Twenty years ago, Prince Charles was lambasting modern architecture, in twenty years time he will probably be doing the same thing, some things will never change. However the parallel universes of commerce, design and technology are not so fixed in the past. Come back to 1989 for a moment. We had no internet. There were rumours of something called the Information Superhighway that was going to change our lives. It was the heady age of the mobile phone and fax. Microsoft were a little known software company trying to establish a new product called Windows. AutoCad was only five, most architects were still using drawing boards. Architects’ firms were strewn with hand-made models and dyeline printers buzzed in the background.
When I interview architects, many of them visionaries of our time, I often ask as a closing question, “what technology do you think will architects be using in 20 years time?” most laugh and guffaw that
it’s too much to ask. Even just in the last few years, BIM is encroaching into the realm of the architect, blurring ever more the boundaries between engineering and architecture.
So what could be in store for architects in the next 20 years? Philip Ross, CEO of the Cordless Group who advise many global corporates on technology trends, talked to a group of architects at the New London Architecture centre in London last week. Ross portrayed a daunting vision of the possible outcome just a short way down the road. He believes that we are entering the age of workplace 2, leaving behind workplace 1 which he defines as an era where paper based documents have been digitised but not much else. He believes this is a defining moment for the office as for the last 120 years or so, every new communication device has in some way been chained to a desk, whether a telephone, typewriter, word processor or even computer but now with the advent of wireless, the communication devices have finally been unshackled. This he proclaims will transform the way buildings are used.
Ross sees a Brave New World enabled by wireless and powered by the “Cloud”, the invisible farms of servers behind the internet, where it no longer makes sense to go to work. Instead, you work where you are. No one can argue against the compelling view that this has much potential for reducing travel and carbon emissions but many in the audience were not convinced about its effectiveness. Arguments against pointed out that that vital sources of information were often a bi-product of team collaboration, only possible when a group of people were working in the same office, would be
lost if staff were working in isolation. Objectors also pointed out that we had heard a lot of this before and it had failed to materialise.
Building use stimulated much discussion. Hot desking is not new but Ross outlined his notion of a ‘hot building’ that is a whole building with a transient occupancy. This is where it gets tricky. The office becomes one the few elements of a new business world that has a fixed geographical location. People going about their business in a city get alerted to the proximity of associates by their communication devices, either in real time or in the future from their calendars and meetings are suggested by the Cloud... The nearest “empty room”, to their “collision point” is identified and a simple click will accept or decline the meeting proposal. Buildings will increasingly be managed by computers, constantly monitoring usage and adjusting energy supply and other environmental controls for optimum efficiency.
Whether this will all happen is not really in dispute, when it will happen is more for debate and whether our new nomadic life will be good for us, who knows?
Editorial , London
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Sadly the lead provided by that brilliant group of individuals was not fully capitalized on by the architectural professional at large. Instead it spent 30 years in a kind of self-congratulatory stupor navel-gazing about style and meaning without engaging with allied disciplines to push forward the boundaries of scientific knowledge about the built environment and the pivotal role it plays in our complex and ever-changing society. Thus in most instances, it let slip the quantitative skills and capabilities it should have and could have taken ownership of leaving engineering disciplines and a multitude of "consultants" to pick up the pieces.
Can the profession "re-capture" what was once within its grasp? Probably not. Instead it is up to the profession and the Schools of Architecture to seriously strengthen quantitative skills in order to educate talented and capable polymaths who understand how to organize and lead the work of trans-disciplinary research, design and implementation teams. Its a tall order for sure, but our world needs a lot more from architects than the fleeting and shallow thinking that goes along with producing buildings that are the fashion du jour intended only to win prizes. Thankfully there are many such architects emerging doing very serious, credible and game-changing work. They aren't "starchitects" for the most part, but are amazing individuals with a passion for lifelong learning, teamwork, good design and the notion that their work ought to in some measurable way do something to improve quality of life and the state of the world we live in.
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