The image or identity of a place is a contributing factor in helping us reach decisions, support choices and importantly create desire.
Embassies, Expo buildings and Olympic stadia are examples of official generators and supporters of a national brand. It gives states a chance to tell others what they represent and where their expertise lies, but can happen informally as well. When buildings of any kind by British architects abroad are well received and create excitement, ‘Brand UK’ and a host of interconnected industries get a boost.
During the 1990s and 2000s cities across the world spent vast amounts of money re-inventing themselves. As old industries disappeared, or wars and regimes came to an end, the urge to attract international tourism and new business began driving change at an accelerated rate. For architects across the world responding to the new aspirations of civic leaders became an essential part of their work. New landmarks and ‘world class’ facilities became potent symbols of change and dynamism.
Architecture is an essential part of the UK’s identity at home and abroad. The posters here, produced by the UK Government for overseas audiences, use recent schemes by British architects to promote the imagery of this country as well as the creative and technical services that made them happen.
In the 1990s and 2000s, achieving what became known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’ was the global urban doctrine of the age. Following the Bilbao's example, there was a boom in the creation of new avant-gardist cultural venues and visitor infrastructure such as airports and urban mass transit systems. The character of architecture shifted dramatically, buildings were stretched, suspended and reshaped in an increasing number of ways.
Over the course of the past 60 years - from 1951 to the Shanghai Expo of 2010 - official buildings have played a vital role in defining and maintaining national image. From communicating diplomacy and democratic openness to technological prowess and scientific enlightenment, architecture has been and continues to symbolise a wide variety of things.
A Changing World
Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s the world became ever more integrated. Increased financial liquidity, shifting consumer habits and the establishment of the internet put everyone in touch with a wider world of information and ushered in a new global boom.
Interior view of the MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts,
Rome, Italy, 2009. Zaha Hadid Architects.
Fuelled by soaring populations and rapid industrialisation, new cities in China, India and the Middle East grew at a phenomenal rate. In less than a decade they grew to a size and scale that places like London and Paris had taken many hundreds of years to achieve. This rapid growth and pace of change defined a new age of ambition.
To meet the demands of expanding economies, many more British architects embarked on globalising their businesses. New technologies and engineering techniques brought ever more dazzling structures to new audiences. Operating all over the world, architecture, like many other industries, became increasingly ‘multinational’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ offering services that included the planning of entire cities and infrastructure.
As the global boom turned to slump in 2008 there came a reminder that, like all endeavours, architecture cannot act in isolation. It is enabled by favourable conditions and restricted by adverse ones. As older European and North American economies became laden with debt, the importance of new economies such as those in the Far East was realised. With this schism in world affairs, came a dramatic shift in the balance of world power.
More than architecture
The space for architecture in the 2000s was determined by a series of international events that had been set in motion years earlier. Chinese economic reforms in 1976, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 all proved critical for the world – and the buildings - that emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In sharp contrast, the Iranian revolution of 1979 displayed how international events could impact on things that we would no longer see.
Night view of the British Pavilion, expo '92, Seville, Spain. 1992. Nicholas Grimshaw & partners.
Extending a language
As economies modernised and new ones emerged, architecture went out and embraced the opportunities. In places where traditionally they had imported ideas from, British architects extended a language of openness and transparency. In the years that followed, the style badges were dropped, but the DNA of their structural origins was everywhere to be seen. At the same time, whilst continuing to push engineering boundaries, a new architecture of ‘solidity and poise’ emerged in the very different work of architects such as Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield.
The New Balance of Power
As many Western economies went into recession, work in countries like China, India, Russia and the Middle East became ever more important. Drawing on the example set by many American firms, expansion and agglomeration was key to survival. In 2006, 25% of the world’s global architectural firms had British HQs. In 2011, this figure had held steady with 24 out of the top 100 calling the UK home.