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Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1971–77, Piano & Rogers. Photograph: Robert Young

Is it time to ditch flexible architecture?

We’re constantly told flexibility is the answer. Through its potent magic, buildings can adapt to changing work patterns, accommodate new technologies, convert to entirely different functions. Growing and altering as society’s needs change, they can live forever. Certainly, architects plaster the term eagerly over their websites, proclaiming that, through their unique mastery of this mighty art, they can deliver sustainability, agility, innovation, beauty and more.

Flexibility has held this elevated status in Western architecture since the demise of the load-bearing wall. Probably before. It has been emblazoned on the calling cards of Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, Eileen Gray, Cedric Price, Herman Hertzberger, Norman Foster, Rogers & Piano, Mies — the list goes on.

So that’s at least century of flexibility. What’s become of it all? How many projects fulfilled a fraction of their infinite promise? Or made a financial return on the cost of all that future-proofing? All those clumsy movable beds and sliding doors imposed by early modernists on gullible clients. Montreal’s unaffordable, unchanging Habitat 67 or Tokyo’s cramped, decaying Nakagin Capsule Tower. The non-moving floors and static exterior at the Pompidou. The brittle, constricting carapace of services at the Lloyd’s Building.

In my particular sphere — postwar British hospitals — the two “flexible” mega-projects of the 1960s proved disastrous: one was demolished in 2005, its promise of “universal space” too expensive to replicate; the other clings stubbornly to live, a sad, unloved, concrete hulk, its state-of-the-art promise of “indeterminacy” ignored as cheap bolt-ons spread haphazardly around its base.

The cult of flexibility resulted in structures no more adaptable than their predecessors. The promised metamorphoses never happened. They are now in the grateful arms of the heritage industry — their failure to change ensured that they remain just as they were when conceived, perfect for canonical preservation. As a result, these buildings are now thrust in our faces as testaments to the genius of their creators, and as tributes to a braver past of utopian architecture, not to its presumption or naivety.

In truth, a flexible plan would be a blank slate —little more than a shed — but architects need a nobler canvas to justify their status. The 1970s High-Tech crowd did adopt some shed-like terminology, but these youthful musings were soon lost to a reality of futuristic aesthetics, beguiling doodads, grandiose masterplans, provocative manifestos and eye-watering costs. High-tech ended up as an architecture of ostentation — future utility was irrelevant.

Like most “flexible architecture”, High Tech stumbled over a fundamental contradiction. To erect a structure that claims to adapt to change is to select one transitory, fragile reading of the future over an infinity of potential futures. Time may well be architecture’s fourth dimension . Sadly, architects are no better than the rest of us at foreseeing where society, technology, materials, politics, ecosystems, even aesthetics will be in five years, let alone thirty. At best, they can reflect current thinking in these areas, and clad it in persuasive garb.

The answer is to forget flexibility. Given that the lifespan of modern buildings is little more than 25 years, we should concentrate on effective, affordable, energy-efficient functionality while they stand, and recyclability when they fall. At least, for a few years, we would have structures that met the practical requirements of their users, but would also do a minimum of harm in both their lives and their passing. Some buildings might even survive to fight another day. Strange to say, we do still cherish and inhabit many, many buildings that were constructed long before the advent of the flexible revolution, enjoying their rigid forms structured around long-lost functions.

Flashy promises and glamorous packaging are less important than the planet’s future. So, by all means, scatter a few partitions around your next office project, include removable seating in your auditorium. But please, abandon claims to clairvoyance. Instead, embrace sustainability and humility. In that order. ◆

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