In the long history of architecture, never before has there been so much freedom to create structures that imitate nature’s creations, in which straight lines and right angles are the exception rather than the rule. Computer technology has opened the door for what many consider blasphemy in architecture, others consider great art, but everyone has to admit it is compelling – even if the observer is compelled to scream and run away.
Blob architecture is loosely defined as having an organic form, but it has only evolved because of specialised software that allows designers to play with form and substance in ways that were never possible before the 1990s.
One of the early examples of blob architecture was created in the 1960s by a handful of English architects known as Archigram, a group that included Peter Cook and Ron Herron, working with inflatable structures and designs using plastic. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes were another stage in the evolution of ‘blobism’ or blobitecture, but the first reported use of the term ‘blobitecture’ is attributed to William Safire in his 2002 article in the New York Times Magazine; it was not meant as a compliment.
Whatever anyone thinks of this very unconventional style, it’s probably here to stay – and will continue to evolve as technology hurtles towards an unknowable future. In the UK, most observers agree that the first example of ‘true’ blob architecture was Selfridge’s Department Store in Birmingham. From a distance the building does bear a remarkable resemblance to a beached whale, but it certainly does the job its creators intended.
Aptly named Future Systems, designers of the building, said it was never meant to complement the existing skyline; they wanted an “architectural landmark” and they got it. Whether it resembles a beehive or a fish, it has certainly commanded attention since its completion in 2002. It draws plenty of shoppers as well as tourists who visit for the experience as well as the merchandise.
According to one observer, another shining example of blobitecture arrived in 2004 in the shape of “a giant friendly caterpillar”. This was ‘The Sage’, Gateshead, a sinuous construction of reflecting glass and steel which serves as a centre for music and the arts.
London’s new City Hall was described by an ex-mayor as a “glass testicle” but there’s no denying that it’s a landmark unlike any other in London. It may be a sign of the British – and Londoners in particular – predilection for the upbeat and offbeat that has shown itself most forcibly in recent years, but the trend seems to be rising in the British Isles as it is around the world.
Architects and builders have historically been limited by materials found in nature or manufactured from available materials. Now that our technology has begun supplying artificial, literally man-made substances to work with, and computer science has developed in hitherto unimagined ways, there are almost no limits to what can be constructed for human purposes.
It’s good to note that originally the term ‘blob’ as applied to architecture was coined by an American architect, Greg Lynn, in 1995. He was referring to the software application for a ‘binary large object’ and ‘blob’ seemed an appropriate acronym for the new form of sensuous and unfettered forms that could be achieved with computers using calculus. Architecture has often soared above precedent; blobitecture is certainly another flight.