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Coworking - seen it all before...

How the dreams of the past became our reality

Working from home is the new normal. The office as we knew it no longer exists. We’re all potential digital nomads, tethered only to decent broadband, and your office could be your kitchen, the museum or the beach. Meanwhile, ‘green’ buildings that generate clean energy for a whole neighbourhood and provide wildlife habitats on their roofs are becoming an ever more familiar sight. 

This is the modern world of work and workplaces, of public and domestic space. These are the trends that dictate how and where we conduct our lives today. It’s the bold new world of architecture and design.

Or, perhaps, not so new. The seeds of some of these trends were, in fact, sown in the past.

The radical architects of the 1960s and 70s had grand visions about the role of architecture in society. It’s only now that their dreams have, to an extent, become a reality, because it’s only now that the technology exists to make it possible.

Welcome to the radical utopia

It was half a century ago, for example, that a group of modernists at the Faculty of Architecture of Florence created a series of radical ‘utopias’ that redefined the boundaries of architecture. They took ideas around ecology and territory, society and politics, work and leisure, shook them around, took them apart and put them back together upside-down.

“We were all about ideas. We didn’t want to build houses,” said one of the Italian architects, Gianni Pettena. For his “Ice House 1” installation, he suspended an abandoned school in ice, encouraging the public to question their assumptions about the nature and purpose of buildings. Another work, titled Architettura Interplanetaria, envisioned a motorway connecting the earth with the moon.

Wearable houses and inflatable villages

A few years earlier in San Francisco, a group called the Ant Farm had designed the ‘House of the Century’. Constructed out of steel mesh, chicken wire and cement, it had circular living spaces, porthole windows and a sensual, organic shape. Meanwhile, the UK’s Archigram collective were busy building walking megastructures, wearable houses, underwater cities, inflatable villages and do-it-yourself building kits.

As eccentric and abstract as they were at the time, glimpses of these ‘utopias’ can be seen in the real world today. Sustainable buildings owe their existence, now more vital than ever, largely to the ideas of the 60s and 70s. And the fact that communities can, and do, have an influence on how public space is used is thanks to an idea born in Florence 50 years ago.

Every generation believes that they were the first ones to think of something – whether it’s in art, culture, fashion or design. But it’s rarely true. When we roll our eyes at teenagers wearing the very same outfits that we wore in the 1990s, we’re reminded that ‘new’ trends are almost always on their second, or third or fourth, outing. And it seems that’s true of architectural and interior design as well. Whenever we hear or read about anything described as a trend, it’s likely to be anything but new.