Dream about the future, and you dream in buildings. In the places where you first learn to think about tomorrow--in H.G. Wells, at the World's Fair, in The Jetsons--tomorrow is first of all a skyline fresh out of the cellophane. Personal whirly copters dart among glinting steel towers, everything looks like the Seattle Space Needle, and nothing is crummy or made out of wood.
One glance at the present will tell you the future is never all that futuristic. That's not a glinting steel anything over there. It's one more plasterboard mattress outlet. And the sheer volume of things already built means the world to come will consist largely of the world that is already here.
All the same, architecture may be on the verge of the greatest style shift since the end of World War II, when the glass and steel towers of bare-bones Modernism shouldered everything else to the margins. A very different future is visible today in a small outburst of buildings that repudiate the very notion of upright walls. Bellied-out sides, canted planes, solid walls that look like fluttering strips of ribbon, blade-edged triangular outcroppings and brassy materials that shimmer like something Cher would wear to the Grammys--what's under way here is a rethinking of space and form as complete as any since the spirals of the Baroque overtook the spare symmetries of the Renaissance. If this is the future, then the right-angled Modernist box is about to be lowered into its grave.
For now, the most famous product of this new impulse is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Frank Gehry's cascading structure, which has tripled tourism to funky Bilbao, has been a watershed, an instant icon that was featured in the latest James Bond movie and has mayors everywhere clamoring for their own "Bilbao." As a consequence, any number of designs that once seemed too radical to imagine, much less assemble, are being readied for construction. One of them is Daniel Libeskind's tumbling addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which looks like a cross between a building and an avalanche. Another is the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati by the Iranian-born, diagonally inclined British architect Zaha Hadid. Several of the most spectacular works in progress are by Gehry, like his annex to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, a whiplashing addition to a city where, when it comes to new architecture, you can usually hear a pin drop.
Why this now? Maybe it is just a recognition that fractured forms are the ones best suited to the times. This explanation appeals to a lot of architects, who are prone anyway to a kind of Hegelian metaphysics, a sense that they are not just designing department stores and offices but rendering the spirit of the age in steel and stone. In recent years, some of the more theoretically inclined among them, such as Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl, have been connecting their designs to things like French literary analysis, the kind that presumes to dismantle the falsehoods of language, or the "chaos theory" of physics, with its universe built on bubbling disorder. To put it mildly, these are notions that conventional buildings, with their aura of stability and authority, don't do much to express. But a building that looks as if it's in the grip of a spastic seizure? Well, that's getting there.