habitation and- broadly- serving the humankind.
It's both this version of architecture that removes purpose, and one that really engages it fully in a purposive dimension. I think the simultaneity of these two conditions that's key.
Q: What have been the most significant eras in architecture?
[Richard Rogers] Every successful period history was modern during its time, so we see that change is a continuous process. The big changes in terms of 'modern architecture' are not only because of a modern-eye which moved from impressionism to modernism, but also new technology. It's been a stripping-down in many ways from the amazingly enriched periods like Baroque and Rococo to a more 'economic' visual time.
Every age thinks it's making the environment more human, but changes are always reflected. If I had to say what the greatest change has been in my more than 50 years as an architect? It is sustainable ecology. It has made tremendous changes to architecture... not enough... but still impactful.
If we go back through history to the beginning of the modern movement, the big change came in the form of the steel frame in Chicago, the lift and the telephone. You simply couldn't build high-rise buildings without these two innovations.
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] We are very aware of distinct periods. When we now reflect on the medieval period, the renaissance or the baroque.... each of these temporal moments in reality are identified to us because of their specificity, differences in approach and differences in outcome. Many of the qualities that we find in baroque architecture are (or at least should be) of incredible relevance to what we do today.
It's not necessarily that we see a direct link between medieval, renaissance, baroque and contemporary practices- but there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to learn from them. Surely the purpose of teaching history in context of architecture is to make that material alive, make it present and to be inspired and learn.
Today we are more influenced by the tradition of enlightened thought- simply because there is a greater connection between the philosophies of that period and the notions and concepts of modernity and modernism.
I think one of the most wonderful periods of architectural advancement was the baroque. It's not clear to me that we have understood, studied and analysed this period sufficiently to understand the ways we could benefit from it.
Q: What has been the impact of technology on the last quarter century of architecture?
[Martha Thorne] Technology has affected several aspects of architecture and the wider field. One aspect is that some people are concentrating on form-making... because they can! Computers and the use of parametric models have made it much more feasible to create unique forms. Many people see this as a very important part of the discipline.
There are other aspects where technology has, and will continue, to have an effect. One has to do with the relationship of people who are undertaking architecture, and the building process. There's much more communication now between architects, engineers, contractors, builders and all other stakeholders in the building process. The way design and construction were traditionally undertaken was much more linear First you had the architect, then the engineer, then the builder and so on. Now it's much more integrated and unified. I think the jury is out in terms of whether this is leading to better buildings, but it has the potential to profoundly change the landscape of building.
The next area where technology has had a big impact has to do with the possibilities it opens up for construction. In the past, either standard products had to be purchased off-the-shelf- with the limitations they had. The only other option was for things to be custom made by hand, which was very expensive. Technology has made it much easier to send information from studio to production. It's now possible to do mass-customised elements for buildings. In the building process, that type of potential should definitely lead to better quality in construction... more possibilities for innovation and, hopefully, more creativity.
[Richard Rogers] Right now, without a doubt, the web is the greatest single change agent. The fact that we can communicate globally at practically zero cost is astonishing. I have a meeting after this with a co-architect who is based in Beijing and we will be drawing together via the net.
Interestingly when the IT revolution began, there was talk about people retiring to their villas in the mountains using technology to communicate. The opposite has in fact happened because people want to be together, they want to communicate and you only have to go somewhere like Canary Wharf to see the vitality that exists after work because people want to be together.
Q: What are your views on urbanisation and do we need to rethink the concept of 'the city'?
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] The concept of the city is often ahead of us. In many parts of the world, people are urbanising districts much faster than architects and planners have time, energy and resources to deal with. Thinking about the future of the city is a critical topic, and one that we need to spend more time on. The tools we have in terms of thinking about cities are fairly old fashioned. We are the inheritors of modernist planning and are now seeing such a rapid shift from rural to urban that these tools are incapable of dealing with new forms of urbanisation. What is clear is that the whole topic of infrastructure and infrastructural-urbanisation is a first step to thinking about future cities. This is an area that requires more attention.
There isn't much expertise in the world to deal with the intersection of infrastructure, urban planning and public space. Infrastructure is thought of as part of engineering as opposed to thinking about the relationship for example, between infrastructure and its impact on urbanisation.
In terms of the future of cities... the big challenges will centre around the questions of extreme urbanisation, fast urbanisation, climate change and more. We must think very differently than we ever have done about how we plan cities and move away from master planning and separation of functions. We have been able to learn a lot from cities as they've grown organically but now we need new tools and techniques for imagining the cities of the future.
We are also faced with limitations on resources and must think creatively through these challenges to innovate and consider new types of urban environments that are really sustainable in the long-run. Many of these themes are being discussed from the point of view of assessment... insofar as we ask the question as to whether a city is liveable... but we should really be thinking from the perspective of production. How do you create new spaces that are quite different than the spaces we are used to. That's a big challenge!
Q: What is the economic and social role of signature buildings?
[Richard Rogers] I take signature to mean buildings which are recognised. If I take Pompidou, the first paragraph of our report (which we had to submit with our drawings) was that this should be a place for people, all ages, all creeds, the poor, the rich, a place for meeting. That explains the social context which drove the form in a way... Pompidou had a big piazza, continuation of the public space up the facade, interior flexibility and more.
This need for flexibility was critical. In the renaissance, the era of the 'monument', it was said that when a building was perfect nothing could be changed, nothing could be added to. Today it's nearly the reverse, if you can't add to it- it becomes a white elephant! Buildings frequently outlive their uses, and if we're talking about sustainability it stands that one would not wish to demolish a building and that it should be flexible for the communities who use it. I used to say as an example that the Lloyds Insurance building could be used as a university one day. At the time we built Lloyds Insurance, the IT revolution was just starting and questions were raised about why the building would need meeting spaces, market spaces and so on. Things can be very temporary...
Buildings also help to form the identity of a place. You can see the life of the people and community expressed in architecture and hopefully if these spaces are well-designed, they will positively affect the people within them. If you are unfortunate enough to live in a brutal derelict space then you, yourself, will be affected. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in nice green areas and areas with good public spaces most likely have a better chance at enjoying life and- I suppose- play a role as citizens.
Read Vikas Shah's full interview with Martha Thorne, Richard Rogers and Mohsen Mostafavi here.
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