About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
1 The View from Here
2 City of the Dead
3 People Power
4 Selling the City
5 Brandscapes
6 The Right to Buy
7 The Curious Habits of the Starchitect
8 If Walls Could Talk
9 Meet the Most Famous Architect in the World
Picture Section
Picture Acknowledgements



What did it? What was it that tipped me over the edge? It was 4 September 2012, and a headline popped into my Twitter feed. ‘British-Designed Skyscraper Resembles Big Pants, Say Angry Chinese.’1 That’s right – pants. Big pants. I clicked on the headline, and there it was on the screen in front of me: a building that looked like a pair of underpants. A 74-storey pair of underpants, to be precise. More long johns, I’d say, than Y-fronts or boxer shorts, but pants nonetheless.

In my time, I’d seen buildings that looked like all sorts of things. A gigantic pineapple? The ‘Dunmore Pineapple’ in Scotland was crafted out of stone in the eighteenth century for a greenhouse growing – what else? – pineapples. A pair of binoculars? Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen and Frank Gehry’s Binoculars Building in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, is a little unconventional, I’ll grant you, even for a city built around ego and showbiz. But as an office for a firm in advertising, an industry in the business of attention-seeking, a pair of gigantic binoculars seemed almost appropriate. Underpants, though. This was something else.

The Gate to the East, as the giant pants are more formally known, had been built in Suzhou, one of those ever-proliferating Chinese megacities. Given its name, the building’s design was presumably intended to resemble a gateway or triumphal arch. Indeed, Chinese journalists initially welcomed the building warmly, dubbing it the ‘Arc de Triomphe of the East’, as if obediently reciting the phrase from its accompanying press release. Soon after, though, opinions cooled. ‘Is it an arch or just plain pants?’ asked Shanghai Daily. Pants, appeared to be the consensus of China’s blogging community. ‘Some were more risqué with their critiques,’ reported the Daily Telegraph, ‘pointing out that London’s phallic “Little Cucumber” – Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe or Gherkin project – would fit snuggly inside Suzhou’s Gate to the East. “Together, together!” cooed one of the raunchier posts.’

The building’s architects were the British firm, RMJM, founded in the 1950s, and, back then, the epitome of serious, even dour, modernism, the kind of architects whose bread and butter was designing the schools, universities and hospitals that underpinned Britain’s postwar welfare state.

Sixty years later, though, RMJM appeared to have had a change of direction. It was designing serious, dour modernism no more. It was designing clickbait. The Age of Spectacle had definitely arrived.


‘The (hi)stories we tell of cities are also (hi)stories of ourselves.’

Jane Rendell1

‘The progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.’

Junichiro Tanazaki2

The folly of youth

For my eighteenth birthday, my godfather took me to the Lloyd’s Building in London. Not just to the Lloyd’s Building, but inside it. Inside it! Being without my parents in London was excitement enough for a teenager from a small, provincial city in the Midlands. But to actually get past the commissionaires in their uniforms, into the building! I was, I realise with hindsight, a slightly odd teenager. Definitely a geek, but an odd geek at that. Geeks are at least meant to obsess, collectively, over computers or comic books, but, alone among my friends, I obsessed over buildings, bollards and town planning. And while eighteen-year-olds in more fashionable parts were discovering MDMA and acid house, I was high on Zaha Hadid. I got my thrills from the Architectural Review. I was the only teenage architecture geek in Worcester.

And I was born at the right time. Because architecture was about to take a turn for the spectacular. My pin-ups were Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, not superheroes or pop stars, and to eighteen-year-old me, the Lloyd’s Building was the Spider-Man, the Stone Roses, the Jesus and Mary Chain of buildings, all rolled into one. And here I was, inside it.

In 1989, three years after it opened, Lloyd’s was still the most famous building in Britain. I’d only ever seen it in photographs, in the newspapers whose architecture pages I cut out each week and filed neatly away, and in the architectural magazines I stuffed under my bed to read at night. Its curled spirals of shining metal seemed so perfect in photographs, so alluring on magazine covers, so odd. At the time, its only rival for fame was Stuttgart’s Neue Staatsgalerie, star of a popular 1980s British television advert for Rover, in which a car’s German occupants, after driving slinkily along its slopes, are shocked by the revelation at the end that this elegant building was designed by a ‘Britisch Architekt’, James Stirling. The shock being, presumably, that after the savage deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s, Britain was still actually capable of crafting, engineering and making something sizeable, stylish and modern without going on strike.

Lloyd’s, though, was more than a star; it was a symbol. In the architectural magazines I so loved, it represented the final, belated triumph of modernism. British architecture in the 1980s was entirely dominated by tit-for-tat ‘style wars’ between Prince Charles and the modernists. There was no middle ground. It was trench warfare. You were either with us, or against us. For most of the decade, the traditionalists had gained ground. So powerful was the influence of Prince Charles in the planning committees of Little Britain, scant significant contemporary architecture had been built for years. I grew up during a nadir in British architecture.

Until Lloyd’s. All around it were the sites of battles lost by the modernists – Paternoster Square to the west, further east the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion House, where the prince had delivered a famous speech; and across the street the site where property magnate Peter Palumbo had hoped to resurrect a long-dead design by archmodernist Mies van der Rohe opposite the Bank of England, until Charles had his way. I was a modernist. Of course I was. I was a teenager. It was my own, geeky version of teenage rebellion. And, best of all, Lloyd’s was designed by my leader, King of the Modernists, Richard Rogers, Prince Charles’s nemesis to this day.

For some, though, like my sixty-something godfather, Lloyd’s was a symbol of unwelcome change. Vic had been an insurance underwriter in the City, London’s financial district, since the days of bowler hats, black brollies and a Financial Times under the arm. There were thousands more like him. However, since the Big Bang in 1986 had deregulated how the City made its money and opened it up to powerful, lightning-quick international flows of capital, a new, more aggressive, more showy breed had arrived in his patch. These were the twin bogeymen of British 1980s popular culture: red-braces-wearing, slick-haired ‘yuppies’ and working-class, Essex Boy ‘Loadsamoneys’ hollering on mobile phones across new, computerised trading floors. Vic’s new boss was a yuppy, and they had a very strained relationship.

For my godfather, the Lloyd’s Building represented this sudden transformation of his life, manifest in the once-sedate and really rather pleasant place in which he’d spent his entire life slowly but surely working his way up. As Vic showed me around inside I got the impression that, three years on, he wasn’t overly impressed by his cavernous new workplace. ‘I always get lost finding the toilets,’ he confessed, rather mournfully. He didn’t even like the killer stack of see-through escalators rising through that new-fangled thing, an atrium, their inner workings on display for all to see. How cool was that?

I couldn’t get enough of the place. It was brash, it was sleek, it was romantic. It didn’t fit in, no matter how hard Richard Rogers claimed it respected the City’s medieval streetscape, or how creatively critics suggested it was a modern interpretation of pinnacled gothic architecture. The broadsheets called it ‘the espresso machine’. I had no idea what espresso was. We didn’t have it in Worcester. Who cared? Lloyd’s felt like nothing I’d ever experienced before. A castle of steel. A cathedral of glass. Just the sight of the outside was thrilling enough, the dizzying spirals of its staircase towers delivering a rush to the head, whirling to the skies up from the sensible streets of the City, its turrets ripping past church steeples.

What its critics hated – its novelty, its strange shape, its difference – I loved. I liked the fact that it didn’t fit in. To me it was science fiction. It was Metropolis. It was the spaceship in Alien. It was Los Angeles in Blade Runner. Its great glass elevators were pure Roald Dahl. Vic, meanwhile, was trying to tell me about his job. But it’s hard to get a teenager, even a geeky one, interested in insurance underwriting. Not when they’re in a spaceship.

A few months later, I took a girlfriend to gaze at it on a date one night, lit up romantically (or so I thought) in blue. It looked more like a spaceship than ever. ‘Isn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?’ It wasn’t. A few days later she dumped me. Can you blame her?

But I didn’t care. This was the future.

The Wowhaus

Fifteen years later, as architecture critic for The Times, I am in The Admiralty, a government ministry on Whitehall, London, sitting opposite John Prescott, then British deputy prime minister under Tony Blair, and – as the politician responsible for urban planning – the most influential man in British architecture. ‘People ask me, “What is wow?”’ he says, staring intently into my eyes, while shaking a dossier above his head. ‘Look. There. We’ve defined it. “By getting architects, town planners and developers to work together,”’ he reads, emphatically, ‘“we have created a new ‘wow’ factor.”’ He pauses to deliver his finale: ‘That’s WHAT IT IS! It’s buildings that strike you and you say, “Bloody ’ell.”’ It seemed I wasn’t the only one who loved the sugar rush of modern architecture. This geek had found a soulmate.

‘The DPM’s thoughts right now are very much with the vernacular,’ explains the press officer, as if reading his great leader’s mind. With the fresh-faced enthusiasm of one new to the subject, Prescott tells me about his favourite architects, whom, he hopes, he will attract to daub the then economically vibrant UK in what he calls the ‘wow factor’. True to his reputation for spoonerisms, he has a tendency to get the odd name wrong. ‘Whatsisname? Calvatrari,’ he says. ‘[Santiago] Calatrava?’ suggests his adviser. Prescott – not, generally, a smiler – chucks him a scowl.

He reels off a list of his ‘wow’ buildings: Herzog & de Meuron’s Laban Centre in south-east London (‘Hell, that’s an experience …’); Terry Farrell’s The Deep in Hull; Norman Foster’s Sage Music Centre, Gateshead; Future Systems’ Selfridges, Birmingham. (‘It’s got the bulge factor … It’s biowhatdyoucallit? Biosomething.’ ‘Biomorphic,’ suggests noises off.) ‘These were cities with no bloody heart whatsoever,’ he thunders, red-faced and getting into his stride. ‘Now they’ve got a heart!’ Indeed, my childhood hero, Richard Rogers, had become Prescott’s advisor, nudging the government through his Urban Task Force to instigate a cities-first policy, putting the brakes on building in the suburbs in favour of focusing construction in the centre of towns and cities. ‘We’ve stopped all them malls now outside towns. This is the first year we’ve done more building inside towns than outside. Even though I get a lot of pressure about it, I think it’s right. We want people back into our cities.’ Prescott is quite the evangelist. One wag wondered if he was about to found a Wowhaus.

Now this is unexpected. John Prescott is not a man generally remembered for aesthetic theorising. And yet here he is giving me a lecture John Ruskin would be proud of. Just a few minutes earlier he was leading me through his newly decorated and extended ministry like a TV makeover host, rhapsodising about colour tones and the pros and cons of carpet or wood floors. ‘Look at that! Eh? Isn’t that …’ A staircase renders him momentarily speechless. ‘Christ, that’s something, isn’t it?’ Then the piéce de resistance: a glass-and-metal atrium linking two old buildings. ‘The way they’ve married it together. And the press just say, “How much did that cost?” Such space and light. Spectacular, eh?’

John Prescott knew which way the wind was blowing all right. The wow factor. The bulge factor. Buildings that strike you and you say, “Bloody ’ell.” What I experienced at the Lloyd’s Building – the thrill of the odd, the pulse-racing peculiarity of dazzling new architecture – had, fifteen years later, not only become commonplace; it had become government policy.

In the past two decades something very unusual has happened to our towns and cities, and the buildings inside them. It’s crept up on us, but in recent years it has become ubiquitous. Buildings that are strange, flamboyant and spectacular-looking are now the norm, rather than the exception. The kind of architecture I fell in love with as a kid is now all around us. Lloyd’s was an omen, a herald of what was to come: the age of the superstar building, the age of ‘iconic’ architecture, designed to thrill – the age of the Wowhaus, perhaps.

When I was a child in the 1970s, modern architecture was rarely flashy. The kind I grew up with housed libraries, schools, town halls, hospital wards and, occasionally, offices. It was built to fulfill sober and serious needs such as welfare, housing people or treating the sick, by sober and serious architects. It had a clear moral purpose, which it wore earnestly on its sleeve not in gold lamé or glitzy shapes but in grey straight lines and chiselled concrete – well-meaning, but a little dour, like my 1950s primary school. At its most functional, indeed, modernist architecture was, in theory at least, not meant to symbolise or be decorative; ‘the architect,’ wrote historian Nikolaus Pevsner in the 1930s, ‘to represent this century of ours, must be … cold’.3 You might or might not have liked its appearance, but at least you knew it served its purpose.

Forty years on, though, a new architectural age has dawned – one whose buildings look radically different from what has gone before. This is architecture specifically designed to dazzle us, to impress us – just like gothic cathedrals and Renaissance palaces before them.

There are the famous so-called ‘iconic’ buildings of course, the ones that appear on the adverts and travel posters, the ones everybody knows – Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, Norman Foster’s Gherkin, Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum. But what is astonishing about the spread of this new attitude in architecture is its reach and ubiquity. In London, self-styled world city, buildings routinely rise designed to resemble helter-skelters, mobile phones, shards of glass, quills, cucumbers, cheesegraters. But you find similarly iconic, more bargain-basement architecture far outside London’s centre, too, on average high streets where, these days, it is unremarkable for an ordinary block of apartments to be shaped as two interlocking giant spheres, like beer bellies, or, in my part of town, for a new sports centre to be wrapped in a patchwork facade of harlequin primary colours, that, at night, backlit, flashes in sparkling twinkles.

Wowhaus architecture has spread far, far beyond the capital, too. You’ll find it on average streets in ordinary towns. Few places have escaped a proliferation of strange shapes, shards, wedges and bulges in recent years. Buildings have been designed in Britain that resemble a giant harp, a deodorant bottle, a crumpled packet of cigarettes, or, as one proposal by architect Frank Gehry was described, ‘four transvestites caught in a gale’. In Edinburgh a building has been designed that spirals up like a golden meringue. In 2002, Sky Vault – a vast structure of illuminated netting shaped like a lobster pot – was proposed to cloak a stretch of the M1, Britain’s busiest motorway, as a ‘gateway’ to draw attention to the East Midlands, a region that required a little more profile on the world stage. The net of lights was meant to symbolise not, through its lobster pot-ness, the sea (the East Midlands is as far from the coast as it is possible to be on this island), but ‘the diverse parts of the East Midlands’. ‘It will be like having our own little Eiffel Tower’ said Martin Freeman, chair of the Great East Midlands Campaign.4 Mercifully, perhaps, it came to nothing.

Yet lobster-pot structures outside Northampton are but small fry compared to what spectacles are being built in richer parts of the planet. I have a recent copy of Mark magazine. At £14, it is the nearest architectural magazines get to pornography, its expensive pages slick with this new breed of cavorting, shapely buildings in every corner of the world. Whatever your architectural fantasy, it’s within these pages: in Istanbul a disaster-prevention centre shaped like angular rolling hills; in Wujiang, China, an impossibly shiny, shrink-wrapped skyscraper tower like a giant electric razor stabbed into the earth; in Hong Kong, a ‘car park tower’ like a series of stacked, teetering plates poised to collapse. Anything goes.

Indeed, buildings today can be any shape or colour you want them to be. They don’t necessarily have to have dependable rectilinear walls and ceilings and roofs like they used to. The tyranny of the right angle has long been vanquished. The freedom afforded to architects by their magical new tool, the computer, has transformed what they are able to design. A building of luxury apartments was proposed for Dubai, for instance, in the shape of an iPod. You’d expect that in Dubai, land of consumer excess, where such architectural spectacle is now ubiquitous, and its aesthetics are limitless. Mark magazine once featured a particularly remarkable skyscraper design: twin towers, linked, two-thirds up, by two explosive bulges. No form of expression seems to be out of bounds, these days, even a homage to 9/11.

Not everyone, of course, appreciates this new fashion. Architects of a less flamboyant hue decry the culture of the ‘icon’. Even the president of China, Xi Jinping, is not a fan. In 2016, in a bout of aesthetic protectionism, the Chinese State Council issued a directive banning ‘bizarre’, ‘oversized, xenocentric, weird’ architecture, the kind that had been increasingly built since economic liberalisation began in the country in the 1990s – like those giant underpants, perhaps, or the Guangzhou Circle, at 138 metres high the world’s tallest circle-shaped building. Such architecture is now thought to clash with Chinese traditions. New architecture, the Council’s decree stated, must be ‘suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye’, though whose eye and what kind of pleasure was not firmly defined.

We have built spectacular buildings throughout our history, of course, just never in such numbers. For as long as humans have had egos and money they have employed architects to impress and celebrate themselves or their gods with wild, often strange-shaped monuments. What are the pyramids, the Palace of Versailles or St Peter’s in Rome if not iconic? What is baroque or Victorian neo-gothic architecture if not flamboyant? Even in the decades of cool, sober, supposedly ‘style-less’ international-style, the 1950s and 1960s, there was visual extravagance – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, say, or Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. And even LeCorbusier – capable of continual reinvention – shocked the ascetic modernist establishment with his 1955 chapel at Ronchamp, eastern France. Its bulging, blowsy sides featured on French stamps and tourist advertisements and became, among architects at least, the most famous building of the 1950s.

However, while such flamboyance was once the exception, not the rule, and reserved for special buildings, today the exceptional has become the norm. These days such buildings are called ‘icons’, spectacular structures that we visit in droves, expecting to be transformed by the experience, to leave us seeing the world a little differently. They are designed not just to house us, or school us, or heal us, but to impress us. Form does not ever follow function any more. Form is the function.

Chinese whispers

Architecture is just another method humans use to communicate with one another, like writing or painting a picture. In fact, it’s one of the oldest forms of communication. It predates writing, though not quite painting. The oldest surviving structures in the world – the tombs, tumuli and temples constructed in those regions first settled after the last ice age – are less than 10,000–12,000 years old, while the proliferation of figurative cave paintings dates from 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. At some point, though, after the thawing of the ice, tribes in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and Anatolia gave up being nomadic hunter gatherers. They stopped using caves – nature’s ready-made architecture, with their cathedral halls and stalactite columns – as special places for ritual, celebration and expression, and created their own structures. In doing so, architecture was invented.

Admittedly, as a form of communication, architecture is a little less immediate than writing or painting. Heaving massive stones across the landscape or digging foundations is not as easy as wielding a stick. Architecture requires collective organisation and project management. It requires a massive investment of time and effort. It is generally done, therefore, by organised societies when there is a desire to create something more important, more meaningful than mere shelter. There is no architecture without organised society, and vice versa. Stone-age architecture, from the mysterious carved pillars of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey to the astonishing neolithic monuments of Ireland, Britain and France, was an attempt to express some kind of meaning about the society that created it, its belief system, its hierarchies, its experiences, its view of the cosmos – though what that meaning is, a few thousand years on and without any written records, is today devilishly hard to fathom.

For, compared with writing or painting, architecture is a far more imprecise form of expression. It doesn’t have at its disposal hundreds of thousands of complex words or nimble grammatical constructs. The bond between an architectural shape and the meaning connected to it is far vaguer than that between a word and its meaning. Classical architecture, for instance, can, with similar columns and pediments, represent ancient Greek democracy, Renaissance harmony or Stalinist totalitarianism, depending upon where you are in history and geography. This is what Roland Barthes called ‘the terror of uncertain signs’,5 whose fluid meanings keep slipping and sliding – the more so in our age of dizzying global communications – despite our vain efforts to fix them.

The enormous collective effort required to build architecture also hinders its ability to communicate clearly, compared with writing, music or painting. It is harder for a vast group to speak as one than for an individual to do the same. Buildings are created by committee. The way in which we build architecture today, too, and the kinds of complicated buildings we create, such as airports and skyscrapers, also disturb its clarity of expression; because today ‘we’ do not build architecture at all. It is built for us, in ever more complex ways. We outsource architecture to groups employed on our behalf of whom we are only dimly aware: contractors, builders, quantity surveyors, town planners, developers, consultants, plumbers and, on occasion, architectural firms. For most of these groups, creating an architecture that expresses society’s view of the cosmos is not top of their list. Buildings are, after all, a business.

And the more complex our architecture becomes, the more distant it seems from us, the ones who inhabit it. We have less and less control over what gets built, even in our own backyard. Others are employed to create environments that don’t just house us and give us places in which to work, but which at the same time are meant to speak to us. But how do these others know us, we who live in their buildings, go to work in them, shop in them, eat in them, laugh in them, love in them, get drunk in them, argue in them, make up in them, get bored in them, get inspired in them, raise children in them, grow old in them? How do they know what we want our buildings to be like? These others rarely talk to us. Perhaps they don’t want to. Perhaps there are other reasons for building architecture.

It always amazes me that, like the pharoahs or Louis XIV before them, these others still lavish wealth on architecture that does more than offer shelter. Today we have far faster, nimbler, more subtle forms of communication and expression than architecture. We have the internet. We have mobile phones, Snapchat and Skype. And yet we still build architecture, despite it being, apart from war and space programmes, the most expensive activity human beings have ever devised. Oligarchs build lavish homes designed to impress. Blue-chip companies spend millions – billions – on astonishing HQs. Terrorists destroy ancient temples or mid-century skyscrapers because of what they represent. Architecture still matters. The physical persists in an age of the virtual and the digital. The power of architecture perhaps lies precisely in its sheer heft, its solidity, its physicality, its ubiquity, its ability to surround us and encase our lives. Not even the internet is quite everywhere you look, not yet. Architecture, on the other hand, is impossible to avoid. It is always there, saying something to you, even if it’s the plainest shack in the back of beyond.

But what is architecture saying? That’s the question. What is this new breed of flamboyant, iconic architecture trying to say? What are its strange shapes, its shards, blobs and cheesegraters – each shouting ever louder than its neighbour – telling us? What does the ‘Wowhaus’ mean?

The bottom line

Architecture in an advanced capitalist society, being rather an expensive pastime, cannot exist without a business plan. Someone has to stump up the cash. The German philosopher Georg Hegel thought architecture the basest of the arts for this very reason, the purity of aesthetics dirtied by the grubby compromises of acquiring land and installing plumbing.6 Yet architecture can only come into being if there is a demand for it and someone to pay the bills. And architecture is expensive. It needs land to exist; it also needs a great deal of materials. And if it needs land and materials, it needs money. And if it requires money, land and materials, it cannot avoid politics.

In the past, the grandest, and, therefore, most expensive architecture was always created by the most powerful and rich: Roman senators, Ottoman sultans, medieval monks, French kings, or, for most of the twentieth century, the state – whether the gentle modernism of Roosevelt’s New Deal in America, and Clement Attlee’s British welfare state, or the more aggressive architectural campaigns of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein. But in the capitalist West since the 1970s, in the absence of any other unifying faith or ideology, architecture, inevitably, pragmatically, has come to serve what has filled the void: the free market. In doing so, the practice and purpose of architecture have been transformed. Just as the patronage of the monasteries fuelled the spread of medieval gothic, and that of the Catholic church let baroque flourish after the late sixteenth century as a mammoth campaign against the Reformation, so the rise and dominance of free-market economics since the late 1970s has created its own architectural movement: the Wowhaus. Architecture always reflects the conditions of its creation, its political and economic context. Flamboyance and spectacle is the inevitable result of a political-economic system that encourages individualism and competition.

Since the high tide of modernist architecture in the 1960s, thousands of new building styles have bloomed. Many have called this postmodernism. But it has come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and ‘isms’, as architects and others criticised the modernist buildings that dominated the previous half-century for, in part, their alleged failures to fulfill the impossible brief their architects set for themselves: to create buildings that not only helped in those great twentieth-century missions, eradicating ignorance and sickness, poverty and the slums, but to do so with a global architectural language of honesty, universal quality and meaning for rich and poor alike. In its stead, postmodern architects have sought languages more tailored to individual places and peoples. Countless attempts have been made since the 1970s to surround us with buildings of a shape and style, with metaphors, similes and symbolism that better express us and our tribes than modernism did, that communicate with us, mean something to us in all our diversity, whether through neoclassical columns, smooth cool glass or gold lamé drums.

Some languages were very popular, for a while: the ironic columns, pediments and DayGlo colours of the ‘Po-Mo’ architecture of Michael Graves and Venturi Scott Brown fulfilled our desire for an architecture of understandable meaning and nostalgia, but, quite intentionally, lacked depth and staying power; its polar opposite, the ‘deconstructivism’ and strange new shapes created in the 1970s by architects like Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman might have been high falutin and intellectual, but they lacked mass appeal, or at least a shape that we, the ones who actually have to inhabit the buildings, could vaguely make head or tail of.

Instead, in the postmodern battle of architectural styles since the 1960s, a peculiar hybrid of both Po-Mo and deconstructivism has surged ahead – strange new shapes that appeal to our love of novelty, but which don’t require a PhD to decipher. It is an architecture of weightless sheen and spectacular, contorting visual imagery that encapsulates perfectly our postmodern age of nomadism, globalisation, individual freedom, short-term employment contracts, digital information, corporate power and fast-flowing streams of international finance through which our lives are now ruled. In the twentieth century, as pioneering academics such as Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson and Beatriz Colomina have proposed, architecture became just another form of media, the building ‘a mechanism of representation’.7 The postmodern battle of architectural styles has been won by the architecture best able to communicate in this age of instantaneous global communication, the one that is the most visible, the most thrilling, the most profitable. Welcome to the Wowhaus.

The confessions of an architecture critic

It is no accident that the rise of the Wowhaus in the past twenty years has come at exactly the same time as the internet has transformed the media. Both have fed off each other, and propelled the other forward. A media industry and an audience ever hungrier for imagery ever more incredible; a building industry that can create that imagery ever faster and in more flamboyant, spectacular form; and a means of communicating both globally and instantly. A perfect storm.

Like most writers, I have felt the creeping, invidious force of this change: the request by an editor for an ‘exciting’ story, with ‘good images’; the continual rejection of suggestions for articles on ‘serious’ (for which read ‘worthy’) topics; the star-studded architectural prize (an easy way of generating readership and, therefore, advertising revenue) judged through photos emailed to you, because it is too expensive to actually send you to see the physical object; the gradual reduction in word counts for articles, and the simultaneous increase in space for alluring images that will slow down the promiscuous attention span of the reader; the demand from on high for bullet-pointed articles on the ‘top ten’ this or that (‘The top ten seaside buildings’, ‘Frank Gehry’s top global buildings’, ‘The hottest architects in the world right now’); the reduction in and eventual disappearence of travel budgets, forcing the writer to become reliant upon the PR agencies of developers and architects to pay for their travel to look at the building about which they are meant to be writing impartially; the subtle rise in power of such PRs, who become gatekeepers for access to celebrity buildings and architects, and who now pay for your travel and accommodation, too – ‘You were a little bit naughty in your last article, Tom.’

Judged individually, these are small, insignificant anecdotes. But, en masse, experienced by thousands of other writers, or editors trying to make going concerns of independent writing, magazines and websites, they add up to a huge shift, one repeated in other worlds – the Hollywood press junket ruled over by viper-like PRs, say, or pop stars distanced onstage from their fans by a gaggle of suited corporate VIPs at the front.

Within architecture the consequence has been a culture, or cult, of the image. We look at dazzling new architecture, but we don’t see it. With a few exceptions, impartial criticism has shrivelled away, and, in its place has come partial celebration. Architecture and its media are locked in a dizzying embrace of superlatives: the wow factor. Writers, those that are left, are often too obsessed by what a building looks like, by ‘style wars’ or the biographical details of its famous architect. Few look left or right, because there isn’t time or money to do so, and the publisher is often breathing down the writer’s neck. Read much writing about buildings today and it is as if architecture, the form of culture most influenced by politics and economics, were created in a vacuum, with just the genius and creativity of the architect to explain it. The global financial crisis since 2008 has, perhaps, allowed some to take stock, and focused attention a little more on, say, the gang labour of immigrants employed to build landmark architecture in less democratic corners of the world. But, by and large, the conditions under which our new pleasuredomes are created remain obscured by the dazzle and spectacle.

The myth persists, therefore, of the heroic genius in architecture, so forcefully explored in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and the 1949 Hollywood version starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, the uncompromising loner who will stop at nothing to see his edifice erected. It is a strange myth, because more than any other form of culture, architecture requires a vast team to will it into being, not a single individual. In part it’s explained by society’s perpetual love of the stoic outsider. But it is a myth perpetuated by many architects themselves who, with occasional ambivalence, play public roles that conform to the various stereotypes demanded of them by society, or at least the media: the naive architect whose beautiful building turns out to be impractical in use, or which falls to bits; the uncompromising dictator who treats their staff like battery hens; the erudite intellectual, hopelessly outmanouevered by wily property developers.

All of which would be ‘so what?’, were architecture not so important. You can turn off a film or a pop song, close your laptop. You can never switch off architecture, unless, of course, you strap your eyes into your virtual reality headgear and warp speed yourself into the digital world.

A sightseer’s guide to the city of spectacle

An architecture critic is not much more than a sightseer. We go around as if on holiday, and look at the sights. We take photos. We write in our journals. We might be expected to form a critical opinion, but we are basically professional tourists. Nice work if you can get it.

So this book is my journal, an account of what I have seen, and who I have spoken to, as a professional tourist wandering around the monuments and cities built for us in this age of spectacle, on my 21st-century grand tour of the Wowhaus. Like any good tourist, though, I’m curious. I try not only to look, but to see, and to ask questions about what I see. Simple questions. Why has architecture become so strange-looking? How does it work? How do you explain architecture like this? Why does that building look like a pair of underpants?

I have written down the answers in this book. It is not the history of contemporary architecture. It is a history of contemporary architecture. A history of a particular kind and culture of contemporary architecture. There are many others, many tales, many architects, cities and buildings both good and bad that I have left out. This one, though, is simply my history of contemporary architecture.

In this book I will tell two stories. The first recounts how a shift in the shape of architecture and a shift in the nature of where it gets built – cities – coincided, and fuelled one another. As the West changed its economy from industrial to post-industrial, and as cities declined as a result, so architecture, increasingly part of our burgeoning consumer culture and so-called ‘leisure industry’, metamorphosed from being a jester or sideshow of the economy, to the main event. You simply cannot explain, I think, why our buildings are like they are today without connecting them to the context in which they came to be: namely, the rise of a neoliberal global economy and the cities it produced. These cities, like the buildings inside them, have also changed shape. When I was growing up they were dying. Newspapers and television bulletins told countless stories about the riot-torn ‘inner city’, the decline of downtown, how everyone was moving to the suburbs. Now, in the most financially successful cities and towns, the opposite is true. The richest live in the centre, while in many places the poor have been displaced to the suburbs. Cities have been born again. Cities have been gentrified.

The second story is about how architects, with something of an image problem following the collapse of their reputations after the savaging of modernist architecture in the 1960s and 1970s, reinvented themselves, as their business shifted sharply from the public to the private sector; and, dusting themselves down after this collapse in postwar idealism, how these same architects, with new purpose, new designs and a new tool – the computer – unleashed a radical new architectural language. Radical in form, perhaps, but not in politics. This language, born in the 1970s, took twenty years to take root. But when the time was right, this rather apolitical generation of architects – obsessed, mostly, with the form of their buildings rather than their political or ethical content, in striking contrast to the modernist architects before them – became stars and celebrities.

The book looks first at how cities changed as a consequence of these huge shifts in world economics and politics; then how architects, in order to survive, had to alter how they operated; and, finally, how the architecture they designed changed shape. Economy, politics, cities, architects, architecture: like the cogs of an immense machine, each one connects with the other, each one drives the other onwards.

Contained within are two calls to arms. First, a demand for a kind of architecture that truly engages with you and me not just through what it looks like, or how spectacular it is, but how it is made – one that actively encourages us all to help make it. Secondly, a call for a kind of architecture that engages with the politics and economics and circumstances in which it finds itself, that is at least truthful about its artifice, even when it is busy pulling the wool over our eyes.

So, in the cause of honesty, it only seems right that I am truthful about my own artifice. We all have our particular ways of seeing the world. This is mine. I like to write stories about the landscapes we live in. In doing so, I can’t help but be influenced by those who have done so before me.

First, cultural geographers and historians. I have long been indebted to John Berger’s approach to culture, and that of countless other British writers about landscape over the past half-century – people such as Raymond Williams, Denis Cosgrove, Richard Mabey, Stephen Daniels and David Matless – who see the landscape, including the seemingly artificial landscape of towns and cities, as the consequence of the interaction of human beings and nature. It seems a simple, obvious point, but, I think, it is one worth repeating.

My second set of influences: the academics Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey. Architecture is a vital part of this artificial landscape; through its very size and ubiquity and stubborn longevity it dominates every patch of earth beyond wilderness. Its expense means that, of course, it is inevitably most controlled by those with most power, although as Lefebvre and Harvey contend, the spaces around us are also created and influenced by those with less or no power. The built landscape is not some abstract, innocent or passive thing we look at, or visit as tourists with our packed lunches and smartphones, or, as Lefebvre put it, a ‘mere “frame” … a form or container of a virtually neutral kind, designed simply to receive whatever is poured into it’.8 It is instead something that we all viscerally inhabit every minute of the day, that we experience with all our senses, and help create, no matter how poor or powerless we are. We are all architects, of a kind. Architecture goes on being made and remade, argued over, ploughed over long after it is supposedly ‘completed’. The spaces around us are constantly seething with excitement, expression, contradictions and conflict.

Thirdly, a particular kind of architectural history taught to me by the historian Adrian Forty. ‘Dismayed’, Forty once wrote, ‘by the failure of architectural history to throw any light on architecture’s relationship to the rest of the world’, he set up a pioneering course at University College London with Mark Swenarton that ‘approached architecture not as a series of monuments, but as a process – a process in which the monuments themselves were just one stage’.9 We studied not only how buildings are made, ‘how a plot of land’, wrote Forty, ‘could be the vessel into which money, labour, political concerns, social values and artistic ideas could flow’, but also how they go on being made and remade. The story of a building does not end when its final brick is laid. The story is only just beginning. As architecture becomes inhabited by us, adapted, photographed, filmed, knocked about, written about, walked past, neglected and rediscovered, millions of stories are told about it, as various and diverse as the people that tell them.

Sometimes, though, these stories do not get told. ‘Sometimes,’ writes John Berger, ‘a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.’10 It is a truism that people with power often use architecture to seek immortality, no matter how often the obvious opposite is pointed out to them: being made of ordinary matter, architecture has a habit of decaying. But while we wait for it to decay, architecture is also startlingly good at obliterating what was there before it. When a building is demolished and replaced, how easily we forget what was there before. That is why its construction and its destruction is such a political act. That is why it is always important to remember, and to reveal, all the stories behind a landscape. It is the job of the writer about such things to draw back the curtain, to expose what is or was or will be there.

In this book, I’m less interested in why this or that architect designed this or that building in this or that way – the subject of much, if not most, writing about architecture – than in connecting why and what they did to the wider context. I am more interested, say, in why a wealthy client or city mayor paid for a particular kind of building – what were they hoping to achieve? – than in the idealised theories of beauty lurking in an architect’s imagination. To really understand architecture, you must understand the power relations behind it. To really understand architecture today, therefore, you must follow the money.

The occasion to write this book coincided with the fallout from the economic collapse after 2008. This may or may not prove to be the end of a particular era in the West, that turn to free-market neoliberalism after the 1970s, but it is, at least, a significant marker. It has given me, like so many others, pause to think.

This book is, in part, a very personal story. It is an attempt to explore and understand the buildings that I once fell in love with, that have surrounded me as I have grown up. The Wowhaus is my architecture. My life so far – born in the 1970s, an adult in the 1990s – almost too neatly coincides with the turn to free-market neoliberalism and the rise of this new architectural landscape. The society and landscape into which I emerged, that of the welfare state, has withered away, replaced by younger models. Like so many others, I mourn the passing of the old world. I am nostalgic. But I am also an optimist. I am an enthusiast. I am inquisitive about the new. I want to understand it. I want to hear what it is saying to us. In order to do this I have had to travel far, and far back in time. Architecture is exceedingly slow. Ideas take decades to realise in built form. The architecture being built right now has been influenced by changes in economics and taste in the 1970s, the 1960s, the 1950s, the 1940s – even as far back as the nineteenth century. You cannot understand what is happening now without knowing what was happening then.

It is also an attempt to understand the city I have lived in for more than twenty years, London, and my place in it. Over those twenty years, I have witnessed at first hand London’s transformation from the grimy city I first moved to in the 1990s, battling it out with Paris and Frankfurt to be capital of Europe, to today’s sparkling ‘world city’ at the planet’s crossroads, the meridian line between east and west. What is particularly fascinating is how the value of land in the city, and especially the central city, has risen to such extraordinary heights. The city has been gentrified. What was once of less value has become valued again. And valued so much that the very nature and purpose of such a city is coming under question. The right to the city has been replaced by the right to buy the city. So expensive are property prices and the cost of living in London, those with insufficient wealth are having to leave, or are being forced out. We have become used to neighbourhoods gentrifying; but an entire city? Like so many millions of others in this dazzling city, my family is hanging on to its place in it by our fingernails.

When I moved to London after university, my father said a very strange thing to me. ‘So, you’re moving back to the big city.’ Strange, because I had never lived in London before, or any big city. He had, though. In fact, the Dyckhoffs had lived in London for centuries, ever since they arrived, like so many of this city’s population, as immigrants, off the boat from the Netherlands. ‘Why did you leave, Dad?’ I asked him. And so he told me.

My journey, therefore, begins in London, in Britain – my home the