From 1971 and 1985, Aachen-based architects Weber & Brand created this futuristic additional building for the University Hospital in Aachen, photo © Claus Richter
Steel construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, photo © Claus Richter
“Les Halles“ in Paris, photo © Claus Richter
Lloyds headquarters in London, photo © Claus Richter
British architect Richard Rogers built the Lloyd headquarters between 1978 and 1986, photo © Claus Richter
The Olympic stadium was created by Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto and opened in 1972, photo © Claus Richter
The roof of the Olympic stadium in Munich reminds of a spider web, photo © Claus Richter
“Centre Pompidou“ in Paris, photo © Claus Richter
Save the future!
by Richter Claus
Sep 24, 2012

How quickly that once-in-a-thousand-years 2000 went by – and with it a legendary projection screen for bold, tech-obsessed visions. At the latest from the period in which industrialization got underway, we humans had been continuously looking to this date in the future full of longing, and with a touch of fear too. Authors such as Albert Robida and Jules Verne had been creating fantastical blueprints for their expectations of the future as early as the 19th century – gaining impetus from technological developments at the time. There were trips to the moon, video telephones, flying cars, capsule mega-metropolises, robots and wondrous machines that eased the burden of unpleasant workloads at the push of a button. But the 1960s “Space Age” provided these visions with fresh fuel. Trips to the moon, which had only existing in people’s minds and dreams, became a reality; computers were invented, it seemed that anything was possible. Many household items suddenly had the number “2000” stuck on the end of their name – a sign that they were modern and forward-looking. The anticipation was almost unbearable. The year 2000 was a big promise. In the year 2000 itself, robots became our friends, flying cars a part of everyday life, and people even said that there were life on Mars.

And now? Twelve years on from that legendary day, disenchantment is rearing its head. The dominant technological developments of our times are after all immaterial – the Internet, satellite technology, cash cards and biotechnology shape our world, despite being invisible to the naked eye. Contrary to expectations, we live with technology that strangely transfers its developments to us humans. When it comes to communication, consumption and interaction, we and our behavior with us have become increasingly isolated, but at the same time we are networked with one another like one giant psychological ant colony, such that we ourselves are increasingly become a part of technology itself. The effect this could have on us is one of the greatest issues of our time.

All of this is very fascinating, touching and exciting at the same time. What is becoming progressively more difficult here is envisaging an architectural world in which all of this can take place. Since the end of the 19th century, in sync with technological and industrial developments, there has been a formulation of architectural concepts that keenly seek to illustrate the technological progress, making it accessible, comprehensible and physically tangible. The legendary Crystal Palace and Eiffel Tower came as sensational accompaniments to the development of load-bearing technology, steel processing and construction. Now as then, people stand in front of the Eiffel Tower, amazed at this gigantic steel construction, this enormous machine filled with lifts and platforms: So hated by some in its day, it has now become a nostalgic place of technological marvels.

An architectural movement that really did breathe the spirit of the 1970s – the decade so enamored with technology – was the so-called “high-tech architecture”. Drawing its strength from sci-fi fantasy and fiction, dreamt up by bold intellectual pioneers such as the Archigram Group or Buckminster Fuller and spurred by the idea that one could grown toward a future with limitless resources: all of this led to a real-life stage set for contemporary dreams of robots and spaceships . The best-known example is Paris’ Centre Pompidou, flanked by the then highly controversial re-development of the “Les Halles” area, the former home of Paris’ central marketplace. The Centre Pompidou came like a spaceship that had just landed from the future. There’s no other way to put it. There hadn’t been anything like it ever before. The contrast to its historical surroundings was dumbfounding and constituted a radical break from all architectural conventions of the age. The inside was outside, the outside was inside, the building covered in drainage and ventilation pipes, escalators, steel girders. And not only was all of this visible, it was proudly presenting itself to the world. Function became façade. Hence it is no wonder that one specialist term describes buildings adhering to this architectural style is “structural expressionist buildings”. The Pompidou said: “Look, this is how I work, I am technology, I am structure, an enormous machine. I am the future, you can see it!” The entire thing was a statement, a shock provided by the ultramodern.

With its infancy in the early 1970s, this high-tech style maintained its presence in the architectural world for almost 15 years, enjoying a similar lifespan to other visionary architectural styles, such as Art Nouveau, though it was never able to quite convince everyone. It remained limited to a few outstanding buildings, the majority of them in Europe and Asia. Even at the time, the prospects were anything but rosy, people were moved by fear and insecurity just as they are today; nuclear missiles, environmental destruction, economic crises and welfare cuts shook the people’s faith in a bright future, and yet there was a merging of dystopian visions of the future with a defiant belief in the beauty of technology and a transformed world. The 1970s were more than bright orange flared-leg jeansand plush, they were shaped by concrete, spaceships and computers too.

Germany would soon become home to one of the most radical designs of the high-tech movement, the futuristic Klinikum Aachen built between 1971 and 1985. Then in 1979 after almost nine years under construction, the International Congress Center (ICC), designed by Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte, came to shape the Berlin cityscape. While Munich’s Olympic stadium Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto provided an additional exemplar of bold, vividly technological architecture in 1972.

In 1985 Richard Rogers built the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC), followed in 1986 by the Lloyds London headquarters, one of the most elegant high-tech buildings ever created. At around the same time, representatives of Metabolism were creating visionary, futuristic buildings in Japan, such as Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower in Tokyo and the 1976 Sony building also designed by Kurokawa. Yet these technoid visions of the future, which at their peak permeated popular culture with “Star Wars” in 1977, were brought to an abrupt end with the explosion of the “Challenger” space shuttle in 1986. Prince would then compose the swan song of this period. In “Sign ‘O’ the times” the singer reflects: “It’s silly no? When a rocket ship explodes, and everyone still wants to fly, some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies.” This disenchantment spread through the world’s population, the future increasingly lost its luster and ultimately became the present.

Today, almost an entire generation later, these odes to the future that echo from the past of the 1970s and 1980s seem light-years away. And more and more of the architecture from the far-gone period is starting to disappear too. Yet most of these great forward-looking edifices remain standing: the Klinikum Aachen was even placed under monumental protection in 2008. But at the peripheries, the zeitgeist has long since begun its disassembly of this historical future. Kisho Kurokawa’s legendary Capsule Tower in Toyko is rapidly falling into decay, teetering on the brink of demolition; “Les Halles” is currently falling victim to the demolition ball; a less extreme example but nonetheless very closely related to this high-tech, futuristic architectural style is provided by Frankfurt’s Technical Town Hall, built by Bartsch-Thürwächter-Weber from 1970 to be torn down just recently amid great public applause. This was followed by the busy establishment of an uninspired mix of historical reconstructions and pallid architecture on the site that seeks to appease everyone and has thus become faceless like many of the new builds from the past twenty years.

The grand ICC in Berlin could soon face the same fate. Potential demolition plans continue to come up as topic of discussion among “experts”, who do not want this strange yet visionary spaceship any longer but something functional. One can already picture the alternatives: a huge, neutral glass box or a uniform façade casing. Is it stone veneer that they call it? Stone, cut into thin panels to then be stuck onto one of those run-of-the-mill, perhaps slightly curved boxes. Apparently we can’t get enough of them. It would certainly be a shame.

Perhaps the demolition of the Technical Town Hall in Frankfurt will still help to raise awareness among future generations of how tedious and aimless these designs, just waiting to replace these Brutalist building complexes, truly are. “Pure reason may never win,” to cite German rock band Tocotronic. Could the neo-futuristic visions of architects such as Future Systems, Neil Denari, Zaha Hadid and Peter Cook fall into disfavor in the coming years, to the benefit of “practical” and “sensible” buildings? Will the last professions of love for a time in which buildings were Metabolist machines and not glass cubes, where people can be stacked on top of one another, disappear completely? Maybe our times – times in which one no longer looks longingly to the future and optimistically up to the stars, but worriedly focuses on the failings and omissions committed by the present – just aren’t the right times for naïve visionary thinking? But instead of tearing up all of the fanciful and radical visions of the future from the past, we could also remember the Eiffel Tower, that when built it was berated as “unnecessary”, “monstrous”, “gloomy” and “cumbersome”. It would be a shame to abrogate the future; after all we are now living in it.