Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, answers six questions ahead of his visit to Aotearoa New Zealand for in:situ 2024.
1. How has architecture changed in the time you’ve been writing about it?
The biggest shift has been a move away from a focus on outlandish form-making to an emphasis on energy and sustainability. The age of iconic projects, authored by a global elite of celebrity “starchitects”, seems to be coming to an end, in favour of a more pragmatic approach, with a renewed emphasis on the importance of context, climate, local materials and low-carbon construction.
2. How will we all be living in 10 or 20 years?
Alongside the climate issue, I think multi-generational housing is going to be one of the biggest changes to how we live in the next two decades. The sheer cost of housing means that record numbers of people in their 20s and 30s are still living with their parents, while grandparents are living ever longer, while healthcare costs spiral. Architecture will have to adapt to cater for multi-generational living and flexible forms of co-housing.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing architects?
The climate crisis and the urgent need to reduce the “embodied carbon” of construction. For years, the focus of sustainable design has been on reducing the energy requirements of buildings in use, but the new challenge going forward is reducing the carbon footprint of the materials used in their construction. How can we begin to imagine a world without concrete?
4. Is there a piece of architecture criticism that you’re most proud of?
I’m most proud of a series of articles that shone a spotlight on London’s housing crisis, and exposed the loopholes in the planning system that allow developers to get away with providing such low amounts of affordable housing. As a form of activist criticism, the articles helped to build momentum for changing the way such developments are assessed, and revealed the hidden forces that have made the UK capital such an unequal place.
5. Is there a common thread that runs through British architecture - a vernacular that makes it peculiarly British no matter what decade it has been conceived in?
Bricks! The British have always loved brick buildings, and the recent emergence of what is known as the “New London Vernacular” has seen a revival of brick façades – except now they are rarely used as load-bearing walls, but more usually a thin cladding of brick wallpaper. I think it all comes back to a very British nostalgia for permanence and solidity, no matter how flimsy the brick wrapping actually is.
6. What are you looking forward to seeing in New Zealand’s built environment?
Fellow British critic Owen Hatherley recently described Auckland as having “the most ugly, baffling and outright nasty built environment of any large city” he had ever visited, so I am looking forward to my experience here proving him wrong! I’m also keen to explore the rebuilding of Christchurch, and see how architects have responded to the country’s spectacular natural landscapes.
Oliver is the MC and an international keynote speaker at in:situ on Wednesday 21 February 2024.
Oliver Wainwright’s keynote speech is proudly sponsored by Monaco.