Slice of life

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams on the cold and spiritual shape of the century

The remaining weeks of the year will doubtless echo with the chatter of people nominating their men and women of the year, the pop song of the decade, and the sports personality of the millennium. But what is the shape of the century?

The shape of the first century might be the cross. The shape of the 16th is surely a sphere; it was in that century that Juan Sebastian del Cano, one of Magellan's lieutenants, completed the circumnavigation of the globe, so confirming that the world is round. Shakespeare gave us the "wooden O" of the Globe Theatre - although it wasn't until the 1600s that he had Cleopatra speak of "the little O, the earth" (how much she knew!). Round shot was perfected and guns spread across the new round world. Drake played bowls.

The shape of the decade is surely the biomorphic blob. Witness the building that will house the new London authority and the revival, God help us, of the lava lamp. The colour of the century is surely modernist pale, white with a hint of ideology. But the shape of the century? Misha Stefan, the co-curator of the Mission gallery, thinks it's the slab. "It's the only shape I know which doesn't have a proper geometric name," he says. "It represents the 20th century like no other shape has done. You can find pure cubes in crystals, but not this. It's the epitome of the intelligently made form." Perhaps this is why the shape was chosen to represent the higher power in the film 2001: a space odyssey.

"Cold and spiritual", the slab is a rectangle with a minimal depth. Traditionally used of stone, the word has come to be associated far more with concrete (surely the building mat-erial of the century). Gradually pared of all ornament and surface detail over the past 100 years, it has emerged as the module of architecture. It is omnipresent among the landmarks of the century. There are tall ones at the Lever Building and the United Nations headquarters in New York, long ones in Brasilia, and flat ones at Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the architectural slabbeur par excellence.

Stereo equipment advertises its purity of tone with the purity of its slab boxes. Televisions strive for the same pure form, at last becoming possible with flat screens. The slab is oddly abundant in Danish design, from the buildings of Arne Jacobsen to Bang & Olufsen electronics. It is there in the ubiquitous CD case. It is, more than anything, the shape of the microchip. Appropriately perhaps, Mies's master plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology places buildings like chips on a circuit board. Malevich and Lissitzky launched the slab in art, and it has been there ever since, in Ben Nicholson's reliefs, Carl Andre's bricks, and in the work of Julian Opie.

To prove his point, Stefan has gathered contemporary designs and commissioned artists to celebrate the slab. One exhibit, Fiona Davidson's Room Project 1, is a multi- purpose system of rectilinear furniture that unpacks like one of those interlocking puzzles from a single neat rectangular block ideal for transportation. The pieces conjure a monk's cell in an instant.

The shape of this century should be gone by the next. Slabs may give way to blobs in buildings and objects. There is symbolism in the demolition of the three grim slabs of the old Department of the Environment. But there is a slab that seems likely to make it into the next century: your gravestone and mine.

"Slab: the form with no name" is at Mission, 45 Hereford Road, London W2 (0171-792 4633) until 28 January 2000