Markitecture

Bashar’s post the other day got me thinking “If architects are the new tailors, then who are the new emperors?”After all, to make a building all you need is a client with money, land and a reason for wanting it. Architects always follow the money and, after a respectful time lag so we can forget about the greed that drives it, so does the history of architecture.

Think about it. Around the time Modernism began, there were a lot of new things being made and sold and many people had to keep track of orders and payments and other paperwork. Not every company needed a building to do this so new things called office buildings were invented. These new clients were responsible for a new type of building. architecture. At the same time, lots of people had to sell all these new things but not every seller needed their own store so these new things called department stores were invented. The department store owners were also clients for a new type of building. Without these two new types of client, what we now now as “the origins of Modern architecture” would not have happened.

So let’s test this theory that the architecture follows the money, make a few extrapolations and see where the future of architecture looks likely to be. Who are the new emperors?

Rich Rulers?
Since the pharoahs, rich rulers have always been a favourite of architects. In recent history, the ruler of Dubai paid for Burj Al Arab and, however much it cost, got a fairly good deal since, although Burj Al Arab has been basically ignored as Architecture, it was very successful in branding Dubai as an international destination. It kickstarted much other tourist-based development. This development was either funded by (or was to have been funded by) property developers, and not just Nakheel. It was property speculation, in other words.

A lot of this development now won’t be happening of course, as won’t a lot of similarly-funded development in other emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah, despite OMA’s efforts.

Richer rulers?
Square masterplans in the middle of deserts brings us to Abu Dhabi. If Dubai was broke, then Abu Dhabi was supposed to have had all the money. Masdar was, for a while, proof that it did.

Recent news that the Masdar project expectations have been downwardly adjusted suggest two things: one is that the pockets of sheikhs are not infinitely deep, but the other is that the underlying premise must have been property speculation rather than the more noble-sounding goal of making the world’s first carbon-neutral suburb. Google Masdar occasionally to see what’s going on.

Nevertheless, there’s still some change left for projects like this.

If 1) all you need to make a building are a client with money, land and a reason and 2) if architects always follow the money, then the trail leads next to Astana. Foster & Partners got there first. Here’s a link to some more pictures. The following two examples we already know about.

Rich countries?
China now has a fair stash of icons and attractions with the most recent additions coming with with the Beijing Olympics where little money was spared in order to make a big statement of how well they were doing. It seems likely that buildings representing architecture at the turn of the century are all going to be monuments to the branding of nations with land, money to spare, and the desire to make an impression.

China however, is unique in actually needing a lot of development and a lot of buildings to simply house its growing population. China has cities of 10 million people we’ve never heard of. Google “china masterplan” and you will find a representative selection of a new type of architect moneymaker called a masterplan. Below is a typical example of a small-scale masterplan which typically has a tall, signature building and housing blocks all straining to get a tiny piece of a “view”.

Here’s an example of a larger one.

I predict we’ll be seeing more of these, and not just in China. It is basically rows of housing sold to people who need somewhere to live or invest in and with some sort of central cultural-amenity central feature thing to give the development an ‘identity’. These identities are usually as manufactured as every other part of the development. We just know that the shape or colour of the central feature thing alludes to some local animal, vegetable or mineral to provide an idea of “sense of place”. In the same way as the owners of office buildings and department stores didn’t want to pay for unnecessary ornament, this central feature is no more fancy than it needs to be in order to attract people to ‘buy into’ this city. In other words, the central feature is a marketing and branding gimmick. BIG architects seem to be saying YES whenever they can to the type of clients that wants buildings like this. The fate of architects seems to be to generate images combining novelty and ‘sense of place’ to fuel speculative property development.

150 years ago, nobody would have guessed that the future of architecture would be tall, undecorated glass boxes for doing paperwork in. All I am saying is that if we keep track of who has the money and where, we will find that architects are already there. And that, a few decades later, we will see how the history of architecture has sanitized the never-ending story of architects helping the rich make statements about themselves. I’m not saying this is a good thing, it’s just how it goes. =(

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