Changes to the Urban Environment
We asked a panel of experts to predict what the built environment would look like in 2050
Alan Baxter, senior partner, Alan Baxter & Associates
There will be good architecture, and of course there will be new forms not yet invented, but a lot of it will have good solid qualities we recognise now.
Green technology will be as obvious as a computer is to people now, and it will be highly intelligent. On a cold day the clothes we wear might be self warming. And buildings will be highly responsive to human situations.
Existing buildings will be adapted with micro-technology. We’ll move around more easily rather than grinding along in traffic jams. And public transport will be able to use the space more sensibly.
Architects’ roles will expand enormously, bringing things together rather than focusing on the aesthetics. There’ll be much more interest in how we operate locally in all sorts of ways — electricity, ecology, landscape, plants and air all have to be woven together. It’s happening already at the local level with people growing their own veg and shopping at farmers’ market, but it will be much more important as the century goes on. Local high streets will be more important, not just for the exchange of goods. That’s where you will meet people.
Indy Johar, co-founder, 00:/(Zero Zero) Architects
We will understand the power of the local economy and will have a new class of retail called “local community corporate partnerships”, which will be increasingly relevant and more balanced.
As architects we will have regained our status as a professional class with a responsibility for all development and public realm. Chief architects will be the chief place-makers, thinking about economic social welfare and the physical environment. The profession will have become radically re-skilled.
We will largely be altering, not replacing the UK’s housing, but we are going to see radical change in how we use our building stock. These will be high-value environments with the latest super low carbon, low energy, co-operative structures.
Vertical farming will be used for high value crops. The issue isn’t our shortage of land, but more who is going to be doing the farming.
The issue will be how we organise and operate the city rather than how we build it. Dynamic traffic lights, which monitor traffic flows, will be a sign that the smart city has been born.
David West, partner, Studio Egret West
Mixed-use will have grown up and will be a lot more complex. You will be able to do everything anywhere.
People will be very protective of space and energy. There won’t be any facade wastage. The roof will become critical in terms of accessible space, and not just for vertical farmers. The roof terrace will be expanded into proper common areas above. Every single inch of space will be used. The same will be true of the public realm. There won’t be a surface untouched. The whole side of the building could be a TV screen.
More and more space will be given to public transport, pedestrians and bikes. People will simply get fed up with using cars. Our streets will be taken up with play, productivity, growing your own and cycling.
Attitudes to conservation have already changed. We do like to protect and conserve and if we can avoid change we will. But it is inevitable that density will increase. Attitudes change; things that people loathe suddenly become things that people love. Look at the Barbican. How people perceive things in the built environment depends on culture. Sixties and seventies buildings will be judged on their own merit. All buildings will be given a second chance to prove that they can be retrofitted before they are pulled down.
Roger Zogolovitch, architect, developer and chairman of Solid Space Developments
There will be a new form of housing developer or producer that develops a brand and wins the acceptance of the wider community in the same way that for example John Lewis has a brand that the public trusts.
Architecture and housing will be linked together because the quality of the architecture is the only way we can start to trust the brand. House builders will become brand developers with house styles and types.
There will be group housing with collections of disparate families who are just getting old together or multi-generational families related by marriage driving us into a more communal based living which in turn drives the form of the home.
The localisation of energy generation is right upon us, but the missing bit of technology is translating that power to a local home — local power stations generating bio-gas for example, which is easy to transmit.
Alan Short, professor of architecture, Cambridge University
The data for the UK in 2050 is rather terrifying when you look at climate predictions because all the modelling we’ve done of low energy, passive natural strategies for building start going off the rails in the mid-2030s. The 2050 data shows that it’s impossible to keep most of the public space in a building within anything like the current realms of comfort. We need to find some kind of technology, some kind of engineered cooling, for all buildings really. That’s quite a depressing prospect and we hope new technologies are going to be developed by 2050.
The other dimension is that the population will be aging quite significantly. In Japan, by 2050, 45% of the population is going to be well over 65. The UK is only 10% behind that. It’s a fantastic double whammy— the environment will be warming anyway, the population will be becoming less tolerant to extremes of temperature and instead of saving two thirds of the energy we use there is every chance we will be using more.
Almost all of the buildings that we’re in now will still be here in 2050 because the replacement rate is 1% at most. So we’ve all got to become a lot more interested in the very exciting possibilities of rebuilding and re-engineering the existing building stock.
Our research students at Cambridge, particularly the sustainable engineering students, are completely baffled that there isn’t a huge retrofit rebuild industry dealing with this problem.
It is inevitable that big contractors will orient themselves towards this huge refit issues, driven by legislation. Big glass office buildings that use huge amounts of energy will be pariahs. People won’t want to rent them.
One view of Britain is that it is going to be sprayed white with render and insulation on the outside of envelopes. I’m looking out of my window at a set of very neoclassical Georgian houses, a higgledy piggledy collection of historic buildings, and Britain could look as if it had been hit by a large blizzard.
It’s very, very difficult because a nice Victorian terrace or an inter-war semi-detached house with rather nice details all over it would be buried in the white stuff. It’s a fantastically interesting problem.
There is this running debate about whether buildings should be light or heavy, whether lightweight building can achieve the same performance as heavy building, but in our older building we have a lot of thermal mass stored — it may not be accessible, it may be covered up, but it could help in times of extreme weather which will be more frequent by 2050.
That will lead to quite a different value judgement of historic building, compared to those that say English heritage conservation officers might view them. You might have an environment that looks not hugely different to now, but you might selectively take out buildings that require too much effort to make them tolerable.
You have this irony where you have quite a heavy concrete building clad in glass and it would be quite easy to exploit the mass and deal with the glass and not terribly expensive either.
Daisy Froud, AOC Architecture
If you think back 40 years, buildings and cars pretty much look the same, but it’s the cladding that has changed and the technology and uses within them. Medicine, science, biology, communications and technology are going to change beyond anything we can even imagine and be incorporated within structures that we recognise. At the moment you see solar panels clunked on everywhere, but I think things like that will be part of a building’s skin.
Even if it turns out that global warming wasn’t the threat we thought it was, for all kinds of reasons we will be producing energy very differently.
We’ll still be using and re-using the same stock that we used and re-used in 1970. Most of the stock that we’re completing at the moment is not going to have the longevity of the buildings from two centuries ago.
People are still going to be bashing around Victorian terraces and early to mid 20th century housing, but all the cheaply put up, one bed, high density luxury loft apartments will either be comprehensively knocked down for another cycle of housing renewal, or there’ll be exciting competitions to work out ways to adapt these buildings either for human living or perhaps nature living, bringing nature back into the cities.
It will be time for another wave of school building. We’ll be setting off on the next BSF and wondering what to do with the schools from this wave. Because of its reliance on technology, education is changing a lot. Even in my lifetime it has become totally different and in 40 years’ time it will have changed again.
We will need proper cycling infrastructure so that by 2050 a bicycle would be considered as a proper vehicle when you’re considering a complex transport interchange. If you’ve got mass cycling, you’ll need more than just a bike park out the front. You will need proper servicing points for bicycles just like we have servicing points for cars all over the place.
Stephen Witherford, director, Witherford Watson Mann Architects
What will be really interesting is the new forms of social engagement that emerge in cities in terms of trading and common purpose rather than everyone for themselves.
We’ve been talking about the layered city for a long time. But that sort of spatial organisation doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a tower. You’ve got much greater capacity for that with residential. If you think historically of things like Georgian terraces, they’ve been turned into schools or they get turned into religious buildings, or workshops.
There will be a greater awareness of inherent flexibility or redundancy in building. So what you’re talking about is a more adaptive building which can be re-used. So that means a return to a more traditional model. We will be able to knock things through, and there will probably be a return to more cellular working environments. That’s an interesting reaction to giant buildings and huge towers.
Bike parks will become more common. As cycle lanes are developed, the car will become less dominant. There will also be a greater emphasis with water transit. It’s starting to happen with British waterways around the Olympics, moving recycled materials back and forth. I wonder if you could imagine the Thames as quite a busy waterway again.
Michael Stacey, professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham and director of Michael Stacey Architects
2050 will be the golden age of resourcefulness, where waste and wastefulness hardly exists.
Humankind’s inventiveness will continue and the world population will stabilise. Collectively we will have designed our built environment to accommodate the limited global warming of the early century. Some areas of Britain will appear unchanged as architecture from earlier centuries will have been sustained, but our housing stock will now be zero carbon.
Homes will be primarily mechanical, hand operated by their owners like sailing ships. They will be enjoyable to live in and easily achieve comfort without producing CO2. Technology will be so integrated it will be just part of life and human well being.
Petroleum will be reserved for the production of plastics, though organically farmed bio-plastics will also be specifiable. The creative reuse of architecture or the reuse of components or recycling of the materials will be the norm. Each building element will be chipped, in accordance with the Building Regulations, providing the complete history of the material and component — how it was responsibly sourced and how it can be reused or recycled.
The internet will become just a village pub, and actual village pubs will once again become a key place of social interaction, their revival beginning in 2011 with a new planning act. Outer town shopping centres will be abandoned almost as quickly as they burgeoned in the late 20th century.
The genius loci of place will remain key to human life — the places of social interaction will be key to our cities, towns, villages and countryside.
Never mind speculation. Forty years ago, some seemed quite sure what the future was going to look like, because it was already there, in the form of the architecture of the Greater London Council.
At the turn of the seventies, film directors from abroad came to film their dystopias in the brutalist estates of the 1960s, as they began to receive their first inhabitants.
So, in Fahrenheit 451 François Truffaut set a book burning among the Unites d'Habitation of the Alton Estate; in Blow-Up and The Passenger, Michaelangelo Antonioni saw elegant alienation in the Smithsons' Economist Building and the Brunswick Centre; and most famously, Stanley Kubrick translated Anthony Burgess' Municipal Flatblock A, Wilsonway to Thamesmead, the GLC's new town on the Erith marshes.
In so doing he fixed it forever, to the point where the shadow of Malcolm McDowell and his droogs in their eyeliner and bowler hats will always hang over it — when the Pyramid Centre there was demolished a few years ago, the headline in the local press was “No more Clockwork Orange!”
Regardless, most of the tenants are still condemned to live in the future.
Patrick Keiller's installation of urban film footage from the turn of the 20th century, The City of the Future, was motivated by the absence of this particular future, by the fact it was only partially realised; the future, he once no doubt half-jokingly put it, died when the GLC stopped building it.
As it is, the future is now invariably the retro-future. China’s TV towers resemble the Space Needles and Fernsehturms of the 1960s; parametricism is German expressionism with added CGI. A handful of films have attempted a future based on the look of the present, like the Apple aesthetics of I Robot, or the WalMart apocalypse of Wall-E.
Futuristic architecture mostly features as a retro gesture, in the endless remakes of old sci-fi, but the most convincing visions of the future have been those which take the griminess and mess of the present as their guide — the absurd Gherkin symbolism of Basic Instinct 2 captures the true strangeness of our CGI architecture, and Children of Men depicts a crumbling, still largely Victorian London.
In an era dominated by the most myopic short-term economics there has been a prohibition on thinking seriously about the future.
The best visions of it reflect this.
Illustration by Richard Palmer. Interviews by Anna Winston.