How Important is the past in modern architecture?Published on 22nd May 2015
Someone clever once said that the future is built on the ashes of the past. Nowhere is that statement more literally true than in architecture. New buildings rise, phoenix-like, atop the foundations of the old, but as these modern structures evolve can they truly be said to be bringing something new, or are they simply just carrying forward choice relics of the past, dusted clean of debris and presented as something fresh?
Well, that all depends on your perspective.
All buildings share one common function: the provision of shelter. Whether constructed for residential, business or recreational purposes, and regardless of what eventually goes on inside, the shell of every single building was designed to protect its contents or its occupants. With that shared objective, architecture from all eras is also bound to share some common traits; it’s just the presentation that changes, and that is influenced by three main factors: trial and error; technological advances; affordability.
Affordability could be said to be the key driving force behind British residential architecture for the last hundred years or so. The red brick house, which makes up so many terraces, was settled on as the quickest, easiest and most affordable means of mass producing homes in the Victorian, Edwardian and post-war periods because the infrastructure was already there. Bricks were simply and efficiently made, and we knew what to do with them. What is perhaps more interesting is that we continue to use them in the majority of residential building projects now, despite the fact that technological advances have shown us that there are more efficient, durable, and potentially economical materials available, such as Apropos’ aluminium framed glass architecture. Why? Possibly because aesthetically, a brick-build is what we’re all used to.
Contrastingly, architecture has changed tremendously in commercial properties during the last century. Whereas red brick proliferated in the structures of factories and offices until the Second World War, in the last two or three decades our factories have become pre-fab, and in the cities glass has become king. The Shard, the Gherkin, the Palestra building, the Strata, and the unfortunate car-melting ‘Walkie-Talkie’ of Fenchurch Street have worked to transform London’s skyline and landscape, and the phenomenon has not been confined to the capital.
Advancing technology combined with an eager, experimental attitude has resulted in a vibrancy and variety of architectural form. It seems that at work we all want to stand out from the crowd, using our architecture to express our status – compare the solid, reliable, historical Bank of England, with the thrusting upstart of HSBC’s gleaming headquarters. Both buildings testify their respective company’s ethos as clearly as their mission statements.
How important is the past in modern architecture? In some ways you could say that it’s integral; we learn from our mistakes – no more concrete monstrosities for us! In other ways it holds us back; we bow to convention when we might want to reach for something more. The past and the future are intertwined in all things. Architecture is no exception.Return to Blog