THE 1990s IN REVIEW: ARCHITECTURE - I've seen the Future Systems

Post-Modernist columns are out; hi-tech and computer-aided design is in. By Marcus Field
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The Independent Culture
A decade is a short time in architecture. This makes it all the more impressive that a discipline that started the 1990s with a load of rip-off columns and cornices as its vocabulary has ended in spectacular style with a building made using fighter-plane technology.

Ten years ago architectural debate in Britain was trapped in a deadly dull divide between those who promoted buildings inspired by Classicism (remember Prince Charles, yawn, yawn) and those who believed that buildings should be uncompromisingly modern.

The effects of the Prince's publicly voiced views were widespread and catastrophic for architects, who found themselves blamed for every ill in towns and cities and coerced by planners to jolly things up by popping columns and clock towers on everything from supermarkets to car parks.

As a result, vast swaths of Britain have been covered with kitsch houses, offices and shopping centres which take the Classical style as their starting point. Much of what has been built in this backlash against Modernism is ill conceived and badly made. But not all of it. The final solution for the hotly contested extension to the National Gallery, completed in 1991, is the Sainsbury Wing by the American architects Robert "less is a bore" Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. This is an example of a trend that has become known as "architainment", a leisure building which unashamedly flaunts popular motifs.

Closely related to architainment are buildings produced in the Post-Modern style. In London the most conspicuous examples are both by Terry Farrell. The first is Embankment Place, that bloated bauble above Charing Cross station that looks like a giant Art Deco wireless. The second is Vauxhall Cross, the sandy-coloured HQ of MI6 on the Thames. Both Farrell's buildings are now London landmarks, but their scale, bravura and indirect associations with Thatcherite economics has put the architect out of favour. Perhaps it is indicative of changing tastes that the MI6 building is summarily destroyed in the latest James Bond movie.

In direct contrast to Post-Modernism is the undoubted winner of the decade's style wars. This is the strictly Modernist and rational work of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and their peers. Both Lord Foster and Lord Rogers started the 1990s with few built works in Britain and ended it with peerages and numerous large schemes. Foster, whose recently completed Hong Kong international airport is reported to be the largest enclosed structure in the world, is already working on the Great Court at the British Museum, a new footbridge across the Thames, a skyscraper in the City and the home for the new London Assembly. Rogers meanwhile has the dubious job of being architect for the Millennium Dome, Heathrow Terminal 5 and the new National Assembly for Wales. Others of their hi-tech school include Nicholas Grimshaw, whose Waterloo International Terminal opened in 1992, and Sir Michael Hopkins, who turned from steel-and-glass to brick- and-stick in his beautifully crafted buildings for Glyndebourne Opera House and the Inland Revenue in Nottingham.

Big buildings have also been prominent. Jumbo projects at home, include Foster's Stansted airport completed in 1991, while abroad scale became an issue as projects vied for labels such as tallest or most expensive. The shiny white Getty Center in Los Angeles by Richard Meier and the Tokyo Forum in Japan by Rafael Vinoly both boasted unprecedented budgets of over $1bn. In Kuala Lumpur, Cesar Pelli's glittering silver Petronas Towers eclipsed all former contenders to become the tallest building in the world.

But size isn't everything. There are many small buildings which may later be seen as the most significant of their time. The abstract beauty of modestly scaled buildings in Switzerland by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron won them the approval of Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota and the commission to turn the defunct Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern.

Among other architects who built modest projects but who are likely to feature strongly in the next decade is Zaha Hadid, whose 1993 fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is a dynamic arrangement of angled concrete planes and a rare example of Deconstructivism. Her competition-winning entry for a new opera house in Cardiff is one of the great unbuilt projects of the decade.

Back in London, Future Systems recently won the 1999 Stirling Prize for its extraordinary Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground. The finely finished aluminium pod, prefabricated in a boat yard in Cornwall, realises the dream of Modernist pioneers to make buildings like industrial objects.

For the architect achieving greatest cult status, the Dutchman Rem Koolhaas wins hands-down. His giant architectural novel S,M,L,XL became a hip accessory, while his Bordeaux villa of 1998 is one of the most talked- about buildings of the decade. Its abstract composition in rough concrete, stone and high-performance glass, recalls the later work of Le Corbusier, but brought up-to-date with new technology and a surreal, labyrinthine plan.

Now for the finale. Among the most extraordinary spectacles are two buildings completed late in the decade. The first is the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind. Here technology is not as important as what the building represents. It is both a memorial and a museum, a record and a place of contemplation. It is also a fine example of how architecture can be a powerful work of art as well as a container, a fact often overlooked in our consumer-crazy culture.

The second unmissable is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The asymmetric titanium-clad building by the American Frank Gehry put Bilbao back on the map and revived the local economy as tourists flooded in. In terms of technology it lives up to its looks. The building was designed using CATIA software, the French programme used to develop fighter planes. The chaotic form illustrates how computer-controlled mass production technology is capable of turning out customised components so that every part of a building can be different. This opens up endless possibilities for architects to make wilfully shaped new buildings at affordable prices. The next decade is going to be fun and the Architecture Foundation has already coined the perfect term for it: "the noughties".



Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's neoclassical design.


Richard Meier's billion-dollar building for art.

1997 PETRONAS TOWERS, KUALA LUMPUR Cesar Pelli's record-breaking towers.


Frank Gehry's shiny abstract.


The complexity of a city in a single house. By Rem Koolhaas/ OMA


Foster's apotheosis.


Hybrid memorial/ museum by Daniel Libeskind.


The machine aesthetic, by Future Systems.


Richard Rogers's

iconic form.


Herzog & de Meuron's

timely interventions in a former power station. MF