I’m spending most of my extremely scarce free time Christmas shopping on the web and reading over best of 2009 lists. This year there are the bonus best of the decade lists, too. I’ve always liked the year-end lists, and I’ll have my own in a day or two, but the decade lists I find less interesting.
One exception comes from Treehugger, which has a long slideshow documenting the trends in architecture through the 2000s. As you can imagine, the list is green-heavy, but then again, so was the decade. Here is my own take on the Treehugger list. I’ve picked up on some of their themes, and added some of my own.
Green gets beautiful: Only a couple of years ago people were complaining that green architecture and design was uniformly ugly. Now that’s true only most of the time. The best evidence that sustainability and good design go together is Renzo Piano’s San Francisco Academy of Science (completed 2008), perhaps the first great green building in the United States. Another major project to keep an eye on is Zaha Hadid’s vast Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park complex in Seoul. Hadid’s trademark whooshes sprawl all over the place; this time she’s pasted on green roofs. The effect looks something like a hybrid car made by Ferrari: the technology is there, but ironically. Speaking of hybrid cars, the third generation Prius, an icon of green technology, still has soybean style.
Pre-fab still isn’t fabulous: Dwell magazine caused a stir in the mid-2000s with a series of articles on pre-fab houses. The concept presented some exciting propositions. It transformed a déclassé building method into something cool in a geeky, mildly anti-bourgeois way. Economies of scale meant that the dream of affordable modern house design could finally be realized. Architects could make a fortune churning out variations of the same design elements without having to rethink every structure. Alas, Daniel Liebskind got hold of the concept and promptly killed it (above left). Plus, the economies of scale never materialized. As my wife and I discovered, pre-fab is only cost effective when you’re building 100 houses. A single pre-fab can be more expensive than a custom-built house. (See also shipping container buildings.)
Modernism moves east: If Surrealism was the last artistic movement that thought it could change the world, Dubai and China are the last places that still believe in Modernism as a daring, visionary form of national aspiration. Sure, the Burj Dubai is excessive, but at least it aspires to heroicism. Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, another building with heroic aspirations, probably would have seemed excessive had it been built. Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid and Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium are superb buildings, and more aesthetically daring than any project currently underway or planned in the US or Europe.
The rise and fall of great public architecture in the US: There are still major public public architecture projects underway in Dallas and Miami, but they’re the last guests at the party. The so-called Bilbao Effect, in which one sexy museum can transform a post-industrial city with an eroding tax base into Florence under the di Medicis, proved to be remarkably durable, but it couldn’t last forever. The starchitect system that developed to serve the Bilbao effect may or may not be dead as well. Gehry himself is struggling to land commissions. Locally, Jeanne Gang’s recently completed Aqua Tower, a condo building festooned with curvy balconies, looks like the end of an era.
The generic city of the developed world has morphed into bike town: The simultaneous collapse of the shopping mall and the residential real estate market means two crucial engines driving the generic city have lost steam–and in the case of the shopping mall, may face extinction. Meanwhile, sustainable design and New Urbanist urban planning have joined forces to fill the vacuum. The most visible sign of a deeper change in how American think about their cities and suburbs is the rise in bike riding. The trend started in 2007 and continues unabated. Of course, commuting by bike in most places that aren’t Portland, Oregon is only slightly less unusual than commuting by rickshaw, but keep an eye on the bike racks in your town over the next few years.
The generic city of the developing world has morphed into the dysfunctional megacity: Not so long ago people paid to worry about the developing world fretted about global cultural standardization. The fear was that every city on the globe would turn into either a cartoon version of its previous self or a monotonous expanse of anonymous buildings–beige as far as the eye can see. Now the dominant urban planning problem is providing basic city services to the millions who migrate to urban centers around the world. Some Americans may worry about being overwhelmed by immigrants, but the pressures on our borders are only a small sample of the migratory patterns occurring across the developing world. Generic cities, as Rem Koolhaas defined them, are self-organizing, but the teeming hypermasses of the twenty-first century seem less and less likely to assume benign forms. Widespread environmental degradation adds to the urgency to problems that seemed largely conceptual a decade ago.