A Brief Introduction to High Tech

The Sainsbury’s supermarket on Camden Road in London is now Listed at Grade II: it’s the first purpose-built supermarket to be added to the List and forms part of the 1980s Grand Union Complex, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners.

Sainsbury’s ,Camden © Historic England DP251190

Commissioned to replace a former industrial site in the heart of Camden Town, the complex is an excellent example of High Tech architecture, a style that emerged in the 1960s combining industrial aesthetics (at a time when British industry was on the decline), pre-fabrication and off the shelf materials, while drawing inspiration from Victorian architects.

Grand Union Walk, Camden © Historic England DP251183

Commonly associated with large-scale buildings, such as Lloyd’s in London or the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there are also a number of much smaller designs, including individual homes.

Forward thinking, with roots in the past

High Tech emerged as a strand of late Modernism and represents a bridge between more traditional Modernist architecture and the more ostentatious styling of Post-Modernism; the latter emerging as a response to the perceived standardisation and monotony of the former.

The Crystal Palace, 1870-1900 © Historic England cc97_01549

Joseph Paxton, the Victorian gardener/MP/architect extraordinaire has been praised by Richard Rogers, who described himself and Norman Foster as Modernists inspired by early industrial buildings. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was designed for the 1851 Great Exhibition and was a magnificent glass and steel structure that employed pre-fabrication techniques.

Grimshaw’s Sainsbury’s includes a subtle nod to the history of retail: the ceiling and roof trusses inside were designed with a gentle curve, inspired by traditional market halls.

Expressed construction

Lloyd’s Building © Historic England DP159496

Much like its predecessor Brutalism, the structure and frame of a High Tech building often remains exposed, as do the building’s services (the installed systems for making a building functional and comfortable, including heating and air conditioning, lifts and drainage).

Exposed pipes and nuts and bolts become decorative and give a ‘technological look’ to buildings, whilst also serving a practical purpose. The Lloyd’s building in central London exemplifies the High Tech style in Britain: toilet pods, staircases, external lifts, pipes and ducts are dramatically expressed externally.

Former Renault Distribution Centre now Spectrum. Photos: © Gareth Lopes-Powell, Historic England DP162427, DP162425

The steel frame at Grimshaw’s Sainsbury’s is proudly left on display and clad in glass and aluminium panels. The architects were innovative in using a coating developed for military applications to fireproof the structural frame. At The Spectrum building in Swindon the high-tensile steel and cast-iron bolts allow a tent roof to be used properly without buckling.

Lightweight materials

Eames House, edward stojakovic

Richard Rogers, Su Brumwell and Norman Foster met while studying at Yale in the 1960s and the architectural innovation they saw in the Case Study Houses (particularly the 1949 Eames House) inspired their future work back at home.

22 Parkside © Historic England DP147465

Steel frames are a common feature in High Tech buildings. A good example is tucked away in south west London: 22 Parkside was designed by Richard and Su Rogers (previously Brumwell) for Nino and Dada Rogers (Richard’s parents) and represents a turning point for post-war British architecture. The bright yellow steel frame and uninterrupted glazing are an early executed example of High Tech.

Hopkins House © Historic England DP195251

Meanwhile across the river, Michael and Patty Hopkins’ House in Hampstead is a similarly elegant and economic lightweight steel frame and glass building. Experimental and influential, it informed the practice’s subsequent commercial work.

Flexibility

Hopkins House © Historic England DP195245

The interiors in High Tech buildings, both private and public, are often flexible to allow a quick change of use. At 22 Parkside sliding interior walls allow internal space to be reconfigured and Venetian blinds are used throughout the Hopkins House for a similar effect.

On a larger scale, Norman Foster’s Sainsbury’s Centre in Norwich (Listed at Grade II*) was designed to meet the changing needs of its use as a museum gallery and education centre. This has allowed regular, sympathetic changes to work, but means the essential elements of the building survive intact.

Saisnbury’s Centre Hopkins House © Historic England DP236827

In London, the Lloyd’s Building was innovative for the in-built flexibility of its design that would respond to changing needs in the market. When design work began, personal computer technology was only just emerging and the design had to be altered following the realisation that desktop terminals would become a major part of working life.

The Lloyd’s Building © Historic England DP161883

Use of colour

22 Parkside © Historic England DP147464

Colour is often used to illuminate a building’s services: Norman Foster used bright yellow masts and stays as an integral part of the concept in the designs for The Spectrum, in keeping with Renault branding. At 22 Parkside the yellow steel frame is accompanied by green sliding walls.

Former Renault Distribution Centre now Spectrum © Historic England DP162411

The Hopkins House, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins, in Hampstead employs a vibrant blue for the steel frame and steel spiral staircase.

Hopkins House © Historic England DP195248, DP195243

Innovation

The Schlumberger Gould Research Centre © Historic England DP180541 DP180535 DP180530

High Tech architects used a range of innovative new techniques for their buildings, often giving greater credence to engineering over architectural style. The Schlumberger Gould Research Centre has a Teflon-coated fibreglass membrane: the first for a major roof covering in the United Kingdom.

Pillwood © Historic England DP196644 DP196668

Meanwhile Pillwood House was the first modern domestic property to use Glass Reinforced Plastic (often better known as Fiberglas), the Hopkins House (from 1976) is notable for its energy efficiency and in Ipswich, the Willis Building was the first office building in England to use escalators.

Willis Building © Historic England DP138654 BB91/04625

Written by Charlotte Goodhart

Further reading

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