Do advances in communication technology and the increased globalisation of business activity spell the end of architectural variety and a triumph of cultural homogeneity?
The answer is probably yes and no simultaneously. On the one hand, global brands frequently want consistency if not uniformity in the buildings they build or occupy; you can spot certain hotel-chain products from miles away, not least because of signage.
On the other hand, it is also true that many clients, and most architects, are more interested in local and regional context, in colours and materials which resonate with relevant cultural groups, and the history both of place and construction. It is what the critic Kenneth Frampton described many years ago as “critical regionalism”.
This is very evident in work exhibited at the World Architecture Festival (WAF), the annual three-day event launched in 2008, which takes place in Singapore this year from October 2 to 4. More than 500 entries to the WAF Awards programme will be on display, and some 250 practices shortlisted for an award will present their designs live in front of delegates and international juries.
The work of architects and the environments they create cannot be seen as the isolated products of single-minded creatives
What is fascinating about these presentations, which are grouped into categories such as house, sport, office and so on, are the variety of designs on offer, rather than the reverse. While there are certain themes or even fashions evident in the work, for example an increasing interest in energy conservation and environmental design or the universal introduction of towers, the way in which these issues are addressed can be quite different.
This is partly because individual designers with any integrity have little interest in copying the work of others. However, they are always interested in what other people are up to, and constantly seek design inspiration from buildings and projects they see published in magazines or online.
Predictions that availability of designs and images on practice websites would put an end to design magazines have proved wrong, not least because of the overload of visual information now available all the time, everywhere. The desire for filters or even curators and tastemakers has survived.
Regional difference can also be the result of entirely prosaic considerations, particularly in the creation of everyday architecture. Why use expensive materials if cheap brick is readily available?
Where the move towards homogeneity is more likely to take place is in relation to relatively expensive commercial or cultural buildings, which may be regarded as making some sort of architectural statement. Materials can be and are shipped across the world for use in such buildings, and while this has always taken place to some extent – marble from Italy, for example – there is no doubt that globalisation has increased the tempo.
In the same way, architects themselves are far more likely to work on designs for projects in more than one country than they would have done 20 years ago. The huge change in design technology, from drawing boards and T-squares to the wacky world of digital, has made life infinitely easier for the export-minded. And multiple offices around the world mean practices can organise 24-hour cycles for drawing production, exploiting different time zones.
However, the work of architects and the environments they create cannot be seen as the isolated products of single-minded creatives. The circumstances in which any building comes into existence are generally beyond the control or even influence of architects themselves: the client, site, funding, programme and regulatory environments are all givens, which the designer must work within or synthesise. In that sense, every building tells a different story, not just about architecture, but about the life and times of the society in which it has been created.
This connection between influences on architects and the way they absorb and play them back is one of the reasons why architecture has been a subject of ongoing fascination since the Ancient Greeks. There is little sign of this changing, even if our world today has interests and obsessions of a quite different nature.