Technology and Starchitects: Architecture Today

Dubai architecture

The past two decades have seen incredible advances in technology not only in terms of consumer electronics – our pockets are emptier, yet the few items inside them can do more than ever, our televisions are thinner yet display far more detail than ever before and our storage devices are smaller yet can hold far more data than ever before – but also in the birth of social networking and the growth of the entertainment business, both home grown and commercial. Global acceptance and indeed active involvement in this new technology, from the richest to the poorest of nations, has created a new breed of billionaire and financed a host of new industries. This new funding and creative thinking has unlocked previously closed doors and opened up a wealth of opportunities. 24/7 connectivity has enabled ideas and content to be passed around the world in a matter of seconds creating instantaneous celebrities in all fields of life.

In the architectural world, these new technological advances have had two major impacts. First of all they have allowed designs which have previously been restricted to paper to finally be realised and has opened the mind set of both fellow architects to explore further possibilities and clients/ developers to commission such buildings. And secondly technology has created a new breed of starchitects by way of social media and such apps as Pinterest which showcase their works to the mass market.

Make no mistake, these starchitects are extremely talented and are usually ground breakers in their own rights creating impressive works of art in the built form. As advances in technology and materials increase so to do the designs and ideas become more complex and complicated. Conversely however, the functions of most of these new buildings have not changed or are likely to change over the next decade. What has changed are the IT and electronic components, not the internal workings and space requirements. So suddenly the age old approach of ‘form follows function’ has been turned on its head.

How though, does an architect convince his client to spend an additional 20% or more on an external façade which has no bearing on the function of the building? Enter the starchitect. Global recognition and endorsement of the starchitect and their rise to celebrity status has meant that anything touched or designed by them is suddenly deemed worthy of a visit in person. In this age, travel is now in the reach of millions rather than an elite few and this has had a huge boost for the tourism economies of cities around the world. Municipalities, therefore, may be more receptive to a revolutionary design that is designed by a star designer than if designed by a lesser known architect.

Clients too will be more open to paying the premium for a celebrity designer’s services knowing they can add a premium to the sales price as the rich and famous would prefer to own an apartment or office in a starchitect designed building rather than one designed by an unknown designer. This goes back to global interconnectivity and the dominance of social media.
This phenomenon does however, have its disadvantages. With everything being available for all, it is far easier for copycat architecture to crop up all over the world, either by other architects or by clients who don’t want to necessarily pay the premium for the original designers but want the spin off recognition for an innovative design. That said, nothing is truly original these days and many an outstanding design or idea is an adaption or advancement of a previous design or idea. This evolution is critical to the ongoing development of ideas and creations.

However, for any of these ideas and designs to flourish, one needs a receptive client and local authority to enable them to be fully developed and implemented. The UAE as a country is among the world leaders in innovation and openness to new ideas and technology. Most if not all of the government departments, including the police, are fully integrated with technology and interconnectivity and are open to all progressive building forms and design ideas. Dubai, for example, has the world’s first 3D printed building. Masdar city in Abu Dhabi is envisioned to cover 6 sq kms and is a sustainable mixed-use cyclist and pedestrian friendly development. The UAE is also planning to be one of the first countries to adopt the Hyperloop 1 concept and is set to be a leader in evolving technologies. With available land for development pretty much unlimited, this bodes well for the future of the architectural community in the UAE.

These new technologies have definitely given rise to some phenomenal new buildings over the past few years which have pushed the boundaries of form and materials as well as the integration of sustainable components, such as The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its curved forms resembling stacked pebbles, the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, China, although a controversial aesthetic it is a marvel of engineering, and of course the Burj Khalifa for its world breaking height, to name a few.

By Keith Gavin, Design Director