It was the 1970s. A third industrial revolution was going on and there was widespread innovation in technology. Industries were more efficient and had come a long way from coal-powered machines. The use of computers in architecture was being adapted from the aeronautical industry. The existing architecture styles like Bauhaus and the International Style had received criticism for their mundaneness and claims of purity. Architectural debates were leading to a newer style that was later to be known as ‘Postmodernism’. This paradigm shift gave rise to a new style called ‘Structural Expressionism’.

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Pompidou Center in Paris by Renzo Piano under construction _©abitare.com

Structural Expressionism, also called High-Tech Architecture, stands out with exposed trusses, beams, and columns giving rise to an industrial aesthetic. The building envelopes were light and partitions were reconfigurable. Hence, the structure became a part of the function of the building. This style expressed transparency in construction and technology. Computer-Aided Design was a new yet important part of the process. Glass, steel, and metal paneling were the most common materials used. It took the innovations during the modernism period forward that led to key structural elements being pre-fabricated in whole or part. This style was later perceived as ‘Architecture of Globalization’.

The Beginning

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Reliance Controls by Team 4 architects in 1966  _©fosterandpartners.com

The ideas of Buckminster Fuller inspired some of the pioneering architects like Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. His, then-futuristic, discussions on weight, energy, and building performance shaped these architects’ design processes. It continued to influence their future works when the need for energy-efficient building systems was paramount. The first Structural Expressionist work is Reliance Controls (1966) by Team 4 architects (a partnership office involving Wendy and Sir Norman Foster). It is sensitively designed around the workers’ comfort with flexible partitions and technology integrated into the structure. The learnings from this project were further explored in the HSBC Main Building, Hong Kong, where massive structural elements are perceptible on the interior and exterior of the building. 

Inside Out structures 

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Lloyd’s Insurance Headquarters by Ricard Rogers  _©Dezeen

In addition to massive, expressive structural elements, electrical, plumbing services and vertical circulation were added to the building envelope. This “inside-out” strategy was adopted in Pompidou Center, Paris by Renzo Piano to free up the internal layout and create massive, reconfigurable volumes. The services were painted in primary colors and the vertical circulation took place through a series of elevators cutting across the facade of the building. A similar strategy is adopted in Lloyd’s building by Richard Rogers. It is a 95m tall complex of three towers that houses its services in respective adjoining towers. Apart from lending the towers a characteristic aesthetic, it also allows for easy maintenance.

Tensile structures

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Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre by Michael Hopkins _© Wikimedia Commons

High-tech architecture explored new ways in which the materials used in early modernism, glass, steel, and concrete, can be used to express the character of the building. It also introduced new mass-produced materials like fabrics and popularised tensile structures. The most notable tensile structures are the Renault Distribution Center by Foster and Partners and Schlumberger Research Center by Michael and Patty Hopkins. Both of these structures were planned in a modular way with a scope for expansion by repeating the modules. The tensile fabric roofs were supported by a system of trusses and tension cables. They had an open and easily reconfigurable plan and their marquee- or tent-like form drew away from the “industrial shed” aesthetic that was associated with factory buildings.

Organic structural expressionism

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Lyon-Satolas TGV station by Santiago Calatrava 1989 _©Dirk Verwoerd

Structural Expressionism took a whole new form with the works of Santiago Calatrava. The Spanish architect and civil engineer was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s works that correlate anatomy and technology and focused on how movement can be an inherent quality of architecture. The Kuwait Pavilion (1992) and the extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum, contain movable roof structures inspired by the contextual Palm fronds and the wings of birds. His discussions with Felix Candela gave him the initial push to innovate in concrete. He experimented with kinetic architecture with precast concrete in the Swissbau Pavilion. He was inspired by Antoni Gaudi to create walls that flowed with roofs and had a sculptural significance in addition to being an enclosure. 

Structural expressionism in the East 

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Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa _©Arcspace

In the 1960s, the Metabolist movement in post-war Japan presented a new way of looking at structures. They were seen as ever-changing and growing components of fast developing cities that consisted of a static, stable core to which many smaller parts could be plugged-in. The most well-known example of this style is the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center by Kenzo Tange that consisted of a static cylindrical core and many prefabricated modules that could be fixed to it. Another notable work is the Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa, a housing solution for traveling businessmen, made of individual prefabricated capsules. These projects take Structural Expressionism a step further that gave rise to dynamic, modular towers.

Jean Marie-Tjbou Cultural Center, New Caledonia _©conasur.com

Structural Expressionism gave way to the Post-Modernist style of architecture in the 1980s. Though this style is not practiced distinctively anymore, many present-day structures have similar principles. For example, Toyo Ito’s Gifu Media Cosmos consists of a striking undulating wooden lattice roof structure and vertical facade elements that express the changes in the functions in the library below. Renzo Piano uses local wood, reminiscent of vernacular Kanak housing, with steel for the Jean-Marie Tjbou Cultural Center in New Caledonia. Engineered wooden structures, being the new sustainable construction technology, are leading to the expressive structures of the future.

Author

Being an avid explorer, Apoorva believes architecture is truly remembered by one's subconscious. She enjoys listening to people's visions and memories of a place and tracing their origins. She gravitates towards simplicity and openness in design and considers good design as one that is created with care.

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