Forty years of hi-tech: from the Sainsbury Centre to Apple Park | Art and design


Ah yes, the 1970s. The three-day week, the winter of discontent, Austin Allegros, punch-ups with the National Front, mutterings of rightwing coups, the Sex Pistols swearing on family TV. They included, to be sure, such now unavailable non-trivia as free higher education, affordable housing and a functioning health service. But it was a decade that, having flared into being in the psychedelic glow of its predecessor, embrowned itself into the tones of hessian and muesli and the guttering shadows of power cuts. It was the time when architectural modernism, imploding under the weight of self-doubt and external criticism, gave way to a meek “neo-vernacular” of bricks and pitched roofs.

And then, in Norwich (to misquote the opening credits of the epoch’s epic game show, Sale of the Century), appeared an assured and beautiful statement of faith in the new: a shining shed on, if not quite a hill, this being Norfolk, at least an upward incline. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, designed by the fortysomething architect Norman Foster, was, as he now says, based on “an optimistic view of the future”. The era’s mood of malaise and decay could only bounce off its aluminium hide.

The Sainsbury Centre under construction, 1975-78.



The Sainsbury Centre under construction, 1975-78. Photograph: © The Art History Photographic Collection, University of East Anglia Michael Brandon-Jones

Next week, the building will celebrate its 40th birthday by housing Superstructures: the New Architecture 1960-1990, an exhibition on what came to be called “hi-tech”. Like most stylistic labels, hi-tech is one resisted and resented by the architects to whom it was applied. But, oversimplifying and sometimes misleading though it is, it serves a purpose in identifying what, then and now, was a distinct set of ideas pursued by a distinct set of architects. Foster was and is its most successful practitioner. His Norwich building can be expected to be the star of the show it will host.

Hi-tech has yet to experience the nostalgic renaissance of interest enjoyed by brutalism, which came just before, or its approximate contemporary, postmodernism. This could be because, becoming widespread and prodigiously successful, it never went away. Its early clients tended to be companies that aspired to be progressive – IBM, for example – more than the institutions of the welfare state that kept an earlier generation in work. From here grew a business-friendly, socially concerned, cleaned-up image of modernity that especially suited the Clinton and Blair years.

It became an officially favoured style for parliaments, national museums, bridges, skyscrapers and corporate headquarters, right down to the most expensive and majestic office complex ever built, Foster’s just-finished Apple Park in Silicon Valley. Most new airports derive from hi-tech precedents such as Stansted in Britain and Kansai in Osaka. The style’s main protagonists – Foster, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Michael and Patty Hopkins, Nicholas Grimshaw – set up large, successful practices that, with continued input from their founders, are still going strong.

Hi-tech was, or is, a broad set of social objectives – democratic workplaces, accessible art museums, transparent government, sustainable design – combined with a faith that modern building techniques could help achieve them, combined with an aesthetic fascination with the joints, surfaces and details that came with those techniques. Hi-tech architects favoured flexibility and changeability, promoting the notion of a building as a “kit of parts” that could be swapped around as needs must. Rather than last forever, as some architects wish for their work, buildings should adapt or die.

Hi-tech architects’ preferred materials, especially in the early days, were steel, glass and aluminium, sometimes advanced plastics, that could be made in factories and delivered pristine to sites. They favoured big roofs – wide, column-free spans made possible by ambitious engineering, which would enclose fluid, multifarious and open-ended human activity. They enjoyed hanging things on wires. They liked to show their workings: through exposing pipes and services in the case of Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, complex structures at Grimshaw’s Eurostar terminal at Waterloo.

Architectural model of Nicholas Grimshaw’s 1993 Eurostar terminal at Waterloo.



Architectural model of Nicholas Grimshaw’s 1993 Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Photograph: © Grimshaw

Inspirations included the Crystal Palace of 1851 and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes – Victorian and space age manifestations of the same kit-of-parts, big-roof idea. (And Foster now says that, if he could dine with one antecedent, it would be the former’s designer, Joseph Paxton.) Other influences were the British architectural thinker Cedric Price and the architectural group Archigram, who in their different ways challenged the notion that buildings should be fixed and monumental.

Hi-tech, an overwhelmingly British phenomenon, was a manifestation, believes the exhibition’s curator, Jane Pavitt, of a pragmatic rather than a theoretical culture. Hi-tech combined pride in the past national glory of Paxton and Brunel with emulation of the new American energy of such things as California’s Case Study houses, which aimed to turn the power of industry to making better homes for all. What binds the Crystal Palace with California, says Foster (who, at 82, is training for his 25th Engadin cross-country ski marathon in Switzerland), is their “can-do attitude, the absolute utter determination to do it and not talk about it”. Performance, doing something difficult well, is a big part of hi-tech.

There are contradictions in hi-tech architecture that have made it an easy target for criticism over the years. By presenting itself as pragmatic and analytical, for example, it looks foolish when it is not these things. It has difficulty admitting that it is concerned, as other architecture is, with look, image, style, theatre and symbol. These buildings don’t just want to fix problems with modern methods; they show you that they are doing this. They assume something unproven: that for a building to act in a certain way, it has to look that way too.

The Foster-designed Apple Park visitor centre (2017) in Cupertino, California.



The Foster-designed Apple Park visitor centre (2017) in Cupertino, California. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Festishisation of technology” is the accusation often levelled. “Nostalgia for the future” was another. In its desire to slip loose the surly bonds of Earth, to soar like a plane or float like a yacht, hi-tech can suffer pratfalls when it meets human reality. The reported hospitalisation of Apple Park staff who collided with its immaculate glass walls is the latest example. By scraping out the old idea that architecture should be about composing space, hi-tech can create voids that get invaded by kitsch and exploitation, such as the retail fungus that has engulfed Stansted airport.

As some fine drawings in the exhibition will show, hi-tech buildings tend to be highly crafted – not the practical outcomes of industrial processes, but more updates on the British Arts and Crafts movement’s preoccupation with detail. Some, like the famous tower that Foster built for HSBC in Hong Kong, are as a result legendarily expensive. Others, the Sainsbury Centre included, have had technical problems that are more easily excused if a building is considered a work of art rather than a machine. They have a way of ending up as monuments after all, highly composed artefacts, as hard or easy to change as any other kind of building. The notion of swappable kits of parts is rarely achieved in practice: it is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, the ostensibly important plot device that allows the really interesting stuff to happen around it.

Foster + Partners’ Century Tower in Tokyo (1991).



Foster + Partners’ Century Tower in Tokyo (1991). Photograph: Saturo Mishima/© Foster + Partners

Foster has heard such arguments before, which is probably why he wants to stress the social and environmental qualities of his early work ahead of its appearance. He likes to talk of the long-gone amenity building he created for the staff of the Fred Olsen shipping line, a miraculously fragile mirror-glass box in the clanging environment of London’s old docks, where dockers and management were treated equally to the same high-quality environment. Foster stresses that the Sainsbury Centre is a “celebratory social space” directed towards the landscape around it. “It doesn’t make a big song and dance about its services,” he says.

He’s right that these objectives matter more than style. Yet if you take away the look of hi-tech, you remove much of what makes it distinctive. You also extract what many of its clients, who value look as well as function, want. It is the taut, pristine quality of the Sainsbury Centre – machine-made and highly tuned – that makes it stand out. Something similar could be said of the many of the best works of hi-tech – bold, crystalline, singular and rigorous even when perverse. MacGuffins they may be but, to misquote Cézanne on Monet, what MacGuffins.

Superstructures: the New Architecture 1960-1990 is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich, from 24 March to 2 September



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