Dynamic Change Drives Development

2 April 2006 (Last Updated April 2nd, 2006 18:30)

From demographic change to data transfer, we live in an age of great upheaval. Gensler's Stephen Andrews looks at how major social and cultural changes are shaping the latest trends in architecture.

Dynamic Change Drives Development

Even the most cursory look at current trends begs the question 'where do you start?' Our industry has such a far-reaching impact that such a study could cover any number of different areas.

Looking at the big picture, we can see that demographics are changing more rapidly than it has for perhaps a hundred years. With the broadening of the EU and free movement of people across the 22 member states, as well as the large influx of refugees into Europe, long-established cultural dynamics and skill bases are being transformed.

LONG TERM DIVERSITY

In some respects, this diversity will be of real long-term benefit, as true multinational societies tend to be stable yet dynamic, even though in the short term interracial tensions may be inevitable. This holds true particularly if the rate of immigration or population shift is too rapid, in which case the instability can hinder true social integration and development.

Parallels can be drawn with the wholesale redevelopment of large urban parts of Europe from the 1950s through to the present day, where the value of redevelopment may have contributed to the dearth of quality in the built environment. More recently though, with many larger urban sites looking towards redevelopment and regeneration (perhaps in response to changing demographics and new drivers for sustainable communities and portfolios), new and emerging architecture has become philosophically more mature and at the same time more daring and innovative.

DEVELOPING NEW PARADIGMS

One could argue that the influence of incoming design professionals and trades people is affecting the way we work and how we draw on external influences in developing new paradigms. For the developed countries of Western European in particular, the influx of skilled designers with obvious foreign language skills is allowing easier access to other economies.

For example, the UK, with its relatively low unemployment and higher growth than most other EU countries, is attracting workers from all over the world. We have access to most markets, and invisible exports are growing. In addition, the presence of many different cultures affects what we design and how we design.

"Architecture has become philosophically more mature and at the same time more daring and innovative"

At the same time, many craftsmen are entering the country. At this level, language can be a problem, but the skills are not. Over the last 20 years, the UK industry has moved from a craft-based approach to one that is more technical, with a tendency to manufacture off site in an effort to build faster, better and more cost-effectively. Some of this change has been driven in part by the diminishing craft base. Speed and quality must still be the goal, but the influx of craftsmen presents more opportunities, particularly with the renovation and reuse of old buildings.

This can be looked at in a number of ways, whether it is the changing face of individual communities, the fragmentation of the traditional family unit or how designers are perceived as a force for change.

Renovation and reuse of old buildings can also be looked at in terms of sustainability. Reuse projects have less of an impact on the volume of new construction materials and produce less waste, but need to improve if they are to meet current energy use expectations.

ADAPTING THE PAST

One must also consider the national tendency to romanticise the past and therefore the temptation to keep as much of our 'heritage' as possible. This ignores the fact that the building stock is often too poor, either in fact or in terms of modern space requirements (for example, large floor plates for some business sectors), to retain. Hence, constructing from scratch will always be a consideration. However, creating modern, sympathetic environments in existing buildings offers a number of unique challenges.

One must also consider the national tendency to romanticise the past and therefore the temptation to keep as much of our 'heritage' as possible. This ignores the fact that the building stock is often too poor, either in fact or in terms of modern space requirements (for example, large floor plates for some business sectors), to retain. Hence, constructing from scratch will always be a consideration. However, creating modern, sympathetic environments in existing buildings offers a number of unique challenges.

How much more satisfying it is to see old and new together - a visual history of the places we live in, work in and interact with. In every solution, existing infrastructure, building type, landscape, and business and social environment combine to create unique places and unique solutions that can enrich our lives.

Financial models are the everyday tool of developers, governments and businesses. As building costs escalate, adaptive reuse becomes more and more relevant to any forward-thinking developer. If this option is considered, things become much more fluid. New is measured against comprehensive intervention, significant alterations or just cosmetic changes. In all instances, adaptive reuse is much less predictable and requires a wider knowledge of building types and styles, modern technology and traditional methods of construction, the impact of local environments, and business users.

A NEW WAY OF LIFE

In looking at local environments, we return to the subject of the changing nature of communities. Most European countries are now inhabited by several different nationalities of differing ethnic and racial backgrounds. Rather like a patterned rug, where in places the warp and the welt is interrupted, these new arrivals change a community's dynamics and cultural characteristics, resulting in new demands and expectations. This too is changing the way we think and work.

Domestically too, change is a factor. With divorce becoming increasingly common, the pattern of demand for residential units in the UK is changing. Smaller homes are required, and in urban areas demand is moving away from individual houses towards a more continental model of individual apartments, often converted from the original buildings.

Working patterns are also changing, with a polarisation into those who commute because they prefer to live in the country or cannot afford to live in the city and those who are returning to live in the cities because they are more comfortable there. It is also interesting to observe that the majority of immigrants move to cities, where they can be part of familiar communities. Hence, enclaves are forming in urban centres, while rural communities remain reasonably stable.

The increasing interference of the state in the social matrix is also a factor, with extended maternity leave for mothers, paternity leave for fathers and working remotely from home becoming more prevalent. Many commentators have noted how new ways of working and using space, to allow for 'hot desking' or touch down space, are changing business practices.

TRAVEL AND COMMUNICATION

Whether taking advantage of improved travel links (air travel now makes intercontinental commuting possible) or instantaneous data transfer, mobile populations and cultural diversity are becoming the norm. Whereas our grandparents or great grandparents might never have travelled more than 50 miles from home, unless it was to wage war, today millions of people have travelled around the world and been influenced by what they have seen.

For many people, disposable income is now higher than it has ever been, and the problem of ageing populations looms large in many parts of Europe. There is a general 'greying' of currencies. Retail and leisure industries are growing consistently, despite the odd hiccup. Whether in the construction of new buildings or the adaptive reuse of old buildings, urban reinvestment strategies are taking place across all markets. New communities are forming, from transport nodes and mixed-use developments to giant urban redevelopments or new business districts.

THE PLACE OF ARCHITECTURE

The common ethos underlying all these communities is that we are in the midst of a period of great change, and yet there is still utility to be realised, economic gains to be made and social programmes to be enabled. Bearing in mind the exponential rate of change, the flexibility and adaptability of these environments and the service we provide are key, provided that there is still room for provocative statements. Through it all, we also need to retain a sense of emotional pragmatism. In her recent obituary of Jan Kleihues in the Architectural Review, Layla Dawson reminded us of his famous statement, 'poesie aquia regulae', which roughly translates as 'rules and poetry harmonise well with each other'. For designers, this blend of scientific analysis and emotion and spirituality is what creates solutions with a sense of place.

Acknowledging that architecture is an anomalous discipline, covering humanities and science, pure thought and practical solutions, we can and should be catalysts for change. But how best should we respond to changing social needs and aspirations? Taking the broad view of evaluating old and new across a wide range of disciplines is entirely proper, given the enormous diversity of architectural education.

However, given the rate at which knowledge bases are growing (through web-based information and data exchange, or the sheer bulk of printed material), it is clear that we are all suffering from information overload. Knowledge for its own sake is insufficient and 'just in time information' is no good without understanding.

So, is education, and particularly education in our own field, about knowledge pure and simple, or is it more a question of accessing and then using information to promote understanding in a design context? Does it enable us to take appropriate action in response to the market-driven challenges we are currently facing? In terms of design and construction, should we be aspiring to the 'boutique' model, with its detailed picture of the client's needs, or opt for the clusters of knowledge nodes that characterise large firms, which may help us to see the bigger picture?

Being an expert in a small field has merit, as with a large firm with a variety of different experts. What is more uncertain, looking forward, is the future of those who try to occupy the middle of the road, being all things to all people. This does not normally produce a successful synthesis of the iconic and the pragmatic, truly satisfying clients' needs and aspirations.

Looking forward then, are we about to see design and construction companies polarised into those with a desire to understand their specific client base and those who become marginalised by trying to do too much? Probably. If so, with a lack of new thought and new approaches, we will be the poorer for it.