A Revolution through evolution-Neo-Futurism
Life does not exist in the simple past. And architecture, no matter how far we go to the point in history, has been always aiming for a better future. The canvas of urban landscape is painted by strong strokes of revolution and an ever persistent omnipresent, continuous backdrop of evolution. Evolution literally means, ‘the gradual development of something. In nature as in architecture, nothing is perfect in the first trial. Perfection takes time and persistence and as in the words of Ludwig Meis Van Der Rohe,
“Architecture is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form with time”. On the other hand, revolution means rebellion, mutiny, overthrowing of the existing law, but in architectural context it means a certain creation or invention which single handedly transforms the existing regime or order of doing work.
The revolutionary technologies and evolution of building techniques and materials are the pillars on which ‘space age ‘architecture stands. Space age, Neo-modern and Neo-futuristic are synonyms and mark the architectural advancements of the last half century. Neo-futurism is an art, design and architecture movement pointing to the culminating years of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. It is a departure from the cynical attitude of post-modernism and represents an idealistic belief in a better future and “a need to periodize the modern relationship with the technological”. Neo-futuristic urbanists, architects, designers and artists believe in cities releasing emotions, driven by eco-sustainability, ethical values and implementing new materials and new technologies to provide a better quality of life for present and future generations.
Neo-futurism is fast becoming a global phenomenon with futuristic building springing up in Europe, America and several parts of Asia like Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia etc. Neo-modernism, as opposed to post-modernism is a futuristic uprising in its true sense. It does not believe in reviving the past. In Corbusier’s words, “a building is perceived as a machine for the living”. But neo-futuristic buildings aims at giving buildings more humanistic characteristic, in essence of which a building may be given the most organic of forms, repel the most severe forces of nature and provide safe and sound spaces for the society to thrive.
The space age architecture has four key features namely, superior building material, modern engineering and construction techniques, computer modelling and prefabrication. These techniques have been evolving over time and together they have given structures the fluidity of human imagination and the power to actualize them. Evolution and revolution are the two sides of the same coin and as we know revolution comes in many forms and contexts. One such example is the structure of Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects in Baku. Baku is the capital city of Azerbaijan, which is located between Iran, Turkey and Russia and was one of the most conflict ridden areas in the world. It has been the beacon of war and conflict for many decades due to its oil reserves. In 1991 after the fall of The Soviet Union, it gained its political independence and after which people were very driven to overthrow and replace the existing regime of architecture by creating over fifty neo-futuristic buildings, over the next fifteen years. “The structures were imposed on us by outside powers and we were never in the driving seat in our pasts. Now we have a sense of confidence and we want to create a city that is ours”, said Tahir Gozel, developer of the project. By mimicking the calligraphical bends of the Arabic language and pouring them into the emerging pop culture milieu of Baku, Heydar Aliyev is an explosion of curves and organic shapes or should we say rebellion and freedom. This structure would not have been possible without the carefully engineered space frames which are made out of tube steel and then covered by pre-fabricated panels. The most exquisite thing about this cultural Centre is that it has three divergent building types i.e. a museum, a library and an auditorium all wrapped together in one structure. This creates an arduous challenge of insulating the auditorium which is overcome by keeping the auditorium inside twenty five inch walls of concrete and a hundred and thirty thousand sq. feet layer of rock wool insulation i.e. a box in the box construction.
Zaha Haid Architects were able to make a valiant design like Heydar Aliyev a reality because designers of twenty first century have a formidable ally in their creative process. This technological device was by far the most revolutionary invention of the twentieth century- Computers and computer aided design (CAD) was a huge game changer for architects when it came out in 1960s and is now considered indispensable in building design and construction. Initially helping the architects in saving time with their drawings, computer software has evolved to the point of Parametric modeling which allows the designer to work with certain features of a building without having to re-calculate all the other features that are affected by the changes they make. This makes them extremely powerful design tools. Now we can make the most complex of the design forms in which all the logistical calculations like loads on building, effect of solar radiation, cost estimations and factors of error can be calculated pre-construction. An example of this is The Gherkin Tower in London since its design was guided mainly by parametric modelling. What makes it different from its type of sky-scrapers are 3 factors: it’s round and not square, the thin top end turns into a bulge in the middle while coming down, and the basis of it is spiral design. All these could easily be taken as purely aesthetic features, yet they all cater to specific constraints.
A key issue with Gherkin’s sized buildings is that whirlwinds are created at their base by the air currents that swing around, making their surrounding area an uneasy place to be. To address this problem, the project firm SMG counselled the architects to use computer models which simulate a building’s aerodynamic properties on the basis of the math of turbulence. The model exhibited that a tubular shape responds superiorly to air currents and reduces whirlwinds compared to a square one. The winds at the slim base of the tower are minimised attributing to the bulge in the middle that reaches its maximal diameter at the 16th floor.
As humans are bounded by an unwritten code that modifies itself circumstantially from time to time in order so they are able to survive and inhabit as a society, buildings today are doing the same. If we look at the older structures around us we can see that they are designed and created around certain threads of natural and materialistic forces governing that area. Buildings are carved out of the locally available material and are shaped and designed to be climate responsive to that area. These buildings worked brilliantly in the past as they do today. But in the past, after a certain point there was little room for innovation because we were limited by our time and technology but that is not the case today. What we need to understand is that in this age of globalization we are in a point of history where evolution is picking up speed and revolutionary discoveries are made every month or week or day.
And all of this is giving birth to impossible ideas and impossible buildings no matter the constraint of a region. One such excellent example in the heart of so many possibilities is Dubai, the impossible city. Burj Dubai, if not one of the first, but is one of the most famous building of neo-futuristic architecture. It is famous for being the tallest building in the world with eight hundred and thirty meters to its frame but its design also has many more astounding features to offer. Accessing this building from bottom to top we can see ingenious works of engineering collaborating with efficient design. The structure is made with thirty thousand tons of steel and concrete and is then enwrapped with glass curtain walls. To make such heavy structure stand on soil with so less bearing capacity, workers had to dig fifty meters in depth to make pile foundations. After continual tests and assessments, curtain walls were created which had reflective glass on outside with thin layer or metal and the inner glass had a coating of silver to keep the infrared rays out. Hence a balance of centralized air conditioning and curtain walls keep the building cool from the scorching sun of the Middle East. A building of such grand scale is to be also protected from the wind forces and hence Burj Khalifa was designed with very advanced aerodynamics. By creating a layer of extra steel framework on the outside of the structure, the building becomes dead locked against the wind and does not sway. Also the towers at different heights curves in such a way that they cut the windward direction and do not let it affect the building. From all the astonishing features we can marvel at, the most important one is its ability to protect its occupants against disasters like fire and terrorism by having refuge rooms which are constructed with fire resistant material. After dealing with the environmental challenges of the design the builders had to deal with constructing such an immense structure in a given frame of time. The key to build such a skyscraper or any skyscraper is using prefabricated building elements and assembling them on site with the help of high-class cranes.
So evolution and revolution are not mutually exclusive, they never were. Evolution lies in the structure of a high rise buildings made with stone beams and columns. Revolution lies in the invention of a simple elevator which transformed high rise buildings into sky scrapers. By observing ancient monuments we can take pride in the fact that we have had a glorious past. And by gazing at neo-futuristic marvels we can hope for a better future. Such has been the journey of architecture.