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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Modernist/Futuristic Architecture: Shaping Lives, People, History

Modernist/Futuristic Architecture: Shaping Lives, People, History

Turtle House, Egypt: Modern Design - Marc Ryckaert
Modernism is not new: yesterday’s modernist architecture becomes today’s joke becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. But like all art, it progresses age by age.

Architects cannot start with completely blank paper. There are planning laws, neighbouring older property, local traditions, geography, topography, space, transport, utilities, client needs, economics and political constraints to take into account in every design. Most architects also yearn to make an artistic, creative, innovative and original impact, and ‘futuristic dreaming’ has frequently inspired them.

Obsession with the future is an understandable human trait, reflected in things people do, say, wear, eat and the spaces they live in. Nowadays, such modernism or futurism, is mixed with concern for the environment and resources, with energy and cost, so ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ have become part of the language landscape.

Modernism’s Past

According to Trend Hunter: ‘creative architects and designers have been dreaming up futuristic architecture for decades. Although our definition of futuristic changes with every generation, there are a few similarities’.

In identifying offbeat modern designs, they said: ‘every design is jaw-dropping, innovative and aesthetically incredible’. They ranged from futuristic lighting in public spaces, future world eco-cities, sustainable houseboats, self-powered tech homes and other-worldly art museums.

Some believe the roots of Modernism began in the work of Russian-born, London-based architect Berthold Luberkin (1901-1990) who founded the Tecton group of designers. They defied traditional styles, emphasized function, applied scientific, analytical methods in designing, creating often stark buildings that appeared to defy gravity. There was little ornamentation, frequent mass-produced parts and heavy use of metal and concrete.

Stylistic theories and movements that emerged from and/or with modernism included structuralism, formalism, bauhaus, brutalism and minimalism. Swiss-born Le Corbusier (1887-1965) is one example of a designer embracing the theories behind the movement, having acquired interest in the synthesis of arts, and publishing Towards a New Architecture (1917).

His houses were ‘machines for living in’ and during World War 2 he developed utopian ideals along modular building scales, creating massive dwelling blocks that were much criticized. He subsequently specialized in ‘brute concrete and articulated structure’, according to Dennis Sharp in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture.

Buildings Define People and Their Times

In 2010 Swiss-born philosopher and creative director of Living Architecture, Alain de Botton commissioned five UK houses by some of his perceived top European architects, which he intended to change the way people look at architecture, harnessing eco-friendly techniques and the natural habitat. He said that though the houses are modern, they’re aware of local character, sensitive to their locations.

One in north Norfolk at Cockthorpe, features a massive traditionally crafted flint wall in a great medieval-style hall. Dune House is near the coast at Thorpeness, Suffolk, while The Balancing Barn near Halesworth, is a 30m stainless steel-clad tube cantilevered over an empty space, with the land side weighed down to counterbalance the overhang.

The Shingle House in Kent and The Secular Retreat in Devon complete the set, all of which are or will be available for holiday rent. De Botton said they are not “spaceships dropped in from other planets, they are like plants that have grown from and deeply understand their local soil. Modern doesn’t have to mean rootless’.

‘Living Architecture’ is also the name of both an American (Texas) company and a movement, defined by Marley Porter: ‘Architecture is all about living. The spaces we inhabit, the places we consider sacred, the magic of space and of time and of gravity, inspire to create this Second Skin for Living In …’ His mission has spanned 30 years to create meaningful, artistic architecture through energy-efficient, holistic and spiritually-charged design.

His is a quasi-religious explanation for modern design. As Tribal Architect to the Navajo Nation he first encountered egoless design: ‘that is not for the architect but for and from the Creator, an integral part of the land, the indigenous materials, the eco-system, the client’s heart, and the insubstantial reality of money’.

Whether building with living straw bale, RASTRA (super insulated recycled polystyrene and cement blocks) or adobe, rammed earth, Cobb or conventional construction, Living Architecture is ‘full of art, common sense and meaning’. Like all movements, artistic or political, it has its vocabulary.

Scandinavian design and projects and companies in Idaho and in New York, among many others, have grasped the phrase ‘Living Architecture’. It’s the natural evolution from fortified homes, to functional human-bases to habitats where people can live in better harmony with each other and their limitations in a crowded world.

Futurism’s Future

While the environmental issue isn’t going away, its absorption into designs for everything from foodstuffs to tourism, from clothes to preserving water to homes, is now well factored in. The pundits are next trying to predict the shape of future houses.

Unlike future universities or tomorrow’s schools which may be in cyberspace, the fact is that people must live somewhere in an often hostile physical environment. All predictions are unlikely, but everybody feels able to have a guess: everyone is an expert.

Frequently past history is a key to the present and therefore the future, so as there was modernism, there followed postmodernism architecture with attendant movements of high-tech, organic and deconstructivism. In a world where technology rapidly changes everything from building materials to design, from power sources to styles for living, there may come post eco-design, a post-postmodernism in architecture.

Man, as an ever inventive and creative being, will apply lateral/new thinking. Today’s modern concerns and buildings may be objects of historical curiosity, but the shape of buildings to come will be very different.

First published on Suite 101, 6 November 2010.

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Photo:  Turtle House, Egypt: Modern Design – Marc Ryckaert



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