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Foster and Partners' Reichstag building in Berlin

The conventional narrative of British High Tech architecture – roughly speaking, from 1950 to the present day – is that it emerged through a cocktail of influences. There was the legacy of Victorian engineering (the Crystal Palace and the great railway sheds), Meccano, the glamour of postwar Californian modernism set against austerity Britain. There was also a yearning for a sci-fi future inspired by cutaway comic book drawings of speculative spaceships.

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, 1950-2012, a show at Riba’s new architecture galleries, and a BBC TV series timed to coincide with it, relate that narrative impeccably. It is a seductive story.

Each of the architects here was born in the 1930s – Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, Michael (and his wife and partner Patty) Hopkins and Nicholas Grimshaw – and collectively they articulated a generation’s desires for a non-hierarchical architecture which allowed users to dictate use. The Centre Pompidou is the zenith of this period, a truly radical structure which echoes in its steel and glass the neighbouring Les Halles market halls. It looks like a machine for culture – which is exactly what it was envisaged to be. It is a generous, extremely contemporary building intended to accommodate a culture that seemed to be on the cusp of changing from one curated for the public to one created by the public.

This approach, the conception of architecture as megastructure containing almost infinitely flexible space, proved itself perfectly suited to the emerging, globalised world of the endless interior, the airports, malls, hospitals and business parks that have become the currency of contemporary construction. The early works exhibited here, the factories and offices are impressive, the perfect expressions of High Tech while the later airports (notably Foster’s awesome Beijing International) are among the greatest modern spaces. The stations, too, see a synthesis of early passions, Victorian engineering and futuristic fantasy, from Foster’s Bilbao Metro and Canary Wharf Station, Grimshaw’s designs for New York’s Fulton Street Station (under construction) and Farrell’s underrated Chinese stations, all succeed in making infrastructure enjoyable.

But High Tech also brought problems. Le Corbusier coined the idea of a house as a “machine for living in” but as a metaphor. These British architects took the idea literally and, in conceiving architecture as mechanism, they allowed themselves to be seduced by the imagery, fetishising engineering detail and mechanistic aesthetics, often, paradoxically, at the expense of function.

The listing (at Grade I) of Rogers’ 1986 Lloyd’s Building in London in 2011 is the finest example of the conflict between architects’ yearning to smash the architectural culture of permanence that had preceded them and their own desire for immortality through buildings designed for impermanence. Lloyd’s is a wonderful sight, rearing up beside the Victorian iron and glass of Leadenhall Market, but it is unpopular with those who work in it, actually less flexible than a spec office block. The ideas and the imagery eventually piled up to crunch the function that was the original intention behind the building as machine.

That same fetish for architecture as engine can also be blamed for a significant lack in much High Tech architecture – an inability to relate in any sophisticated way to the site or the tectonic or material culture of the surroundings. The clear expression of function – transparency, structure, services and so on – became the sole aim, at the expense of any complexity or ambiguity. This can work: the model here of Foster’s HSBC Building in Hong Kong (reportedly the most expensive building in the world when completed) shows how dramatic it can be, but it can also appear simplistic, as at Rogers’ Welsh Assembly Building or Foster’s Gherkin, which is a beautiful object but a poor office block and a building that denies the possibility of meaning emerging through relationships with its context. In other words, it could be anywhere.

This exhibition doesn’t quite explain the remarkable international success and influence of this generation. I’d suggest that it is to do precisely with the universality of the engineering aesthetic. The upside of designing buildings that could be anywhere is that they can be anywhere. The mechanistic aesthetic appeals to the boys who run corporations, banks, airports and countries because it flatters them with the impression of function, of the objective efficiency we associate with engineering rather than the subjective appeal of architecture.

The catch, however, is that many of these buildings actually created a series of problems in their ambitions of flexibility and the appearance of transparency. And then they partially – and expensively – solved them. Those elegant solutions to self-inflicted problems became the architecture itself.

These careers began with cultural megastructures and egalitarian factories and culminated in corporate HQs, luxury apartment complexes and a Virgin Galactic spaceport – an airport for the hyper-wealthy. High Tech may have started off as a rebellion against the status quo but it quickly became the default wealthy establishment architecture of our age.

RIBA, London, until May 27. architecture.com

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