Crash Course: Structural Expressionism/High Tech Architecture

Want to know your structuralism from your deconstructivism, and your neo-gothicism from your classical rococo? Need a small refresher, or perhaps interested in learning a little more about architecture? Try our crash courses in architectural styles! This week: , also known as high-tech architecture or late modernism. Most associated with contemporary architects such as Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster, emerged in the 1970s and is still popular today.

HISTORY

A child of the Modernist movement, structural expressionism emerged in the 1970s, and was influenced by emerging technological breakthroughs in steel frames and structural design. The key development was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Fazlur Khan’s work on framed tube structures in design, allowing approximately half of the exterior surface to be used for windows and with fewer interior columns creating a greater usable floor space. Other great technological advances of the 1960s also fuelled the movement, culminating in the Space Race and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. This set the scene for a cultural movement that looked towards technology for its muse, and became inspired by great technological achievement.

HSBC Hong Kong Building; Photo courtesy of Miguel Udaondo

HSBC Hong Kong Building; Photo courtesy of Miguel Udaondo

The term ‘high tech architecture’ was coined following the publication of High Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home, written by design journalists Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin. This book was critical in linking industrial objects, such as factory shelving and chemical glass, with a movement that incorporated such things in interior style, terming it ‘high-tech’. This spread to a new architectural school of thought that rebelled against monotonous, standardised buildings, built with economics rather than aesthetics in mind. This, coupled with the belief that technology was progression, led to a new, rebellious, edgy, industrial-based aesthetic.

KEY CONCEPTS

Structural expressionism has similarities to the futurist movement of the 1920s, but crucially adds updated methods of engineering to each structure, enabling bigger and better concepts than the futurists could achieve. First and foremost in structural expressionism is the use of cutting-edge technology, and the aesthetics that proudly display this technology to the outside world. Whereas most structures seek to conceal the structural elements that make up a building, structural expressionism seeks to reveal them, embracing a kind of skeleton-as-exterior aesthetic. Services are often positioned externally too, and the whole effect is to create a high-quality, high-impact industrial look that rebels against historicism and antiquity. The most famous example of this would be the Pompidou Centre, with services, structural elements, entrance/exit tubes and even ventilation ducts appearing externally as part of the overall stylisation, marking a radical departure from the usual classically modest nineteenth century styles found in Paris. The heavy emphasis on functionality created its own aesthetic: originally each of the structural elements of the building were colour coded, so that blue ducts indicated climate control elements, green pipes denoted plumbing, electrical wires were encased in yellows and safety devices such as fire extinguishers were red. Ironically, many of the structural components featured at the Pompidou Centre are purely aesthetic and serve little to no structural role – structural expressionism usually adheres to the ‘function over form’ motto of modernism, although it tends to fuse the two together to create a sleek, edgy look born out of the functional core of the structure.

The Pompidou Centre; photo courtesy of Konrad Glogowski

The Pompidou Centre; photo courtesy of Konrad Glogowski

In the more recent past, structural expressionism has found a niche in large commercial structures, mostly due to the technology that spawned its development. The ability to provide larger internal floor spaces with fewer internal columns and external services, combined with the sleek geometric patterns in the exterior created by the structural elements, usually in chrome, black or glass, has been favoured by large corporations looking to own a statement piece of architecture to house their head offices. The use of a skeleton pipe steel structure also allows for a very tall building to be constructed, meaning that many of today’s skyscrapers incorporate structural expressionism into their design, showcasing the technology that allows them to exist. The school of thought that developed as a wild-child, rebellious reaction to stagnating traditional forms of architecture has now been embraced by internal corporations, and many of today’s large cities have numerous examples of structural expressionism gracing their skylines.

John Hancock Centre, Chicago; photo courtesy of Scott Jungling

STRUCTURAL EXPRESSIONISM IN PRACTICE

Structural expressionism is today a very popular style, and is used widely across an international market. Simple and sleek, it has become the de rigueur style for large corporation headquarters, and has irreversibly shaped the international skyline. The most iconic example in London is the Lloyd’s Building, home to the insurance company Lloyd’s of London and situated in the heart of the City. The Lloyd’s Building, sometimes called The Inside-Out Building, is another Richard Rogers project that harnesses high-tech architecture to create an iconic structure. Opened in 1986, the Lloyd’s Building was highly rebellious in its attitude towards commercial architecture – much like the Pompidou Centre, all of the services of the three towers are external, including twelve glass lifts that were the first of their kind in the UK. This allows the services to be easily replaced as they wear out, leaving the essential structure of the building untouched and the interior floor space much larger than if the services were located internally. The presence of the glass lifts also adds movement to the exterior of the building, juxtaposing it with the still, traditional and somehow lifeless buildings surrounding it. The Lloyd’s Building manages to still look futuristic even twenty-five years on, and has been used in a number of films and other art projects, proving its iconic status. Whilst it may not always win people over (critics have been quoted as complaining that it is ‘hideous’ and ‘like going to work in a factory’), it was the project that Richard Rogers has credited as saving his career as an architect – and that has to be a great thing for British architecture.

The Lloyd’s Building; photo courtesy of Richard Tucker

In more modern times, structural expressionist design has defied the blocky, square look of early developments, instead embracing the more flowing and organic structures of postmodern design. Examples of this include 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) and London City Hall, both of which are based on abstract skewed-sphere shapes. There is still the heavy emphasis on the structural, however, with glazing and steelwork making up repeating geometric patterns in the external faces of both buildings. Whilst both structures are curved in shape, neither incorporates curved pieces of glass in the designs, choosing instead to make up the external faces from many smaller, flat panes of glass rather than one large, curved panel. This means that the glazing is held in place with steelwork (see left), producing straight geometric lines within curved external faces and creating the skeleton effect that is at the heart of structural expressionism. The triangulated glazing also serves to make the buildings stiffer, meaning that less reinforcement is required to keep the skyscrapers stable. As with all structural expressionist buildings, function becomes the form – the practical engineering elements used become the aesthetics of the building.

National Centre for the Performing Arts, China - photo by Hui Lan
National Centre for the Performing Arts, China – photo by Hui Lan

Finally, structural expressionism, despite its rebellious, edgy and industrial roots, can produce structures that are extremely graceful and feel somehow organic and natural. The National Centre for the Performing Arts in China is a 212 metre wide ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass, surrounded by a man-made lake, and could have been a dense, heavy construction that dwarfed everything around it. Instead, it manages to feel somehow light and delicate, with the glass intersection and geometric beams adding just enough diversity in the external face to create interest without becoming overpowering. Despite its futuristic appearance, it is reminiscent of an egg or a seed floating in water, and tiny lights set into the titanium shell light up at night to look like stars. Structural expressionism has indeed come a long way from its roots – or perhaps the rebellious nature of high-tech architecture simply rebelled against itself.

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