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Unlimited Possibilities: Erik Behrens on the 1960s and the architecture of the future

Here high-tech buildings in prosperous cities and perhaps even colonies on Mars, there the further development of venerable building forms and constructions: Erik Behrens of AECOM foresees a polymorphous future for architecture. His credo: change is surely coming − and possibly faster than we can imagine.

What is the legacy of 1960s architecture?
The 1960s were characterized by optimism and rapid progress in both technology and society. They were a time when politics, pop culture and technology collided and a new era of the utmost creativity in architecture began. In England in particular, a generation of architects such as Cedric Price and Archigram had lost interest in “mainstream modernism”, were questioning common architectural practices and trying to redefine them. Their projects emanated a social-liberal spirit. A central topic was the adaptation of architecture by its users. Architecture should not limit; rather, it should create new self-actualization potential for users. Fascinated by developments in space travel and new technical possibilities, they developed an architecture of mobile cities (“Walking Cities”) and mutable structures in modular construction methods that were supposed to adapt themselves to the habits of their users (“Plug-In Cities”). Architects like Price and Archigram realized hardly any projects themselves, but thanks to their teaching and publications, they had an unbelievable influence on the subsequent generations of architects. They lay the foundations of what is known as British high-tech architecture. Many of their ideas are now more relevant than ever before and give us the feeling that there are countless possibilities for improving the world. We simply have to be ready to change our perspectives.

When did you first encounter Detail? What do you associate with our magazine?
I first encountered Detail during my studies. I had the classic student subscription and always awaited the latest issue with great anticipation. Until now, Detail has been an important source of information for me because it analyses and portrays the most recent architecture projects with specialized knowledge. My second encounter with Detail took place at a weekly market in China when I was working there at the beginning of 2002. Among the fish and vegetable stands, there were perfectly bound collector’s issues of the latest issues of Detail. That’s when I understood that Detail had already achieved international cult status. Detail is and remains unique; it has a great influence on how architecture is perceived on the international scene. It also makes a significant contribution to teaching.

In your opinion, where will architecture be in 60 years? What issues will architects address, and what buildings will they design?
My impression is that we as architects will be overtaken by our own visions of the future. But this time, it will be technology enterprises that drive progress. Today’s pioneers come primarily from the areas of IT and technology; they also have the financial means to implement ideas. We architects will have to learn to live with this and to face the new challenges if we don’t want to lose our relevance.

Robotics and artificial intelligence, breathtaking innovations in transport such as flying cars, high-speed Hyperloop trains and MULTI elevator systems will change urban life for the long term, to say nothing of the planned settlement of Mars.

I believe that in the future, many different urban models and architectural forms will coexist. This drive towards progress will certainly give rise to a countermovement, a longing for the original and traditional. Some of our colleagues will find themselves in the passing lane of the future and devote themselves to new building tasks in cities and Martian colonies. Another group will attempt to preserve local and venerable forms of architecture. New solutions in software and technology will help us perfect futuristic high-tech architecture and traditional low-tech architecture alike.

The world will be changed by innovations, perhaps even faster than we can imagine. Entire corporations have already become virtual enterprises overnight; we are now mobile in our working and learning habits, we buy many of our products online and travel virtually to appointments around the world. On the other hand, we appreciate our immediate surroundings, unpolluted urban spaces and the use of electric cars, and we are looking forward to the first generation of flying taxis. Could this be a foretaste of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City? The next 60 years are sure to be exciting and will surely present new tasks for us. 

Erik Behrens is a Design Director at AECOM in London. Since 2006, he has been responsible for large-scale projects both at home and abroad. Behrens studied architecture in Karlsruhe, where he also became active in teaching and practice from 1999. Fascinated by high-speed urbanism in Asia, he moved to China in 2002 in order to work with Qingyun Ma and Rem Koolhaas. In 2006, he came to London to work at AECOM, where he played a prominent role in the master planning of the 2012 Olympic Games; since then, he has become director of an architecture studio. His works include the Oxygen Park and the Al Wahda Arches in Qatar as well as the upgrade to the Waterloo International Terminal in London.

Erik Behrens, AECOM, Photo: Nick Eagle Photography
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