It wasn’t until my eyes actually beheld the spectacular panoramic view of Paris from atop the escalators of the Centre Pompidou last summer that I finally realized the true caliber of this pioneering high-tech design. For years, I had been critical of this building on the grounds that it betrayed a lack of sensitivity to its historic urban context. In my mind’s eye, it was an out-of-place, boxy, high-tech expression of 1970s factory design lacking any regard for human concerns. As I gazed out on the city, I realized I had been wrong.
What I discovered at that vantage point was that the Centre Pompidou had been designed as a cultural crossroads, a space that links the rich, historic textures of Paris to the modern and contemporary works of art within the building. From that point on, everything about the building and its setting made sense; the streets leading to the museum are just as fascinating and enjoyable as the sloping entrance plaza and the row houses of the surrounding Beaubourg district.
Moreover, I recognized that the building’s design owes its success to the ability of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to embrace technologies and techniques in the Centre Pompidou that were very new in the mid-1970s, not for the sake of novelty but to celebrate the cultural continuum of the city and its people.
Yet, despite my epiphany in Paris, I remain generally cautious, maybe even skeptical, about the overall impact of technology on human factors in architecture. If evolving technologies continue to define our designs without regard for human emotional needs, will we head into a period of sterile, anti-human architecture, ala 2001: a Space Odyssey? Will we embrace the superficiality of “favvüade” architecture, or even Robert Venturi’s “Learning from Las Vegas” style of symbolic design? Will we become masters of illusion and entertainment at the expense of lasting substance?
After all, why is it that we value classicism so highly? Why do we consider the architecture of Greece and Rome timeless masterpieces? I believe it is because each era offered inventive solutions to answer an important human need of its time. The desire to create great civic symbols was answered with domed structures. The hunger for powerful religious expression gave rise to austere Gothic cathedrals. The desire to maximize the efficiencies of urban densities resulted in increasingly vertical work spaces and lighter, more transparent skyscrapers.
The symbolic aspects of architecture remain at the forefront of design issues today, but increasingly the building is as much a machine as a symbol, which changes what we must do to humanize the design. By employing elements such as piazzas and streetscapes, for example, we help integrate a building into an urban fabric, to create a sense of community through the use of unique spaces.
Certainly, technology has affected the way we think, the way we perceive our world, the way we learn and, as a result, every aspect of our practice. Having survived modernism, post-modernism, and “deconstructivist” architecture, we now find ourselves in something of a design free-for-all where just about anything goes. Today’s designs can be inspired by myriad elements, ranging from exotic new materials to electronic imaging, display systems, or sustainable technologies. Just as the development of classical styles depended on inventive engineering in their eras, today’s advances in technology, engineering, and construction methods have greatly improved our ability to forge dreams into the realities of buildings and monuments.
Perhaps the most important of these advances is sophisticated drafting software, which is both a boon to our efficiency and a potential hurdle to our aesthetic visions. I enrolled in architecture school because of my love for both sketching and science. With today’s sophisticated CAD systems, however, architects don’t need sketching skills - or much math proficiency, for that matter. But I contend that a design for any project will vary slightly depending on whether we render it with 3D modeling or hand sketching. AutoCAD can produce photographically realistic drawings at lightning speed, but the creativity of the architect is still irreplaceable.
Advanced materials are also having a huge impact on design, for better or worse. Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and his Bilbo Guggenheim Museum in Spain have no precedent whatsoever in form because until recently, shiny, flexible titanium surfaces were not in the architect’s design arsenal. It took creative genius to realize the material’s potential. Now we’re waiting to see if ETFE, a malleable new exterior product, will similarly accommodate the irregular shapes of walls and roofs in Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron’s design for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium - and if it can do so without busting the project’s budget or producing impossible technical hurdles.
Digital imaging and information systems have also been a strong impetus for design innovation. To cite one example, HOK SVE’s proposal for the Beijing Olympic Stadium competition would have used the entire exterior glass curtain wall as a continuous electronic information screen.
Finally, I expect our designs will be shaped profoundly by so-called sustainable technologies, which maximize efficiency by eliminating most waste by-products such as heat, gasses, chemicals, and toxins, and by reducing the depletion of natural resources. Thanks in part to LEED standards, many building designs today make use of solar energy, daylight harvesting, natural ventilation, green roofs, retention and storage of storm-water runoff, biodiversity, recycling, etc. These innovations give major projects an identity that reflects their era in ways no stylistic signature ever could.
All these technologies are expanding the potential for design innovations today, just as the invention of elevators at the beginning of the 20th century fed the design of vertical buildings. Yet, we should never cease questioning how new technologies match a building’s purpose or how they affect the human factors we integrate into our designs. When we consider the technological candy store available to us today, it is sometimes easy to forget that we design for people, and people do not change their behaviors or lifestyles as fast as technology changes.
As we move forward into the inevitably high-tech designs of the 21st century, we would do well to recall lessons learned from master architects throughout history about the humanistic aspects of design. After all, “where technology meets design” is the theme of this magazine. It rests with us as architects to ensure that this meeting produces a melding of solutions to human needs, not a head-on collision of competing values.
Thomas C. Young is Design Leader for DLR Group in Minneapolis and a member of ARCHI-TECH’s editorial board. His professional experience includes six years as senior designer with I.M. Pei & Partners and three years as Principal in Charge of Asia-Pacific operations for HOK SVE.