21st Century Architecture: Where are we right now?

OK, prepare for me to get supernerdy. (Again.)

A while back I posted about “modern” design and noted that it’s a bit confusing because the architecture that’s really at the cutting edge today is not really in the Modern style. So, the question is, if it’s not modern, what is happening in architecture today and what is it called?

Basically, we have three trends happening. The first (and most significant), sculptural architecture or archisculpture, is personified by Frank Gehry so much so that Vanity Fair simply referred to the architectural period today as “The Age of Gehry.” Sculptural architecture is just that: treatment of architecture as a sculpture, and typically depends upon computer-aided design to achieve its design. Just check out Gehry’s Bilbao Museum or Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum.


Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao


Zaha Hadid’s MAAXI Museum

There’s no way these swooping designs, at one time exclusively in the conceptual realm because it was too difficult to execute, or Gehry’s “double” or “compound” curves (where the surface is curving in two directions at once), could be created without a computer algorithm. These buildings don’t tend to have a lot of other design elements besides the sculptural pieces. It is as if archisculpture renders ornament irrelevant; or further, that it would distract from the sculptural quality of the building.

The second contemporary architectural trend is called surface architecture. Here, architects create a nonbearing “skin” outside of the load-bearing structure, or even “clothes” rather than skin, because the surface is really independent of the structure. We’re bored of the glass box, so why not dress it up?

Once the outer layer has been removed from its structural burden, you can carve it, slice it, paint it, treat it as a textile (we now have the term “architextile”)… the possibilities are limitless.  Check out how the outer layer of the Cooper Union building was sliced & diced:



Cooper Union in NYC as example of surface architecture.


Light glows through the skin of the Polish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.

The third trend is kinetic architecture, or mobile, transformable architecture that is capable of adapting.  For example, the Institut du Monde Arabe building in Paris designed by Jean Nouvel has glass panes with lenses that open and close to provide the necessary amount of light into the building.


Institut du Monde Arabe.


Closeup of the oculus of the facade.

The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum is built in the shape of a minimalist bird whose wings collapse and extend every few hours.

Quadracci Pavilion

Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee Art Museum

Design is going even further in this direction: the upcoming Brisbane Car Park will possibly be the world’s coolest garage.  Its surface will be made of 250,000 aluminum panels that will blow with the wind to create awesome, constantly changing ripple effects.

Brisbane Car Park

A rendering of the new Brisbane car park.

The unbuilt but promised Dynamic Tower of Dubai gives a new meaning to the panoramic view by rotating slowly in various patterns:

Dynamic Tower Dubai

So there you have it, 21st century architecture broken down!  Which style is your favorite?

3 responses to “21st Century Architecture: Where are we right now?

  1. Gehry. The fact that his buildings can actually be built is amazing.

  2. Wow! I finally understand how they wrap those buildings. So cool.

  3. I love this explanation! You don’t know how often I have wondered this– if modern isn’t modern, what is it? Thanks.

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