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High-Tech - the beauty and the myth


A fascinating discussion at the Royal Academy last Saturday concerned that serious contribution to British architectural history, which to some extent can be seen in a historical context: High-Tech. The label, often rejected by the architects themselves, but a reasonable portmanteau description of an architecture primarily concerned with space, structure and skin, has passed into legend. And it is tempting to see the history, still unfolding, as a form of myth: High-Tech as the Holy Grail of British Modernism, a shining (literally) symbol of modernity in which every aspect of motive and realisation is expressed in new materials or new applications for old materials. Steel, glass, concrete, aluminium - they symbolised a revolt against the oppressive comprehensive development which had begun to characterise the highest aspirations of British architects and planners.

The Knights of the Round Table, Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, were literally to become knights (and more) as High-Tech stormed the citadels of commercial architecture, turning the avant-garde into the acceptable face of establishment architecture (well, almost). National emblems and civic buildings, developers' offices, the emerging business and science parks: all were grist to the High-Tech mill. And yet . . . were the claims made for this form of architecture valid? Why exactly did the floors of the Pompidou Centre have to be so wide-span? Why pretend that columns were structurally 'honest' when they were often made-up composites, with layers of fire protection and additional 'cladding'? And just how advanced was the technology involved?

These days, more than ever, we see how slow architecture is to accommodate advances in technology from other fields. How can it keep up with computers? And if it cannot, is it possible (or desirable) that it should represent architecturally the changes happening in the world around? As for those High-Tech knights, however they may be pigeonholed by architectural historians, they slew some dragons which needed slaying. And they have their reward . . . from Camelot.

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