It’s been almost 30 years since the architectural and decorative style known as “High-Tech” hit the American scene. Arising during the mid-1970s, and legitimized by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin’s eponymous book of 1978, High-Tech had every hipster architecture student of my generation designing facades with chain-link fencing and corrugated culverts.
Among High-Tech’s most celebrated paradigms was Paris’s Pompidou Center, completed by the architects Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano in 1976. The Pompidou was essentially a building turned inside-out, unabashedly wearing its guts on the outside. Color-keyed networks of piping, ducting, escalators, and other service systems were carried in a scaffold-like framework surrounding the building, essentially becoming the decorative elements. The Pompidou predictably caused an uproar among Parisians and worldwide, with many detractors comparing it to an oil refinery.
The idea that structure was innately beautiful had been a longtime modernist tenet, but the Pompidou took this thinking a good bit further, showcasing technical features that had previously been considered ugly.
Controversial as it was, the Pompidou spurred an entire generation of avant-garde architects and designers to feature utilitarian materials such as industrial lighting fixtures, subway gratings, galvanized and perforated metal, commercial rubber flooring, and non-skid steel plate in residential and commercial design. This new functional aesthetic, theoretically unfettered by the tides of domestic fashion, soon acquired the only marginally accurate appellation High-Tech.
Besides having great visual impact, the frankly functional items used in High-Tech design were sometimes–though by no means always–less costly than their more refined domestic equivalents. More portentously, High-Tech also afforded architects and designers a perfect opportunity to use prefabricated structures, commercial curtain wall systems, and similar modular parts in residential work, a breakthrough that had long eluded the housing industry.
“In the future, all buildings will be built like this,” said the German architect Helmut Schulitz of his steel-framed, largely modular High-Tech home in Coldwater Canyon, Calif., built in 1977. Yet the future Schulitz predicted didn’t materialize.
Rather, High-Tech went the way of most other aesthetic movements, devolving into a sort of decorative subset of minimalism that, ironically, often relied on expensive custom fabrication to achieve its Spartan industrial look. Along the way, the style’s real promise–the idea of building houses using off-the-shelf industrial products that were cheap, simple, and immune from the vagaries of architectural fashion–was largely forgotten.
Instead, the legacies of High-Tech include such dubiously practical trends as using commercial kitchen equipment in private homes, which in turn inspired the commercial-wannabe styling so typical of today’s appliances. But the style also gave us such now-ubiquitous domestic furnishings as factory lamps, ergonomic swivel chairs, and wire closet shelving.
Of course, High-Tech architecture is still very much with us, too–though in a slightly less edgy form–as the standard interior style of countless coffee bars and 20-something clothing boutiques. It’s also the de rigueur interior style for those pricey new loft developments that copy genuine industrial live-work spaces. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the faux-factory style has come home to the faux-factory.