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Peter Davey: Now is the time for empathic architecture

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The downturn could lead to a change in focus from iconic buildings to engaging architecture, says Peter Davey

Perhaps the global economic downturn has temporarily cooled the white heat of iconic architecture. If so, SOM’s Burj Khalifa in Dubai may mark the end of an era, and the new tallest building in the world could well keep the ridiculous title for some time.

Yet the Hugh Ferriss-like tower is far from being the worst building in the emirate – an architectural cesspit where buildings posture, writhe and fester to create one of the least humane places on the planet. Set in a stony desert, Dubai has been forged by an underpaid immigrant workforce with total disregard for the wellbeing of the planet, or for its citizens – apart from a few indigenous people and a small group of western expatriates.

Dubai and its buildings (pictured above) are almost opposite to the noble, democratic inspirations that drove the modern movement almost 100 years ago. When the movement ran out of steam in the 1980s, under the pressures of big business and bureaucracy, competition flourished on the basis of tallest, most daringly structured, most outré: criteria with no relevance to cities, architecture or people.

Huge opportunities were missed for revitalising the discipline on a humane basis. The profession was too focused on macho style wars between post-modernists and the remaining modernists. Almost forgotten in the blizzard of images and statistics was the capacity of architecture to be gentle and tender, to offer reassurance and engage all our senses. This recession could offer time to consider the possibilities of what might be called empathic architecture – ways of building that offer a sense of wellbeing to all of us, instead of vaunting the status of architects and their patrons, as iconic architecture does.

Generous and sympathetic architecture does not mean Poundbury-esque kitsch. From Aldo van Eyck to Peter Zumthor, we have numerous distinguished, moving examples of empathic design. It is surely time to explore them, remembering that humanity should always be the focus of architecture.

Peter Davey joined the AJ in 1968 and held various posts, including managing editor, before joining the Architectural Review, on which he was editor from 1982 to 2005

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