We have seen more materials innovation in the past century than in the previous thousand years. But materials alone cannot advance our designs. Standard Codes of Practice and Building Regulations have had to catch up. There was a nasty period from the '50s to the late '70s when we were building with hope and not enough knowledge as new technologies crowded the market.
One can be nostalgic about this rather cavalier, but also pioneering, period. An enthusiastic innovator could design unique solutions on the fly for just about every project - all of them prototypes and many destined to cause misery for the building users. Interestingly, it was this period of experimentation that incubated some of Britain's best-known progressive architects: Lord Rogers, Lord Foster, Sir James Stirling and Sir Denys Lasdun.
Well, those days have gone. After a series of shake-outs in the last recession, today's building suppliers generally offer top-quality products. In addition, many fabricators offer specialist detailed design and engineering services that our engineering consultants would be hard-pressed to match. The ability of contractors to finesse the construction and management process with fast-track programmes should also be noted.
In the twenty-first century, the variety of new structures, components and materials is still impressive. We have seen some exotic new arrivals recently: the tension-cabled BA London Eye by David Marks Julia Barfield, a 20m tall building in cardboard by Philip Gumuchdjian and Shigeru Ban, and the translucent structural honeycomb by Zaha Hadid in the Dome's Mind Zone. Oh yes, and the steel-suspension Millennium Bridge by Arup and Foster and Partners.
As well as being among the most innovative so far this century, all these projects were hellishly difficult to get done. Yet, shouldn't our collective knowledge and expertise in the industry make innovation easier and more successful than ever?
Several problems have emerged as sideeffects of progress in the building industry.
There is huge pressure to have an established process that is repeatable and low risk. The building 'signature' of an architect will have as much to do with what has worked on a previous project as it has to do with creative vision. In addition, the more that an architect builds, the more chance there is of a claim for faults. And with age comes caution - so the period when innovation seems attractive is limited. The younger architectural practices are more likely to experiment, but this is frequently because they are also learning how to build.
Today's well established design, tender and procurement processes make oddball projects more risky than ever: they are simply not catered for. For example, why doesn't prototype development have its own stage in the RIBA programme? Without such stages, clients will hardly regard innovation as appealing - it reads to them as a costly, unnecessary and risky extra.
And then there is the problem of being professional. There is a great fear that playing about with bits of material and lighting a few fires in a backyard is unprofessional. Architects and engineers do not tend to make things themselves. So instead, we have to draw and calculate and create tender packages.
Occasionally, the odd bit of partnering with a specialist supplier lets us push the boat out.
There are a few practices pushing to change the culture and process through example. They should be encouraged. We need to keep alive the skills of innovation and get the industry to take a longer-term view. Over this century we will have to change our materials and building systems beyond recognition. But global warming and resource depletion will force us to become seriously sustainable at the point where our survival depends upon it. This in turn will lead to new wonders in architecture.Will the next Lord Rogers be building a skyscraper in adobe?