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Retelling the fairytale of High Tech

Catherine Slessor

A new exhibition devoted to the era of High Tech shows us just how far architecture has moved on, says Catherine Slessor

As a callow architecture student, I remember seeing the Sainsbury Centre for the first time in 1980. It was a second-year field trip and this sleek, extruded mega-shed in its pastoral campus idyll seemed impossibly futuristic and impossibly exciting.

We all went back to our (literal) drawing boards and dutifully churned out low-rent Foster imitations, featuring the new miracle detail of the neoprene gasket. Though it ultimately proved rather less miraculous, at the time the neoprene gasket was a kind of God particle, holding up the nascent High Tech cosmos. As a birthday gift, Foster presented his client, Robert Sainsbury, with a framed drawing of a neoprene gasket in situ.

High Tech was architecture’s supreme toys-for-the-boys movement

Last weekend, I finally returned to the Sainsbury to see the current Superstructures show. Essentially a deferential retelling of the Fairytale of High Tech, Superstructures tracks its coalescence from origin myths – Victorian engineering puissance spliced with the cartoon provocation of Reyner Banham, Cedric Price et al – to become the establishment style du jour.

17 pete huggins, sainsbury centre

17 pete huggins, sainsbury centre

Source: Pete Huggins

Sainsbury Centre, 2009

There are vast, intricate models, vast, intricate drawings effortfully executed by hand in ink and Letratone (happy days), vast, intricate speculations, bits of furniture, bits of structure, the works. Seen from a contemporary perspective, it’s a fantasy world where bold primaries zing against perpetually azure skies – none of your existentialist Brutalist monotone angst here – and ‘technology’ is the agreeable panacea for all evils. 

As diligently curated as it was, it reminded me, slightly unsettlingly, of a teenage boy’s bedroom, obsessively plastered with the objects of his unrequited adoration. Because, for all its visionary proselytising about ‘efficiency’ (‘How much does your building weigh?’ Buckminster Fuller once asked Foster), High Tech was architecture’s supreme toys-for-the-boys movement. Hard-edged and apparently rational, yet wilfully, even romantically fiddly, it was perpetuated by men who’d grown up wilfully fiddling with Meccano and Airfix kits in their post-war youth. If that sounds like a journalist’s cliché, the exhibition features an actual Meccano model (pictured below) of a Rogers’ project for an unbuilt car showroom in Tokyo.

Rogers meccano model

Rogers meccano model

This is not an original observation, but there is a certain irony in a movement that so evangelistically espoused the advantages of low-cost industrial prefabrication and spatial flexibility pressed into the service of the institutional and corporate elite. High Tech was capitalism with neoprene knobs on. Nurtured by the intellectual compost of the late 60s, it erupted in a post-hippy fervour, then rapidly congealed into a bankable and biddable style for its limited cadre of proponents. 

High Tech’s gradual ebbing from public and architectural consciousness was less visceral than Modernism’s untimely exit. There was no Pruitt-Igoe moment with the wrecking ball confected for posterity by dubious cultural historians. Instead, as the millennium dawned, the party moved elsewhere, along the Erasmus axis of Rotterdam and Basel. In Clerkenwell, Zaha Hadid was doing heavy things with concrete, bringing High Tech’s flyweight show back down to earth. If you seek its monument, go to the City and walk around the Lloyd’s Building, once a kit-of-parts imperator and ‘cathedral of commerce’, now a tottering steampunk relic, boxed in by some truly unpleasant extrusions of capital. 

32 zipup house ∏ rogers stirk harbour + partners eamonn o'mahony

32 zipup house ∏ rogers stirk harbour + partners eamonn o’mahony

Source: © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Eamonn O’Mahony

ZipUp House, competition model

Now that the Sainsbury is 40 years old, might Superstructures mark the stirrings of a revival of interest in High Tech via the lubricating conduits of social media? It seems a foregone conclusion. Architecture is becoming more like fashion, and everything that goes round comes around. After Brutalism, High Tech is the next big nostalgic thing to be mooned over by the public and its gaudy entrails endlessly dissected in academe. But, though there may be life in the modular old dog yet, architecture has long moved on.

Superstructures: The New Architecture 1960-1990 is at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, until 2 September

richard rogers and ivan harbour with prouvç house model ∏ rogers stirk harbour + partners

33 richard rogers and ivan harbour with prouvç house model ∏ rogers stirk harbour + partners

Source: © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour with Jean Prouvé House model


Readers' comments (2)

  • Has High Tech ever really gone away? - it's surely been hanging around all the time, particularly if you look outside Britain, and not necessarily as far away as Antarctica.
    And, in the eyes of the public, it's surely easier to relate to than the brilliant 'built fantasies' of Zaha Hadid, notwithstanding projects like her German car plant and South London school.

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  • Catherine

    You need to get out more? “High Tech” wasn’t shelved like Brutalism or Post Modern. It still rules certain parts of the roost? Use any airport or railway station, look at Roger’s Knightsbridge flats or those round the US Embassy in Battersea? The Cheesegraters and Gherkins etc in the City. High Tech lives?! OK it leeks occasionally, but all great architecture leeks. It hasn’t stopped raining!

    Global Warming and the Population Explosion will and are demanding changes and refinements, but as a scientific way of building with sophisticated materials, so called high tech should be able to respond to change. The next stage is incorporating plants into facades to combat heat gain and pollution, even provide food for the occupants. See the Bosco Tower in Milan? And other examples around the world? There will always be a place for traditional and cost effective ways of making houses and flats. We haven’t finished with brick and wood, perhaps with high tech sliding doors and lightweight “conservatories” and garden structures?

    The Sainsbury Centre, with the later additions is still optimistic and magical. I particularly like the shimmering light on a sunny day produced by the water ponding on the flat roof glazed panels. Accidental but interesting?

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