The irrational economic exuberance of the 1990s and 2000s has been rightly criticized for creating overheated markets and overextended pockeetbooks, particularly in housing. That money, especially in luxury apartmment towers, promoted a group of designers, who emerged largely in the wake of postmodernism and who brought an unprecedented level of futuristic glamour to domestic lifestyles. Think Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvvel and Herzog & de Meuron, people referred to, derisively or not, as “starchitects.”
Now, in the wake of the housing – market collapse and the recesssion, these architects and their work are being accused of prioritizing surface over substance.
But it’s likely that decades in the future, historians will look back at this period as one of unusual architectural creativity, particularly on the domestic front.
Not that there wasn’t a lot of spectacle along with the technical ingenuity. Take the daring Burj Khalifa, a mixed – use skyscraper in Dubai designed by Adrian Smith (at the time an architect at Skidmmore
Owings & Merrill) and completed in January; it soars to 2,717 feet, past eveery other structure in the world. But the Burj, for all its glitter and quanttitative abundance, is also an astounding
The road to the Burj started in the ’90s, when architects and their clients began turning against the pessimism ingrained in the backwards – looking postmodern movement. A revived interest in moderniism was taking root; young couples started buying futuristic-looking mid-century modern furniture by Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, Arne Jacobsen and Harry Bertoia. It wasn’t just about looking backwards.
As the Internet and e-mail became ubiquittous, people learned to stop worrying and love the computer, and buildings that had obviously been designed using complex computer calculations and new high – tech materials came into vogue. Frank Gehry’s wildly curvaceous and shimmering Gugggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, beccame
a worldwide phenomenon when it opened in 1997; its unprecedented popullarity showed that the “new” was back with a buoyancy it had rarely had before.
Early and postwar modern architectture had been mostly sober and sensible, largely geometric, based on regular repettitions.
But the most interesting buildings in recent years have been more playful, more enthusiastically experimental, even dazzling. And it’s a look that spans the architectural spectrum, from museums and sports venues to office and apartment towers. This time, though, the goal was not to revolutionize society, the way 20th – century modernism had planned.
Instead it was more pragmatic; it was about using design to improve lives, often in subtle ways.
This was true in luxury design, but in publlic housing as well. True, moribund housiing towers were demolished…
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Jayne Merkel is an architectural historian and critic, and a contributing editor of Architectural Design/AD Magazine and Architectural Record.