RIBA Exhibition: The Brits Who Built the Modern World

Until May 27th, an exhibition called “The Brits who built the modern world” is on display at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. A video about the exhibition that is narrated by architecture critic and RIBA journal editor Hugh Pearman can be seen on the BBC here. The Brits in question are the architects Nicholas Grimshaw, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Terry Farrell, and Michael and Patricia Hopkins, who were the most important figures of the High Tech style which ran from the mid-1970s onwards. This movement produced several famous and original structures, and in the video Pearson claims that this British revolution “changed the nature of architect”. But do these six architects really deserve all the credit?



Centre Georges Pompidou


By the time of the emergence of high tech architecture, strict modernism- following the beliefs that form followed function and that ornamentation is crime- had reached a point where it could develop no further. Cities were filled with high rises modelled after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building. They had no ornamentation and could not have a simpler form. If architecture was to develop- as it always does- it would have to move in completely the opposite direction. To be honest, the earliest high tech buildings, Richard Rogers’ Centre Georges Pompidou and Lloyd’s Building and Norman Foster’s HSBC building, were not that far removed from modernism. However, they were shocking for the way that elements like stairways and ventilation ducts (which Louis Kahn called servant spaces) were moved to the outside of the building, creating complex exteriors and dramatic, spacious interiors.



HSBC Building Atrium


While the architects that the exhibition focuses on certainly deserve some credit for changing the face of architecture, there were many other architects who were just as, if not more, significant. The high tech architects were not the first to challenge modernism. I have previously written about Venturi, Graves, and Johnson’s postmodernist movement, which was far more bold in its rejection of modernism than the high tech movement. However, one of the ways the high tech movement was significant was that it provided to an extent the anti-modernist stance of postmodernism, but was less radical (and, some may argue, less ugly) and therefore more appropriate for cities. The high tech architects also were inspired by both Victorian architecture and the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller. Although it is the institute of British architects hosting the exhibition, the non-British architects involved in the movement, like Kenzo Tange and Renzo Piano, should be acknowledged.


Fuji TV

Kenzo Tange’s Fuji TV Building


Finally, I think that Pearson’s video missed the most significant effect of the high tech movement- the beginning of green design. One of the most important buildings of the style, Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins’ Willis, Faber, and Dumas Building features a green roof, natural gas heating, good insulation, and a deep, thermal-efficient plan. Today, eco-friendly design is one of the most important factors in the architectural process.


I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to visit the exhibition (it’s across an ocean from me) but if you are visiting the area, I strongly recommend that you make a visit and learn more about the featured architects. Despite what I said about them not being the most important of architects, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers are two of my favourite designers and have produced many original designs.


Featured photo by BaldBoris (Wikipedia)

First photo by Leland (Wikipedia)

Second photo from Foster+Partners website

Third photo from Kagelump (Wikipedia)


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