• Dean Anthony Gratton

How the Digital Age has Changed Our Architectural Landscape

Our landscape and its architecture have held me in awe as I’ve travelled and worked over many, many years. But things are changing…

A digital advancement in architecture

I have experienced the wonder of numerous architectures, such as Cambridge University and its colleges; the Houses of Parliament in London; Antwerp’s Central Station in Belgium; the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and, of course, Manhattan’s Trinity Church in the US. These, of course, are just a very small handful of architectures across the world that are incredibly stunning. I dare say, these are “Sui generis” – a one of a kind and are each a tribute to extraordinary engineering and design.


But, what’s terribly sad is that we no longer notice such beautiful buildings when we commute past them each day or are even, perhaps, fortunate enough to work in one. We have become so familiar with what’s around us – alas, we take it for granted and have become nonchalant to the astonishing architecture that graces our towns and cities. I mean buildings such as the office whose eaves still house ornate sculptured stone carvings; your local grocery store on the high street that dates back to the late 1800s and showcases Victorian architectural nuances; the local bank portraying the onset of early Edwardian influences, and the agricultural farm, which has been in a family for many generations. Many farms comprise an eclectic number of ad hoc functional buildings that once served a specific purpose in producing fresh produce for the local and neighbouring communities and many retain physical references to their historical heritage.


Online shopping has never been so good

The Covid pandemic has shifted our thinking about how we choose to work and engage with friends, family, colleagues and others and, of course, it has had an enormous impact on the use of the office and our high streets. Over the past eighteen months, each of us has been faced with unprecedented challenges – our reliance on technology has never been so important in allowing us to maintain some kind of normality and for our countries to continue to feed their nation.


Moreover, the use of technology has been pivotal in logistics, the supply chain, communication and remote healthcare for patients who have been isolated during lockdown. The digital realisation has become vital in order for all of us to function ‘ordinarily’ in any kind of capacity. And it’s our adaptation and reliance during this digital era that has increased our dependency in its everyday use – we can no longer be without it for pretty much everything we do. During the respective lockdown periods we were encouraged to keep our distance and limit our contact with others – something that is still echoed today, as we desperately move out of this bizarre situation. We have turned to the internet to purchase fresh produce and other household products, as well as miscellaneous essential textiles, but this has undoubtedly had an effect on our architectural landscape.


Easily delivered within time and budget

In the early days of online shopping many of us remained hesitant about its use but, as we grew in confidence and our personal data was assured to be secure, our adoption of ditching the weekly car journey and instead embracing online shopping seemed a natural evolution. No longer did we have to rely on the “bricks and mortar” mentality when shopping, since ordinarily this would provide us with our only recourse, popping into the shop, if something went wrong. Nowadays, online-only shopping offers us confidence in our purchases where, if something isn’t quite right, an exchange or a return policy is quickly established, in turn, further increasing our adoption of ecommerce.


Unfortunately, the high street shop and your local ‘go to’ place for essentials, for example, has had to fight harder to stay in business, since the big tech stores have fiercely targeted a new and growing user base of trusted ambassadors to showcase their stores and to stand proud alongside our new digital generation. Yes, we have moved away from the early ‘dot-com’ hysteria where we now have tangible stores that are present ‘on-the-line’. The pandemic has further bolstered an ease to push a few buttons and to click ‘Ok’ when completing your purchase. Your fresh produce products can be delivered to your home in less than eight hours – it’s their guarantee and if you’re not happy they (normally) will refund you.


We have saviours in helping us preserve our landscape

I started with this month’s column in awe and how I described the wonder of architecture across many countries, but the decline and closure of many buildings has been apparent – the digital mindset savvy generation seem to be winning and I have to confess I have this same point of view. Yes, our adoption and our new thinking in purchasing behaviour has caused a decline in building use and potentially their future. However, there is hope on the horizon. British architect, George Clarke’s new UK Channel 4 television programme, “Remarkable Renovations” showcases the repurposing of some of the most iconic British architecturally stunning buildings across the UK, and demonstrates how such buildings are being saved with the help of local authorities’ relaxation of planning legislation, allowing would-be owners to reinvigorate abandoned buildings.


Clarke mentions in his programme that across Britain there are over 600,000 buildings that lie “unused and unloved” where nearly a third of these buildings are commercial, that is, from banks to shops to agricultural and industrial – yes, our digital age has dramatically altered our architectural landscape due, in no small part, to the changing ways we now choose to live and work that have happened as a result of our societal shift to a digital way of thinking, further fuelled by the challenges sparked by a global pandemic.


Until next time…

With new owners taking advantage of relaxed planning legislation, a new passion and belief can perhaps preserve a “glimpses of a building’s former life” according to Clarke which, in turn, preserves our heritage to ensure it’s not lost forever. Let’s not forget, when we commute or walk to work or simply stroll through a park, look up from your phone or tablet and take in the wealth of historical beauty that surrounds you – you might well experience something quite magical!


So, this is where your ‘always looking up, trying not to trip’ Dr G signs off.

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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology