It was the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon who best understood the significance of the ephemeral object under conditions of continual change.
In his book Du mode d'existence des objets techniques (Paris 1958, reprinted 1989) he wrote:
'Artifacts evolve using themselves as the point of departure: they contain the conditions for their own development. The structure of the object moves to match the future conditions in which it will be employed.' This is, of course, a commentary on the enigma of the transient object, the transitional machine as much as the ephemeral fastener. Its truth is evident at any scale, from the history of the split-pin to the extinction of the battleship.
Indeed, the sight of HMS Warrior in Portsmouth Harbour, the first steam-powered ironclad in the Royal Navy, makes the point perfectly. She is a transitional object if ever there was one - mast and sails as well as steam driven screw, armoured decks but no turrets - and yet she is also a ship of extraordinary elegance, frozen at an evolutionary point in time but containing the conditions of her own development, as Simondon says.
It should be possible to evaluate architecture in this way, to see what has the evolutionary potential to grow from HMS Warrior to HMS Vanguard in 100 years and then, as it were, vacate the stage in favour of something better. In recent years there have been two evolutionary significant buildings that possess this quality: the spectacular lightweight domes of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners'Eden Project, and the just-completed City Hall by Foster and Partners.One well received, the other less so.
Supporters of Lord Foster should not be downcast at the muted reception given to City Hall. Faint praise is the public face of those who do not know what to think until they are told - the reason why everyone has an opinion about the Heron Tower but no one has an opinion about City Hall. It is the surest possible proof that an architect has broken through the conventional art historical value system and built a building that can only be understood according to a different set of values.
(In this case as an interaction of envelope and ambient energy, human survival and the laws of physics taken to their logical conclusion and followed through virtually without compromise. ) City Hall may be the only truly ecological working building to have been built in this country - discounting non-commercial and purely experimental structures - and is one of only two to demonstrate how drastically and swiftly the whole business of building design and the way it is understood will have to be revolutionised in the coming years.
For a start, the paper will have to be taken off the cracks and it will finally have to be acknowledged that there is, and always has been, an immense difference between the arbitrary aesthetic expressionism of architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, and the complex scientific structure and envelope design that is embodied in the shape of City Hall. To treat the haphazard forms that emerge from the so-called avantgarde as though they possessed the same validity as advanced computer modelling techniques - which have made possible the geometrically modified sphere and backward-inclined shading of the Foster building - is to minimise the achievement it represents. This is a structure that will, over time, come to be seen as a redirection of the spirit of Modernism, from the arid meaninglessness into which it has sunk in recent years towards a rich and complex importance not seen since the 1950s.