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Welcome to 'Earth Style'

Business hotels. Chain stores. Airports: they all look the same, it’s the new ‘Earth Style’, writes Rory Olcayto

Among the boasts and smart one-liners, occasionally someone says - or types - something really quite clever on Twitter. Like this, from Dezeen founder Marcus Fairs: ‘I think my next talk will be called “In praise of the generic”. Airports, business hotels, chains etc are actually amazing these days. The interior design of international airports, business hotels, malls, chains etc is pretty good and adds up to a kind of “Earth Style”. However, the exteriors of such buildings are usually a disaster. Architects haven’t got it right yet at all.’

Clever, not particularly because Fairs is right about the quality he detects (he’s not) but because he’s lumped it all together and branded it ‘Earth Style’. It’s a very neat term: upbeat and apolitical (much like Fairs and Dezeen) and with enough bagginess for others to flesh it out. And clever because Fairs is reclaiming lost ground from the savaging Rem Koolhaas gave this same territory in his seminal 2001 essay, Junkspace. ‘Transparency has disappeared, replaced by a dense crust of provisional occupation: kiosks, carts, strollers, palms, fountains, bars, sofas, trolleys… corridors no longer simply link A to B, but have become “destinations”.’

To me, Earth Style suggests grand, space-opera settings, the kind of landscapes and skylines you might glimpse out of Captain Kirk’s San Francisco apartment window, Starfleet Command in the distance.

I like Fairs’ term because it implies space travel, that long forgotten dream we used to share. If Earth has a style, then so does Mars, so does Venus and so, too, do other planets we’ve not yet discovered. (Remember Elite? In David Braben and Ian Bell’s classic 80s BBC Micro interstellar trading game every planet came with a brief description suggesting a strong world aesthetic. ‘Qube is reasonably well known for its great dense forests but beset by frequent civil war. Corporate state, rich agricultural, 3.7 billion population’.)

Earth Style also recalls the glorious renderings Don Davis produced for NASA when it was seriously considering the building of orbital space colonies in the 60s and 70s. Davis’s visions had a kind of streamlined campus modernism, every building well-maintained, and linked with parkland paths and elevated walkways.

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Earth Style too, could be thought of as what we see in cities like Dubai, or in buildings such as Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands, a vast city-within-a-city, pushing hotel rooms, shopping malls, a science museum, an ice-rink, casinos and a Skypark hundreds of feet in the air with open-air swimming pool and jogging paths.

It doesn’t matter that it’s not the first Earth Style to have emerged, either. Two thousand years ago, the Romans built bath houses on the outskirts of present-day Glasgow and in central Jerusalem using the same aesthetic and forms. 1,500 years later the Ottoman unified style saw caravanserais spring up in Bosnia, Syria and Tunisia as well as Istanbul. And the British took Neoclassicism to every part of the globe in the 19th century. Those were Earth Styles, too.

Fairs’ point is still a good one, even if he does think this new Earth Style, typified by the hotels, airports, malls and chain stores he visits is ‘amazing’ and ‘pretty good’ rather than the Ballardian trance-induced shopping space it more often surely is.

We need new ways to describe the architecture and interior design making former Earth Style hubs like London and Istanbul pretty much the same.

And we need more than the 140 characters Twitter allows to do it justice.

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