20 Buildings That Show the Future of Architecture

WIRED: Five years ago, a group of Spanish architects dug a hole on a mountainside in Laxe, Spain. They filled it with hay, covered it in concrete, let it dry and blasted an opening to the mound. Then Paulina moved in. Paulina, a cow, spent the better part of a year eating her way through the hay, and by the time she was finished, all that was left was a hollowed-out bunker, marred with hoof scrapes and imprints of straw. This is the future of architecture. Or, at least, it’s one of the many provocative glimpses Marc Kushner, co-founder of design studio HWKN and the well-known architecture website Architizer, offers up in his new book The Future of Architecture In 100 Buildings.

A hundred buildings! Why not just make it 200 or 1,000? The truth is, Kushner easily could have gone higher. More than ever, today’s architecture is fueled by an acceleration of technology, material science and down-to-try-it attitude. As Kushner argued in a recent post in Medium, just like the ‘70s had Brutalism and the ‘90s Deconstructivism, today might very well be the age of experimentalism in architecture.

Looking at the 100 buildings in Kushner’s book, experimental does very much feel like the right word. There’s a tremendous variety. Some, like Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower, are feats of form—her 82-story Chicago skyscraper is elevated to the realm of massive sculpture by the addition of curving balconies that jut out from the rectangular base. Others, like Neri Oxman’s pavilion made from silkworm thread, give us a sense of how new materials and digital fabrication techniques could be used to build tomorrow’s structures. The book includes a border crossing that shatters our stereotypes of Soviet architecture, a pool that purifies dirty river water, and a wall in the Sahara Desert grown from bacteria that produces limestone.

The point: The future of architecture isn’t about one trend. It’s about a hundred—if not a thousand—different things.

The Casual Critic

Kushner has a theory about this new era of experimentalism, and it’s very 2015. “My theory is: It’s social media,” he says.

Hear him out.

In his 2014 TED talk, Kushner argued that a real paradigm shift for architecture came in 1997 with the completion of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. To many, the swooping, titanium-clad building signified that shit was about to get weird, and that people were ready for it. For in addition to its unique form, the building was also a money maker. In its first year, the museum attracted more than 1 million people and brought in $198 million in tourism revenue. Gehry’s design spurred a global boom of similarly twisted buildings. As Kushner puts it: “Suddenly the weird became ubiquitous.”

It was a proof of concept for what many architects had suspected, but had little way of truly knowing: People want their buildings to be unique to a particular place and moment (That, of course, backfired as Gehry’s fame skyrocketed and he was commissioned to design the same type of building over and over again). At the time, though, there was no public platform for the average citizen to voice her excitement over a building. Similarly, there was no way for people to say, guys can we just, like, stop with the whole Bilbao-rip off thing?

As Kushner sees it, the advent of social media changed architecture in the same way it has changed other industries. It’s a real time barometer for how the public feels about any given project. He sees this as a good thing. The beauty and frustration of architecture is that it’s unavoidable; we’re all stakeholders, even if we don’t want to be.

In the past, the voices of only a select group of these stakeholders would be heard. Today, anyone with an internet connection can be a casual critic. According to Kushner, this has had a profound impact on architecture: It shatters the echo chamber that architects tend to operate in. Kushner writes, “In my mind, I imagine a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome with architects floating around in black suits and round black glasses talking to each other. Then along comes the giant wrecking ball of social media banging, banging, banging on that dome until POP. Whooooooosh! in rush new opinions about buildings and places.”

Does the fact that I take a picture of the Santiago Caltrava transit center on my way to work and post it to Instagram with the caption “#WTF” make any difference? Probably not. But if enough people aim their phones to the sky and type the same thing, it’s only a matter of time before someone begins to take notice.

In recent years, public (and private) outcry have changed the course of some massive architectural projects. For proof, look to One World Trade Center or Zaha Hadid’s plans for the Qatar World Cup stadium, both projects that have undergone enough scrutiny that the architects had to reconsider their plans. Public opinion can also have a slower trickle-down effect. It’s unsurprising that some architects yearn to create boundary-pushing buildings. But it took time—and an arena for dialogue—for developers and clients to feel confident that experimentation would provide a social and economic return on investment.

Asking The Right Questions

In his book, Kushner presents these radical ideas in the form of questions. He asks: “Can a building stand on tiptoe?…Can a building clean the air?…Will the city of the future be a living organism?” He’s not asking for a definitive answer—indeed, a number of the projects in the book are still just concepts—but rather to encourage people, not just architects, to start questioning what our built environment can and should be.

At times, the book can be vague and idealistic in the way that TED talks tend to be. The future of architecture, as Kushner well knows, is much more complicated than a book full of glossy pictures and big ideas. Still, for all its wild, utopian ideas, Kushner’s book has also has a more simple, and very admirable aim: to make architecture more accessible.

Indeed, Kushner thinks it’s vital that we ask the right questions to ensure that what’s built isn’t just experimental for the sake of being experimental. Things like: How will on-demand car services change the structure of our streets and homes? Should we be designing for changing weather patterns? How can we use local materials to enable more sustainable building practices? The projects in the book hint at a future that shirks sweeping trends in favor for countless mini-trends. And that’s exciting. Whether or not you believe Kushner’s social media theory, one thing is true: Making architecture more visible and more open to public debate can only help bring to light the site-specific, local problems that thoughtful architecture should really be solving.