Wretched excess. Sustainability and the rise of LEED. Architecture as spectacle. Architecture for Humanity. Buildings as collectibles and architects as brands. . . Making sense of the past decade means confronting forces and trends pointing in radically different directions. Should we remember the first 10 years of the 21st century — the naughts — for advances in digital technologies that allow building designs to be rapidly analyzed and improved or for those that allow super-tall buildings to rise in the middle of deserts? After a period of wealth creation on a scale never before seen, what do we have to show for it all?

Photo © Lara Swimmer/Esto
Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall helps reactivate downtown L.A.

The editors of Architectural Record usually cover the here-and-now of what’s being designed and built. But for this special issue, we looked back at 10 years of architecture — more as historians than as journalists. What follows are highlights of a roundtable discussion the editors held recently. Not surprisingly, we found that analyzing a decade filled with contradictions and complexities elicited disagreements and revealed different perspectives. Given the luxury of a 120-month time frame starting before 9/11 and ending after (or is it still the middle of?) the Great Recession, we considered how much has changed and how much more needs to be done.

We began by talking about urbanism.

“Browsing through old issues, I was struck by how many times we focused on cities,” said editor in chief Robert Ivy, noting special issues on Beijing, Los Angeles, Tokyo, the San Francisco Bay area, and Chicago, and articles on sprawl and rebuilding New Orleans. In many ways, it was a halcyon decade for cities, stated deputy editor Suzanne Stephens. The transformation of Bilbao — with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in 1997, bolstered by important projects by Foster, Calatrava, and Legorreta — put the once-obscure city in northern Spain on the international must-visit map.

A lot of people, including quite a few mayors and government officials from around the world, looked at Bilbao and thought they could replicate its success merely by commissioning a high-profile building by a big-name architect. At our roundtable discussion, Record editors disagreed about whether this was a waste of money and effort or better than nothing. We talked specifically about Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum and whether such a project reduces architecture to the status of an urban bauble acquired like a piece of jewelry to glitter for the masses. “There’s a getting-and-spending class that benefits from these city-defining objects, even though they may stretch municipal finances,” stated William Hanley, web editor. “They reveal a lot about civic priorities in specific urban places.”

“Architecture became a branding opportunity,” noted Ivy. “Every city wanted to announce itself to the world. The buildings needed to be expensive, formally exuberate, and visible,” he added. Was this a good thing? “Spectacle became a way of engaging the public with architecture,” said deputy editor Clifford Pearson. “When used properly, it can generate renewal.” Ivy offered another reason for supporting such efforts: “The Calatrava building has become part of the new image of Milwaukee, helping to change its public perception from that of an old industrial town into something more modern.”

The discussion then segued to the increasing importance architecture is playing at grand public events such as the Olympics and World’s Fairs and what happens when the huge crowds disappear. All too often, the buildings commissioned for such events lie empty afterward, ripping large holes in the urban fabric or standing as symbols of squandered resources. Everyone at the table had heard stories of how the Olympic Stadium in Beijing serves little purpose these days and is acquiring a reputation of being more White Elephant than Bird’s Nest. As a result, the London Olympics in 2012 will feature a giant basketball arena that will be dismantled and mostly recycled after the Games and a stadium that will downsize from 80,000 to 25,000 seats [see article on page 80].

Olympics and World’s Fairs, though, can push cities to build infrastructure that will pay dividends for many decades, said Pearson, pointing to the five subway lines that Shanghai built for its 2010 Expo. “Like Chicago in 1893, Shanghai used its Expo to transform a dirty, industrial city into a modern capital of commerce,” he said.

Looking back at the past 10 years, products editor Rita Catinella Orrell noted, “It was the decade of the ‘starchitect.’ Frank Gehry was on The Simpsons! Did we do a disservice to the profession by promoting this?” Some of her colleagues replied that the magazine merely covered what was happening and didn’t have the power to stop or launch such trends. Special sections editor Linda Lentz observed that the phenomenon of star architects goes back a long way but has gotten out of hand in the past decade. “Architecture became a consumable and architects became brands,” said Ivy. “Cities and corporations used them to enhance their own reputations and prestige.” Sometimes this was window dressing, hiding a less attractive or substantial reality. But sometimes it brought remarkable buildings, like the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which, Ivy said, “performs beautifully and elevates the human experience.”

The decade saw more than its fair share of extravagant architecture, some of it decidedly contorted and forced. In November 2000, Record’s editors organized an issue on the theme of “Difficult Beauty” and looked at buildings “on architecture’s wild side.” On the cover, we put Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Storey Hall in Melbourne, Australia, which features a grottolike entrance painted lurid green and purple.

On September 11, 2001, terrorism brought architecture to the top of the public agenda. For months after the attacks, citizens and their representatives discussed security, master planning, and the role of buildings and outdoor spaces in a city’s civic life. It was a remarkable period when architecture and design made the news and shaped public debate. Of course, it didn’t last. And reports of the death of the skyscraper proved unfounded, as emerging countries such as Dubai and China announced plans for towers that would break all kinds of height records. But security issues remained on the table, helping to shape the next generation of skyscrapers, airports, and government buildings.

At the same time, increasingly powerful digital tools unleashed a sea change in design. New technologies provided rapid structural and performance analyses and enlarged the way we think. In the process, they freed up the designer to be more intuitive and to explore new forms. “They also changed the role of the contractor and subcontractor, getting them involved much earlier in the process, and allowed teams to become more complex and collaborative,” explained senior editor Joann Gonchar. How this affected architecture was often determined by the ability of the architect to play master builder and his or her willingness to assume risk.

Much of the roundtable discussion revolved around sustainability and the emergence of LEED as a tool both for advancing green design and for greenwashing. “Every developer has gotten on the eco-bandwagon, touting projects with exaggerated claims,” stated senior editor Jane Kolleeny. “Finding the truth behind the claims challenges every designer,” she added. “They’re like nutrition bars that are still sugar-coated,” commented Stephens. Looking at the magazine’s coverage of sustainability over the past decade, the editors saw how green design went from being a special topic to a part of every article.

As a record wave of wealth creation crested in 2006 and 2007 in parts of the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, an undertow of social consciousness pulled many architects back to places where poverty, war, and natural disaster had exposed critical needs for a different kind of practice. In 1999, Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr founded Architecture for Humanity, which grew during the next decade into an impressive network of chapters around the world and became a symbol for many people in the profession and the academy of why architecture matters. And as the Asian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Haitian earthquake in 2010 showed, the need for emergency architecture and disaster planning is expanding as climate change affects weather patterns, sea levels, and population movement.

For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. In China alone, more than 250 million people have moved from rural to urban areas in the past three decades. The rise of megacities such as Lagos, Dhaka, Shanghai, Mumbai, and São Paulo presents architects and planners with enormous challenges now and for the foreseeable future. At the same time, parts of Europe and the U.S. are losing population and foreclosures are emptying out certain suburban areas or turning them into pockets of poverty.

Forces that grew more powerful in the past decade — such as the sustainability movement, rapid urbanization, and digital technologies — will almost certainly continue to transform architecture and the built environment in the next 10 years. How they play out, though, will be affected by economic conditions, social challenges, the emergence of new ideas and developments, and the kinds of totally unexpected events that make front-page news.