Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___Joseph Rykwert
Philadelphia / London
  On the High-Tech Style



I take my cue from Karsten Harries’ discussion of Bavarian Rococo Churches: it accounts for a relatively limited period and region - the first half of the eighteenth century in South-Western Germany - during which a great many quite substantial ones were built. They have in common the contrast between relatively plain exteriors and interiors which shelter a riot of cunningly lit painted paradisal spectacles framed in much gold leaf and simulated marble. It is the tension which makes a style: ‘to communicate a state, an internal tension of pathos, by means of signs – and that means by the rhythm of such signs – that is the meaning of any style.’[1]

In that spirit, I want to consider a recent phenomenon, one which is already closed. It was, if anything, briefer than the Bavarian Rococo – just over a quarter of a century. The style goes by the name of ‘High-tech’ and is considered primarily (or at any rate originally), a British phenomenon – with Parisian and other ‘colonies’.

Because it is now closed, and because it has, as it were, happened around me (since I have lived and worked for much of my life in Britain), I thought it important to get some understanding of the matter and began by trying to understand how the term was being used. How is high-tech to be considered? Is it simply a disadorned, primary way of making buildings, a method of designing without any artifice (as some of its practitioners have) implied, even if none of them have formulated their approach at all explicitly? Or was it a true Baukunst allowing of no formal prejudices or indulgences? Was it perhaps a proper formal procedure, with rules and precepts? Or was it something else again, a practice whose presuppositions and workings may go unstated and unacknowledged by its practitioners? Can it even properly be called a style and did it really incorporate such a tension as Nietzsche required of the term?

The very notion of style has had a bad press from twentieth-century architects. Some have even denied that they had any style at all. I therefore needed to clarify the use of the word in an architectural context. ‘Style’ had originally signified (in both Greek and Latin) a stick sharpened at one end and flat at the other used both for writing and erasing on a wax tablet: stylus (στυλος in Greek); its meaning was gradually extended to stand for the whole business and quality of writing. But the word for stick could also signify a rod or post, hence a column or at least the shaft of one. It has remained in the technical vocabulary of building as the first half of stylobate, the Latinized Greek word which means the top step on which the column-shaft rests. ‘Style’ retained the two senses through the middle ages and into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, yet Giorgio Vasari, the father of art-history, hardly used the word but much preferred maniera when he signified something very much like style – the tone of an artist’s work or yet the habitual ways of the artist in his work.

‘Style’ had also come to signify habit and custom – even ritual. When the French Academy’s Dictionnaire defined the word authoritatively, it extended its sense to include doing things according to the prescribed mode of some institution. The style of the law-court, the style of parliament required special expressions and turns of language, certain formulae; and there were handbooks which provided models of such styles.

When did style move into architecture? The matter has never been settled. Since the sixteenth century architects and their instructors had an alternative term, order. The notion that the rules of architecture could be assimilated to the orders (Doric, Ionic etc.) was popularized by the Bolognese architect Sebastiano Serlio between 1530 and 1540; after his time order-books became the most popular and useful architectural publications - and in a sense provided the very same formulaic prompting as the handbooks of judicial or parliamentary procedure. The orders were also about ‘styles’ since they were about posts and columns, but were quite different from the ‘manner’ of Vasari which could be joyous or elevated or barbarous and clumsy – even downright bad and old.

Much later, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Roman theorist of new classicism, Francesco Milizia, would, in his Dictionary of the Fine Arts, separate styles into sublime, beautiful, gracious (the first to be exemplified by a modern artist – Correggio), or expressive, natural (Rembrandt, Velasquez and, sharpening Vasari’s categories, distinguish a variety of vicious ones: the overcharged one of Michelangelo, the slick one of the Lombards (such as Pelegrino Tibaldi, presumably – or Cerano), the scrambled manner of Pietro da Cortona.

But by this time it had also become evident that whatever your maniera, your tonality or expression, you could suborn a formulaic Doric and Ionic to it; and by the same token your formulae could also be Gothic or Turkish or even Chinese. A history of world architecture, first attempted during that very Rococo period, in 1721, by Fischer von Erlach, had already implied that possibility. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the variety of styles was a commonplace in the handbook business, so that a century after Fischer’s publication you could get handbooks to any current style, both home-grown and exotic, and several styles could even fit comfortably into one book. The great men of nineteenth-century architecture protested against this formulaic notion and the blanket historicism that went with it. Read Viollet-le-Duc’s article ‘Style’ in his Dictionary, or Semper’s preface to his Stil in den Technischen und Tektonischen Kűnsten, or yet Ruskin’s stirring account of the nature of Gothic in his ‘Stones of Venice’, and you will see how they all protested against the handbooks and sought a return to the old understanding of style as maniera, implying an internal unity that could override the contradictions within the architectural object.

For all that, style has obstinately retained its handbook connection. If I now suggest that High-tech is a style, I mean that in the ‘modern’ handbook – not the Vasari’an or Milizia’n, never mind the Nitzsche’an – sense, a style which, though it is not based on exact historical precedent but is evident and has catalogueable characteristics and which can therefore be summed up, imitated and even applied.

A negative consideration might make my point more explicitly. Take a brilliant, demanding technical innovation like pre-stressed concrete, now over half a century old. The technique is relatively cheap and – and in the hands of a master like Louis Kahn – becomes the material support of an entrancing formal statement, as in the Kimball Museum at Fort Worth in Texas which is roofed with 4-inch (10 cms) thick cycloid pre-stressed vaults. Yet the forms it has suggested have not been taken up and are not part of the vocabulary of those architects who shelter under the high-tech umbrella.

This is the first notable characteristic of the style: it is linear, not planar. The separation of compressive and tensile elements is very much a feature, almost in the way demanded by the eighteenth-century purist Fra Carlo Lodoli: e sia funzion la reppresentazione he admonished, meaning function in a structural sense. The high-tech resolution of the bearing function into rigid compressive frames and tensile cabling would have surely invited his approval. A general preference for metal surfaces and metal-derived shapes is an unquestioned feature of high-tech practice. It is part of a formal language which the manner inherited from the ‘experimental’ architecture of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. The French prophet of metal prefabrication as a solution to housing and other building problems became a minor heroic figure.

Richard Buckminster Fuller was even more important. He is still remembered reverentially as a visionary who proposed technical solutions to the world’s problems usually based on the repetition of highly-detailed elements which depended on multi-directional, multi-functional features. Many of his projects are for centrally-planned buildings and are intended for universal application. He had little interest in economics and none in politics – never mind culture or history – and an unshakable conviction that progress was rational, linear and constant. Some of his devices – the geodesic dome, for instance – have passed into current but very limited use. Their wider applications (such as controlling the climate of Manhattan by roofing it over with a geodesic dome) have remained ‘visionary’. As a prophet of universal, technology-driven progress, he was very much heroized in Britain during the `fifties, at a time when all things American had the allure of plenty in a Britain depressed by austerity. Some of the early work of the painter Richard Hamilton is an ironic but also admiring witness to that state of mind. As for architecture, Fuller’s grandiose projects offered a breathtaking vision of a forthcoming technological progress which would blow away the petty sociologism, the bleak commonplace of British post-war reconstruction. His polemics hit out at the Europe-bound ‘International Style’ architects, concerned only with form and surface and not really interested in the great changes in techniques of environmental control or the radical changes in structural method.

This hero-worship of Buckminster Fuller coincided with other attempts to provide a technology-based vision of a future world of problem-less abundance. The Dutch painter Constant (Constantin Nieuwehuys), who had been a member of the Cobra Group (with Corneille, Pierre Aleshinsky and Asger Jorn) was associated with the newly-formed Situationist movement,  though they expelled him when he formulated his urbanistic vision of a New Babylon, a vision of a whole world covered with a network of interconnected urban centres. The world outside them (which seemed of little interest to him) would consist of places for agricultural and industrial production which (the literal-minded might suppose) maintained life in the essentially ludic cities. Constant’s world, like that of the Situationists (and their English followers, notably Archigram) was meant for homo ludens – taking that term in the Schiller’ian sense: der Mensch spielt nur, wo er in voller Bedeutung des Worts Mensch ist, und er ist nur da gar Mensch, wo er spielt. . .[2]  of man at play being man at his highest and best, though Constant and his contemporaries did not read that notion in Schiller, but at second hand, in Johann Huizinga, whose Homo Ludens, however, did not want that category to be an exclusive description of man, but one to set beside Homo Faber and Homo Sapiens.[3]

An analogous vision was provided in France by Yona Friedman who thought that the old urban centres could be roofed over by huge space-frames in which urban life could be entirely housed – even taking over slowly from the old buildings below in which life would gradually atrophy. In his projects, but even more in Constant’s and those of other ‘experimental’ architects’, the main occupation of their inhabitants seemed to be fun of one kind or another, a continuous carnival, while there is no sense that fun has to be paid for in one way or another, or that work, production, is what pays for it; or even that all these fun-having people need to be fed and refreshed, and supplied with almost limitless energy, particularly electric energy. Such projects also implied an almost endless supply of building materials, steel and glass particularly, and the fact that all of it had to come from some other place seemed of no interest.

The Archigram group launched itself with an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where Richard Hamilton exhibited and Constant lectured and showed his project. They were students at the Architectural Association at the time, and what was most obvious at first was their naked ambition to be ‘original’, though gradually a programme did emerge. The cities of the future were to be made of interchangeable bits, mostly metal ones. The metal, service-carrying stems, both vertical and horizontal, would be equipped with quantities of regularly-spaced nipples or plugs to which ‘rooms’ – dwelling, meeting, entertainment – would be connected. Whole cities could be equipped with telescopic legs and move about the landscape. Unlike several of their contemporaries, the members of the group were brilliant and prolific draughtsmen.

No harm in that, you may think. Except that the play they advocated is unflavoured by any sense of humour which is coeval, complimentary to the absence of any theoretic backing to these copious drawings. Perhaps they were being produced at such speed that there was no time for reflection: ‘Walking Cities’, drawn by Ron Herron and Brian Harvey in 1963 looked like huge mechanical insects attacking Manhattan island. About the same time Peter Cook drew ‘Plug-in City’, perhaps the most popular of the images which Archigram produced, and one which suggested a kind of reality for the project. The metal pods were enclosed in circular office towers, and great diagonal frames became the supports of innumerable cell-structures. Much energy was devoted in the next few years to developing such cells: David Greene’s Cushicle, designed in 1967, seems to be the reductio ad absurdum of such schemes. A maximum-comfort cell for a single body is emphatically concerned with providing the isolated individual with all his/her physical necessities. Meanwhile the group was involved by the contractor Taylor Woodrow in a complex and highly ambitious project for Fulham in West London, which was defeated by later events. In fact, despite the profusion of projects and publications, Archigram produced no buildings to speak of, but proposed instead a vision of a vast, machine-made and machine-like building – which paradoxically enough appealed precisely because it could be seen as monumental, a monument to a heroic future.

Yet the energy seemed to go out of the collective projects about the time of the Cushicle which coincided with the Six-day war in the Eastern Mediterranean (5-10 June 1967) and the energy crisis which it provoked. Suddenly the prospect of limitless fuel seemed threatened by political events beyond anyone’s control. Members of the group retired to academia.

One of Peter Cook’s contemporaries at the AA, Richard Rogers, went on to study at Yale, where he met Norman Foster. While in the USA they were also seduced by some of the West-coast minimalist projects, and on their return they formed a partnership, Team 4. The factory they designed in Swindon in 1965/66 became a dry-run for high-tech architecture. The two architects (since ennobled by Lady Thatcher, and both laureates of the Pritzker, the self-styled ‘Nobel prize’ of Architecture) went their separate ways however, and while Foster established his own office, Rogers was for a while in partnership with Renzo Piano, an architect-engineer from Genoa, though trained in Milan.

The first major project to realize the intentions of the British ‘experimenters’ came from outside the group: in the fatidic year 1968, Rogers and Piano won the competition for a new Cultural Centre (to be called Centre Pompidou) on the site of the derelict Ilot Insalubre, Plateau Beaubourg in northern Paris. It was a project which had a full compliment of high-tech stylistic features. The glass western facade, open towards a forecourt, was festooned with escalator tubes and (in the project, at any rate), covered with super-graphics. The very deep trusses ensured clear floor areas over the whole building, and a near-total flexibility which is also implied in the suppression of any ‘main’ entrance, suggesting – quite falsely – that the whole perimeter was permeable. The trusses are steadied by vertical elements on the shorter (north and south) elevations, and on the east and west longer ones are powerfully cross-braced. The securing of these elements to the ground required giant structural joint-anchors at the base, which dwarf the passer-by. The east (and in a sense, the rear) face of the building, towards a street, is dominated by services: mains supply ducts and huge ventilating tubes, all painted in clean (mostly primary) colours, so that they become the building’s dominant figuration.

While Piano was to set up his own office with the engineer Peter Rice (at first) in 1977 and his work has been concerned with issues that set him outside these strict stylistic limits, Rogers and Foster developed these stylemes working separately, but in parallel. The formal features of Rogers’ building for Lloyds of London are an exteriorised structure, the prominent fire-escape stairs, and mains ducting and toilets which are enclosed in pod-like, steel-faced elements slotted into the frame; Foster’s Insurance office in Ipswich encloses an irregular site in a sheer glass skin. The manner was taken up by others in Britain: Michael Hopkins, Nicholas Grimshaw, Richard Horden and Ian Ritchie. It percolated through the building trade, and a vast number of office building have sprung up, displaying some of its characteristics.

However, I have not set out to provide a catalogue of buildings or even of the architects, but merely wish to attempt an interpretation of the phenomenon and to suggest its limitations. I hope that I have convinced you that many high-tech features have no connection with location and are external, sometimes even contrary to the use of the building. The excessive flexibility of the Pompidou Centre has had to be curbed by later internal construction in the interest of its function; circulation has required the addition of internal escalators, since the external ones are crowded by sightseers. All the features which needed modifying can be considered independent formal devices, and therefore – effectively – stylistic characteristics.

By now the two main proponents of the manner have done a great deal of work internationally. Both Rogers and Foster have extended their vocabularies. Foster’s Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, which briefly dominated its skyline, is perhaps a more sophisticated project than my stylistic catalogue might suggest. As is appropriate, they have both designed airports in variants of the high-tech style: Foster first at Stanstead near London and later, on a much bigger scale, in Hong Kong and Beijing; Rogers in Madrid.

For all its achievements the style reached its apogee before the end of the century. Various factors have intervened. A consciousness of the implications of global warming means that the more energy-guzzling aspects of high-tech buildings (such as their dependence on large areas of glazing and on air-conditioning) are seen as reprehensible, while a proliferation of the manner in city-centres has induced a sense of tedium. However elaborate the contrasts between the ornamental display of tensile cables and cross-bracing, or of the metal-sheathed service tubes, they could not relieve the bland steel-and-glass surfaces. The buildings never seem to have quite achieved a communication of internal tension and of pathos by the rhythms of its signs. Its characteristics never aspired to the grandeur of a true maniera, but remained at the level of the manual,  even if rather grand claims were made for it: that ‘it was not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit which transcends both’.[4]

For all that, by the end of the twentieth century its main advocates were looking elsewhere: Foster, particularly in the Commerzbank in Frankfurt of 1999-2000 (until 2003 the tallest building in Europe), has increasingly responded to green pressures by designing a building whose concrete structure is permeated by areas of planting, and whose ventilation system (which does not rely on high-energy consuming controls) make a definite impact on the design. It provides a useful terminal to high-tech. As a definable style it seems to me to belong to the last quarter of the twentieth century – which makes it roughly contemporary with post-modernism, its nemesis. The technological marvels of the twenty-first century seem not to be those of structure but of artificial intelligence, and this seems to open another rather different argument which I must leave for another time.



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo. ‘Why I write such Good Books’, § 4.

[2] Friedrich Schiller, Über die Ästhetische Erziehung der Menschen: Eine Reihe von Briefen. Brief XV, § 9: ‘Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays’.

[3] First published in German, Zürich 1944 and in English, London 1949.

[4] Norman Foster, quoting Robert Pirsig. From William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture since 1900, London 1996 p. 658.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007