Wide angle view of atrium with glazed skylight, Galaxy Soho, Beijing, China
Grand designs: Galaxy Soho in Beijing, bringing the design values of a cultural institution to a shopping centre © View Pictures/UIG/Getty

For most of the 20th century it would have been possible to say that the world’s most impressive buildings and its most advanced architecture were purely commercial. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, they were located around the US – Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St Louis, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo. Each of these represented real architectural innovations, from the first atriums to the first recognisable skyscrapers. Then the focus shifted east to the seductive Art Deco towers of Chicago and New York, and the wonderful Rockefeller Center. Even after the war many of the most innovative structures were purely commercial – Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Giò Ponti’s Pirelli Tower in Milan.

But then sometime in the 1960s, something happened. Commercial architecture became banal. Perhaps in pursuit of a purism inspired by the minimalist Mies, or perhaps just because of a dumbing down of architectural culture, the real innovations – aesthetic, urban, constructional – started to emerge in the cultural sphere. The buildings that defined the late 20th and early 21st centuries were the arts blockbusters, from the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou in Paris to London’s Tate Modern; and from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

The question, then, is can commercial developers and architects regain the prestige they once had? There are signs they are trying. Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho shopping centre in Beijing brought the kind of design usually only countenanced by cultural institutions to the shopping centre, and the same architect and developer’s Wangjing Soho office and retail complex (under construction in Beijing) amplifies the message. Gehry has also been employed to build big towers in New York and now Berlin, while London’s skyline has been radically altered by a clique of “starchitects”, whereas two decades ago the City’s architecture was dominated by a handful of relatively little-known commercial specialists.

Commercial developers now look to the cultural sector’s success in “placemaking” – using architecture to establish an identity. This trend has been particularly powerful in those cities aiming to make an impact fast. Architecture – particularly the kind of branded, sculptural designs of the big names – has proved to be an effective way of establishing a site in the local, national and international context, long before it is even built.

From Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Doha and Shenzhen, the fast-changing skylines attempting to identify themselves as emerging global cities are turning to big-name architects and dramatic designs in an effort to locate themselves within the international imagination.

This approach might not have always been identified with success. Dubai’s insane rush to build its booming desert skyline became the subject of a perennial critique in the pre-crash days, yet now it is bouncing back, its skyline established and its odd mix of tourism and business making it an established, even trusted hub.

Dubai’s neighbour, Abu Dhabi, is being, as ever, more restrained. Its blockbusters remain cultural and the extraordinary Saadiyat Island complex, featuring buildings by Norman Foster, Gehry and Jean Nouvel provides the front for a massive commercial investment, a commercial quarter, which it is hoped will benefit from the prestige of the emergence of a new cultural quarter.

Nearby Doha is progressing with an impressive rebuilding of the entire centre of the city. The 31-ha Msheireb project encompasses a group of refined commercial buildings conceived at a scale very different from the more familiar Gulf towers and designed to begin to refer to the complex patterns and grain of the historic city, a walkable quarter in a city in which no one walks. The district is being built up around an elegant shaded central square designed by London-based architect Michel Mossessian.

The Msheireb project in Doha
Human scale: The Msheireb project in Doha © Msheireb

The Msheireb also represents a retreat from the idea of the ubiquitous commercial business district. It is a deliberately and determinedly mixed-use development, an attempt to replicate the success of historic city centres. For nearly two decades, this became a new urban orthodoxy: the notion that the most engaging and enduring cities take their energy from the mix of uses characteristic of established city centres. Developers have been keen to blend residential, retail and commercial properties in the newest blockbuster developments and those uses often also include cultural buildings. Some of the world’s most impressive schemes are either centred around or at least feature cultural institutions in an effort to add gravitas to upmarket developments but also to anchor them in a sense of place and cultural identity.

The architecturally sophisticated development of the Tjuvholmen area of the Oslo docks has been anchored by the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum. The former industrial end of Mexico City’s otherwise upmarket Polanco district has been turned into a huge retail centre and that too is bracketed by two major cultural buildings, the Soumaya Museum (designed by Fernando Romero and housing the art collection of Carlos Slim) and the Jumex Museum, an exquisite Sir David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened last year and houses the contemporary art collection of the eponymous juice company.

Haze surrounds the International Commerce Centre (ICC), center, as a cruise ship sails past in Hong Kong, China, on Monday, April 15, 2013
Shifting picture: The ICC Tower in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon, which aims to overtake Hong Kong Island as a business centre © Bloomberg

By far the most significant of these schemes is Hong Kong’s West Kowloon development. This piece of reclaimed land is one of the world’s most radical current developments and its intention is nothing less than a shift of the historic centre of business gravity from the traditional colonial nexus of Hong Kong island to the traditionally Chinese Kowloon mainland side. The move is already well under way with the elegant KPF-designed 118-storey ICC (International Commerce Centre) Tower that sits on top of the Terry Farrell-designed Kowloon Station, with its fast airport connections attracting big corporations and financial institutions from the other side of the harbour. The West Kowloon Cultural District promises to transform this still rather lifeless business district (albeit one with the most magnificent views) using the machinery of culture to create place and identity. The confirmed buildings include a museum designed by Herzog & de Meuron (architects of Tate Modern) and a huge array of theatres and concert halls.

Intriguingly, though, the world’s biggest business hubs are cleaving stubbornly to their traditional models. The City of London remains fearful of the impact of residential development, concerned that residents will impinge on its ability to continually transform itself through construction. The result is that metastasising, spiky skyline that the Square Mile is barely able to contain and which is now spreading to the East End and south of the river.

Arguably the world’s most charged construction site, New York’s World Trade Center, has also seen a determined rejection of the mixed-use model. Despite an extraordinary exodus of the big financial powerhouses from their traditional base in Wall Street and Downtown to Midtown, the site’s developers, the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein, decided to maintain the site as a business district. The trend Downtown (even, remarkably, in Wall Street), has been for the solid, historic buildings to be transformed into condos for the bankers who once worked there. Silverstein’s decision to keep the WTC as a business district might have meant Downtown was guaranteed a future as a financial centre – although it seems that the clients attracted to the new blockbuster buildings tend towards the media, law and technology sectors.

The WTC site is also a blend of the emerging trends in city centre development. Whereas the Twin Towers attempted to obliterate everything that stood before them, the new design makes real efforts to reintegrate the site into the city, restoring routes and weaving roads back in. It also makes use of the big-name architects: Richard Rogers and Foster have buildings on the site, Santiago Calatrava is building the $4bn transport hub and Fumihiko Maki’s 4 World Trade Center is an outstandingly elegant tower. Finally, it is a development with ambitions to claw culture back to the centre of the city with ambitious plans for a theatre by Gehry.

The extraordinary profile and visibility of this site may mean that its success – or its failure – will determine the model of city centre commercial architecture for years to come.

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