Time and again, architects and investors demonstrate their visionary ability to create an optimistic route out of economic crisis by building for the future. Cathy Hawker explores what this might mean for a post-Covid world.

Perhaps the most symbolic of all 20th-century skyscrapers, The Empire State Building in Manhattan, NYC, was constructed during the peak years of the Great Depression (1929-1933)

Building iconic architecture in a time of great economic uncertainty demands steely nerves and deep pockets yet history is filled with prominent illustrations of how the creative wheel keeps turning. The Empire State Building is a prime example. Construction at the Manhattan landmark started in 1930 just as the USA fell into the Great Depression. Wall Street went into freefall, millions lost their savings and a quarter of the US workforce faced unemployment. Yet at West 34th Street construction of the skyscraper that would be the tallest in the world for four decades continued.

A triumph of optimism? Quite possibly but the construction industry is notoriously cyclical and a period of gloom can be the inspiration for exciting new design. Consider the Art Deco outpourings post WWI, modernist architecture after WWII or the worldwide building boom following the recession of 2000-2004. For architectural studios reeling from the effects of Covid-19, these offer positive reassurance.

“Architecture always goes through a period of renewal and exuberance after dark times,” explains Sir George Iacobescu, Executive Chairman of Canary Wharf Group. “Architects adapt to the new reality but it is also an opportunity to drive forward positive new ideas. After world wars and recessions comes a flowering of creativity and a determination to build bigger, better and more beautiful than before.”

Broadcasting House, London

Sir George has experienced this firsthand. He is the former CEO of Canary Wharf Group, the 97-acre financial, business, residential and retail estate created from derelict docklands. As a continuous presence on site since the 1980s when construction began he has lived through boom and bust including the 1990 recession that heralded a collapse in commercial real estate across London’s markets.

Today Canary Wharf is selling homes at One Park Drive, an exhilarating circular geometric tower designed by award-winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron with 468 apartments over 58 floors. The fluid architectural style with apartments stacked unconventionally to allow for double height balconies is mesmerising.

“As we emerge from adversity and austerity, architecture becomes an enthusiastic incarnation of the indomitable human spirit,” Sir George says. “As F Scott Fitzgerald put it, ‘the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again’.”

Unlike any previous recession, Covid-19 has made us revaluate how and where we live. Home working, online shopping, remote learning: what will the post-lockdown ‘new normal’ look like, what will it mean for office space, for our homes and for our towns and cities.

It will fall primarily to architects to address these space and design challenges. Yet as Dr Carol Herselle Krinsky, Professor of Art History at New York University and a member of the Society of Architectural Historians points out, any post-recession recovery is more a matter of investment than of architecture.

“Architecture is a by-product of real estate investment,” Professor Herselle Krinsky says. “After a depression investment money may still be available and after one daring investor produces a successful investment others tend to follow. The architect is not an autonomous creature but rather works for the hand that feeds him.”

This concept of form following finance, a variation on the more familiar concept of “form follows function,” highlights the impact of real-estate cycles and speculative development on buildings.

One Park Drive rising triumphantly above the River Thames at Canary Wharf is a reminder that architectural styles continually evolve thanks to thoughtful investment and inspirational architecture. Historically after a major global downturn there may be a pause but then comes a renaissance.

Recovery from Covid presents another transformational opportunity for architecture and by incorporating ambition and optimism in their designs, architects can provide practical and uplifting solutions. It happened exactly one hundred years when the dark days of WWI gave way to striking architectural developments around the world as the following three examples of post-crisis reinvention show.

As we emerge from adversity and austerity, architecture becomes an enthusiastic incarnation of the indomitable human spirit… As F Scott Fitzgerald put it, ‘the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again’

Sir George Iacobescu, Executive Chairman, Canary Wharf Group

Art Deco façade, Paris.


In Paris the Roaring Twenties became known as Les Années Folles, the ‘crazy years’. Americans arrived in number, thrilled by the bohemian freedom they discovered including the writers Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who catalogued the joyful excess.

Paris was once again a capital of art and culture, brimming with creativity and vigour. Dancer Josephine Baker introduced Charleston-infused music, Dali experimented with modernism, Picasso with cubism and Magritte with surrealism.

This euphoria translated into handsome architecture. Paris was the birthplace of Art Deco, an architectural style named after the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs and Art Nouveau flourishes gave way to symmetry and simplicity. The Folies Bergère was given a new Art Deco façade in 1926, the same style later adopted in New York on the Chrysler Building.


London might not have had the artistic outpouring of Paris but it too entered into the fever of the Roaring Twenties and writers catalogued the decadence and luxury of the times. Evelyn Waugh wrote ‘Vile Bodies’, satirising the ‘Bright, Young Things’, the wealthy and beautiful aristocrats who partied to excess in the 1920s, an equal match for their Parisian counterparts.

The 1920s are represented in some exceptional Art Deco buildings. The ship-like prow and uniform exterior of Broadcasting House in Portland Place, the four iconic chimneys of Battersea Power Station, now entering the next stage of its life and the Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden all take their roots from 1920s style.

The latter includes references to Egyptian Revival architecture too, a nod to the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter, an event which electrified Londoners.


As New Yorkers faced the rigours of prohibition, a new, fun-loving edge returned thanks in part to musicians including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong who played to sell-out crowds at Carnegie Hall. Their spirit-lifting music also found a natural home in the speakeasies that sprang up around the city and the Jazz Age was born. Newly enfranchised women enthusiastically joined in, their shorter hemlines and bobbed haircuts a daring departure from pre-War fashions.

American writers might have escaped to bohemian Europe but Art Deco architecture and design soon crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction. Along with exciting new technologies and building techniques, the result transformed Manhattan where elaborate neoclassical and fussy gothic design gave way to vertical lines, sharp corners and bold motifs. The world was ready for simpler design and this emphasis on streamlining, removing most embellishments, was also an effective way to save money in difficult economic times.

Manhattan’s linear Art Deco symmetry is clearly visible today, from One Wall Street in the south, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown, The Eldorado on Central Park and most spectacularly in the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.


Knight Frank’s Group Executive Board tell us what they think will define real estate throughout the 2020s


The real-estate world has never experienced such huge shifts, with changing trends presenting greater opportunity. Commercially, traditional retail real estate is still adapting to e-commerce’s challenge, while student property, retirement living and healthcare offer more demographic-focused solutions. The changing face of work means we require different things from the office space. This is on top of the massive infrastructure spend in emerging markets, which presents the firm with exciting opportunities to expand. In the residential world, people will continue to move to adapt to their needs and the rental sector will explode. Much will challenge the sector throughout the 2020s – ESG; impact investment; the rapid emergence of technology – but it’s a chance to provide our clients with a service in new and brilliant ways.

You will never be able to remove the human element of estate agency. For the modern-day agent, a combination of the very best customer experience, leading market intelligence and technology will be essential for success. With the growing significance of online agents, the traditional estate-agency model will undoubtedly change. It is likely that there will be a condensed grouping of property advisors who will offer a more personal service but cover a greater geographical area. A hybrid model, which provides customers with the best in online accessibility but still offers a strong focus on the human and personalised element across all touchpoints, I believe, will be the sector’s future across the next decade.



We’ve navigated a succession of global shocks over the past decade, and it has been – and will be – fascinating to identify how areas will harness disruption and turn the intense innovation of necessity into the momentum of success. We call these places ‘Innovation Led Cities’: urban centres that have gold-standard education facilities, embedded infrastructure, broad capital platforms and, most importantly, a resilience born of talent, energy and appetite to innovate and evolve. This is where clients will continue to find the intrinsic value of resilience as the foundation for the strongest returns on the planet. And it’s in these special, complex environments that we will identify world-class opportunities for outperformance in the 2020s.

I think the way we perceive space will continue to change to match individual needs. People aren’t going to limit their choice in property to suit a stage of life, rather what is right for them at that time. Think less ‘downsizing’ and more ‘rightsizing’. What this means for buyers will naturally differ from market to market, but we think it could change property norms dramatically in some places. For example, lateral spaces such as apartments will be considered more kindly among senior generations as well as the time-poor, as they offer greater accessibility, efficiency of space and less upkeep than a multi-level house of similar proportions.



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