Goodbye to the “Wow” Factor?

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We all know what will happen to construction in the Big Recession. There’ll be a lot less of it. But what will happen to architecture? A few weeks ago the British architect David Chipperfield told an interviewer that he expected a prolonged recession would mean less flamboyant design, fewer buildings that rely on extravagant departures from the 90 degree angle. Or to put it another way, although he didn’t, more buildings that resemble Chipperfield’s own, more subdued work.

Is it true? Do recessions really breed more conservative architecture, what you might call a flight to safety? In the U.K. last week the Brighton city council cancelled a proposed apartment complex in that city that would have been Frank Gehry’s first building in England. The project had financing problems but for a long time it had also been controversial with locals who thought Gehry’s design — it included two of his wavy towers — looked too….odd. Their opposition probably played a part in the city council’s decision to pull the plug.

And the case could be made that with some notable exceptions, like Falling Water, which was completed in 1937, the biggest “recession” of them all, th Great Depression, was a go slow period in architecture. In Europe the great modernist architects were theorizing more than building. Le Corbusier completed the Villa Savoie in 1929 and spent the next decade mostly working on unbuilt projects and formulating ideas about urbanism. Mies van der Rohe built nothing during the 30s, and of course the Bauhaus was shut down in 1933. Meanwhile, the dictatorships in Germany, Russia and Italy fell in love with inflated neo-Classicism.

In the U.S. the 1930s saw the extended afterlife of Art Deco and Moderne. Streamlined Deco was more modern than, say, the Roman temple that Cass Gilbert provided for the U.S. Supreme Court building. But compared to the glass and steel Modernism that developers could have turned to, it was a conservative style. The rise of real Modernism had to await the economic boom that followed World War II.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. the ’30s were also a good era for government funded infrastructure re-building. (Both the Golden Gate and George Washington Bridges were built in those years.) Not so good for private development. In New York, Rockefeller Center was pretty much the only major construction project to go forward during the Depression. If architecture went on pause for a time, which it did, the general slowdown in construction of any kind was the main reason.

And in a bad recession, not even “subdued” architecture is safe. Just a week or so after Chipperfield made his comments, the St. Louis Art Museum announced that it was putting its planned new addition on hold. And who was the architect? David Chipperfield.