Where Are We Now? Contemporary Architecture

Conclude with a review of Contemporary architecture and discover what the future may hold.

Overview of Contemporary Architecture

Contemporary architecture is not defined by any one style or school; instead, it is simply what is being built ‘now.’ Unfortunately, what we mean by ‘now’ can differ depending on one’s thinking. For some, Contemporary architecture is anything built by someone alive today or by their company. For others, anything built since 1950 is considered contemporary. The most common delineation for Contemporary architecture, however, is that a structure was completed in the 21st century. Eventually this definition will, by necessity, shift, but, for now, it is a good benchmark for what to consider contemporary. 

The architecture of today covers a variety of styles and sources. Architects have continued to embrace classic designs, with a full classical resurgence happening currently, while others have rejected classicism altogether, embracing new expressive forms that are intentionally unlike anything to come before. New materials, technique, and technology have helped to drive the century’s architectural innovation.

Neo-Futurism

Neo-Futurism is a movement of art, design, and architecture that began in the 1960s and is still active today. It centers on a futuristic re-thinking of functionality, design, and style, particularly in terms of urban centers and growing cities. It has roots in Expressionism, Futurism, Art Deco, and High-tech architectural movements. 

Neo-Futurism took a dip in popularity at the turn of the millennium, but a 2007 publication titled The Neo-Futuristic City Manifesto, written by designer Vito Di Bari and included in the candidature presented to the Bureau International des Expositions (BEI), helped to reignite interest in the form, defining Neo-Futurism as the “cross-pollination of art, cutting edge technologies and ethical values.”[3]

Visually, Neo-Futurism is characterized by its form and balance.  It utilizes both organic shapes, or shapes inspired by nature, and geometric shapes, symmetry and asymmetry, angles and smooth curves; however, these opposites are unified through simplicity and a cold purity. The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro is an example of Neo-Futurist architecture.

Deconstructivism

Deconstructivism is a subsection of Postmodern architecture that began in the 1980s and continues to be prevalent in new constructions into the 21st century. In its design, Deconstructivism aims to give an impression of fragmentation, usually through an absence of harmony, continuity, or symmetry. Deconstructivism also experiments with a structure’s surface, using non-linear shapes that distort or dislocate otherwise established, ‘fundamental’ architectural design principles. The result is an appearance of unpredictability and controlled chaos. 

As a school of thought, Deconstructivism is not derived from the word ‘deconstruction;’ instead, this movement was developed in contrast to Russian Constructivism of the early 20th century, a form of modern architecture particular to the Soviet Union. However, the style and the philosophy do not always go hand in hand, and many architects whose works are described as Deconstructivist deny the label.

New Classical

New Classical architecture, sometimes called New Classicism or the New Classical movement, is a contemporary movement that is founded in classical architecture. Like most movements that draw inspiration from classical design, New Classicism draws heavily from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. However, it may also include aspects of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles.

As a contemporary movement, New Classical originated from a rejection of the Modernist movement and its extreme prevalence in architecture of the 20th century, what English architect Donald McMorran called “a dictatorship of taste.”[4]

Elements of New Classical are sometimes mixed with other Postmodernist styles to create ironic critiques of Modernism

As a movement, New Classicism seeks to create ‘timeless’ designs and structures, made from modern and environmentally-friendly resources. With an eye to sustainability and longevity, New Classical architects aim to build well-crafted, high-quality structures that are ecologically responsible.  In 2018, Architectural Digest wrote about the New Classical ‘boom.’

Key Figure, Postmodernism: Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry, one of the most celebrated architects in the world, received his degree from the University of Southern California, but withdrew from Harvard’s graduate program because of philosophical differences with the school’s modernists.  

Although his works vary widely, a few characteristics emerged early in his career: beams protruding from exterior sides, Douglas fir details, and exposed unfinished beams. Some buildings are whimsical, like the Chait/Day Building in Venice, California, which includes a giant pair of binoculars.

Gehry joins other Postmodernists in not following specific stylistic guidelines except to avoid the tropes of Modernism. He has, at times, incorporated elements of the California ‘funk’ movement, using found objects and nontraditional media such as clay. He has also designed some Deconstructivist buildings, pushing the boundaries of architecture. Gehry has famous buildings on multiple continents including the world’s tallest residential skyscraper in Toronto, Canada and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Key Location: One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center, built in 2012-2013 after the 2001 terrorist-caused destruction of the original twin towers, is a premiere example of Contemporary architecture. The design of the tower utilizes geometric shapes, simple symmetry, and modern materials to create an enormous edifice that nonetheless fits into the overall landscape of the city. 

Although it is the tallest building in New York at 1,776ft, its mirrored exterior helps keep the building from feeling oppressive to the viewer and maintains aesthetic balance with the surrounding structures. The One World Trade Center was also the first major construction project to use Building Information Modeling (BIM) software.

The Oculus, sometimes known as ‘The Hub’ and part of the One World Trade Center campus, is a Neo-Futurist design consisting of white metal-clad steel ribs that reach up and out in an organic shape. The design of the Oculus is intended to be symbolic of a hand releasing a dove.

Key Location: Beijing National Stadium

The Beijing National Stadium, also called the Bird’s Nest, was designed for the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics and was used again in the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The building is called the Bird’s Nest because of its saddle-shaped elliptical structure and its frame made of a web of intersecting steel. 

The Beijing National Stadium is most often considered a work of Deconstructionism. Its cross-hatched steel webbing gives it a fragmented appearance, and its interior design also features steel bars that, in part, fragments the view from within. 

In addition to Deconstructivist elements, the building also features an organic, asymmetrical design evoking Neo-Futurism. The plan for the stadium additionally draws from classical Chinese architecture, and is inspired by Chinese ceramic art in particular. This interaction of design inspirations, brought together and made possible by advanced technology, makes the Birds Nest a quintessential example of Contemporary architecture.

Key Location: Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, previously known as the Burj Dubai until 2010, is the tallest structure in the world and has been so since its completion in 2009. It stands at 2,722 ft tall, just over half a mile. The design of the building was led by the same architectural team responsible for the One World Trade Tower, as well as the Chicago Sears Tower. 

The Burj Khalifa is Neo-Futurist in design, with additional inspiration drawn from Islamic architecture, particularly the Great Mosque of Samarra. It uses a Y-shaped footprint and bundled-tube design. This design allowed the builders to reduce the amount of steel used in the construction. The form of the Burj Khalifa was also inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for a  mile-high skyscraper called The Illinois. The height of the building is sustained by wings and a buttressed central core.

What’s Next?

When it comes to architecture, the only certainty is that eventually taste and style will shift. However, there are some changes that forward-thinkers are predicting, based largely on advancing technology and a desire for more ecologically-friendly structures. 

Eco-friendly architecture, with more green spaces and integrated ecological elements like living exteriors and water catchment systems, is already growing in popularity. Similarly, ‘smart cities’ and other structures or campuses that integrate sustainability with technology may be on the horizon. Also, Enabling Architecture, in which accessibility is at the heart of the design, may grow in popularity, as early examples have been well-received.

If architectural design and public interest continue on the current path, we are likely to see more architecture in the near future that highlights sustainability, efficiency, and diversity.

Sources

[3] https://neofuturistcollective.com/manifesto-of-neo-futurism/

[4] Curl, James Stevens, ed. (2006). Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Oxford University Press. pp. 466–7.

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