Arts feature

From Stansted to corporate swank: superstructuralism has a lot to answer for

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

Amid the thick of the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale dispatched a plea to the Times deploring the lethal conditions of British military field hospitals. Ten times more soldiers were dying from diseases like cholera and dysentery than from battle wounds. Shocked, the War Office commissioned 49-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design the world’s first prefabricated hospital.

Components were manufactured to Brunel’s specifications in Gloucestershire then rushed to Turkey for erection. He took the commission on 16 February 1855 and fewer than five months later, the new Renkioi Hospital could accept 300 patients (2,200 by March 1856). Infection rates collapsed. Nightingale called it ‘magnificent’. The new architecture of prefab had triumphed.

Renkioi doesn’t appear in Superstructures, a new exhibition of techno joy-infused architecture at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, though its essence is shared with the buildings which do: off-site fabrication, large volumes enclosed by lightweight materials, a love of engineering, technological innovation — all supporting a social mission.

The show, curated by Jane Pavitt and Abraham Thomas, celebrates the heyday of the high-tech movement. For those who enjoy a tensile membrane or tensioning cable detail, it’s a feast of objects capturing an exhilarating moment of, largely British, architectural experimentation marking the Sainsbury Centre’s 40th anniversary.

The centre weighs 5,618.6 tons. We know this because when its architect, Norman Foster, took Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller to visit the completed structure by helicopter, the acclaimed inventor asked, ‘How heavy is your building, Norman?’ Foster didn’t know but a week later had made the calculations. That seemingly banal question is at the heart of the high-tech story, which was born in ecological utopianism.

In act one, Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw et al launch into the new architectural language with optimistic swagger. Bucky’s calls for designers to ‘do more with less’, and Frei Otto’s Institute of Lightweight Structures, had established the intellectual foundation for an environmentalist form of modernism which accomplishes great spatial feats with remarkably modest means. The superstructuralists’ colourful drawings burst with vivacious depictions of a technological good-life, symbiotic with nature. ‘At the time the concept of sustainable ecological buildings was unheard of outside a fringe of society, which was mostly occupied by hippies and drop-outs,’ recalled Foster in an interview.

In act two, the superstructuralists conquer the world — Rogers completes the Lloyd’s Building, Foster scoops the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, then called ‘the most expensive building ever built’. Then in the 1990s, act three sees high-tech become the default architectural language of international business. Expressive structural gestures are replaced with ubiquitous glassy façades. There are still some hits, but from its pioneering attempts to connect human and ecological flourishing, superstructuralism morphs into the omnipresent face of the global corporation.

Airports in particular have become synonymous with superstructuralism. Offices, houses and museums are built in varied architectural vocabularies, but it’s hard to even imagine a neoclassical airport, such has superstructuralism become the unquestionable orthodoxy of aviation architecture. A generation of boys raised on Airfix models have, as men, designed the world’s major airports — Foster in China, Rogers in Spain, Grimshaw in Russia.

Foster’s Stansted, which features prominently in the show, is hailed as a game-changer. By burying the mechanics, Foster liberated the ground for passengers. The pitch was a spacious day-lit shed, in which travellers would amble through check-in following an intuitive linear route towards the gently ascending planes, visible through the vast curtain wall beyond.

The seductive poetics of Foster’s vision have long since been butchered. Now, a maze of duty-free concessions is compressed by a low-hung false ceiling, squeezing passengers through the bowels of Ray-Ban and Toblerone hell. Sphincters of invasive fear-mongering security checks, pat downs and X-ray scans bottleneck travellers into relentless queues. A proliferation of obtrusive signage fails to compensate for the — now unintelligible — layout. Wetherspoons has built a full-size floating faux windmill to facilitate pre-flight boozing. Stansted is why smart travellers take the train.

The failure of Stansted is not explored in the exhibition, which focuses only on the first two acts of superstructuralism. It’s perhaps a missed opportunity, as the most challenging questions for high-tech are around the gulf between its ethical beginnings and its latter-day manifestation. It’s a gulf which has led to some absurd hypocrisies. Superstructuralism has become consumed by the very ideologies its founders were trying to subvert — disregard for nature, mass consumption of resources and authoritarian control of movement are all typified by the modern aviation terminal.

Foster is a man who uses the word ‘sustainable’ to describe the largest airport on earth with a straight face. It’s a kind of doublethink that is becoming increasingly incredulous. Once the climate movement were mocked as fanciful utopians with far-fetched dreams of low-carbon economies and renewable energy. Today that old eco-warrior manifesto feels eminently practical when set against the snake oil peddled by a new breed of space-colonising fantasist.

Helium-3 dug from the moon. Minerals extracted from asteroids. Elon Musk mining Mars. Foster + Partners have produced papers on terraforming the red planet with autonomous drones and 3-D-printed lunar bases. In 2014 they completed a ‘spaceport’ for Richard Branson. This is not bold visionary thinking — it is escapism, seductive only to those whose weak imaginations can see no alternative to infinite economic growth despite a finite planet.

The legacy of superstructuralism could be so much more than luxury towers and soul-leaching departures lounges. In the early years, its advocates set out not just to redesign buildings, but the construction industry itself. Like in Brunel’s hospital, off-site fabrication and new technology would deliver meaningful social goals through unprecedented construction techniques. Strides have been made, but the buildings of tomorrow will still be made with the tools of yesterday, however futuristic they may look.

Around 1.7 million hours of research and development go into launching a new model of Japanese car. With production runs of a million, the R&D cost is just $425 per vehicle, but every customer benefits from the full 1.7 million-hour design phase. A one-off office tower on the other hand can cost hundreds of millions of dollars but, with architects’ fees at around 5 per cent, enjoy just a few thousand design hours.

This is the fundamental contradiction of high-tech — they talk of innovation, but their practice is ultimately at odds with the nature of technological development. They claim to save the planet while facilitating its destruction. Bucky’s foundational lessons of ‘Spaceship Earth’ are long forgotten.

At the turn of the millennium, German firm CargoLifter was working on a prototypical 550,000 cubic metre ‘AirCrane’ — a zeppelin capable of carrying 160-ton prefabricated building components directly to site. The project was never realised (in fact the hangar was turned into an enormous indoor holiday resort) but hints at the possibilities for the superstructuralists if they can recover their once vaulting ambition.

At a public debate in 2009, Foster was unequivocal. ‘What’s at stake,’ he said, ‘is literally our survival as a species. I think that probably we have to get to the point of absolute desperation before everyone is forced to get their act together, and then the agonising question will be did everybody wake up in time, or did they wake up too late?’ Good question, Norman.

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