YES MAN

This post started life as an Amazon book review but, with BIG, it’s not easy to write a book review without writing an architectural review since book and buildings are both exercises in brand-building.

The “brilliance” of this book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images.

The “brilliance” of their architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images.

It is wrong to dismiss this book as simplistic. It is a sophisticated and hard-nosed marketing tool for a successful architecture and publicity machine. BIG are trying to attract your attention. They want your love.

Immediately after the cover page, the foreplay starts. A double-page spread of Ludwig Mies speech-bubbling “Less is more” is followed by Robert Venturi with “Less is a bore”, Philip Johnson with “I’m a whore”, a shout-out to Remment Koolhaas (“more and more, more is more”), a nod to Barack Obama (“Yes we can!”) and, finally, B.I. bringing this false sequence to the false conclusion of “Yes is more”.

As a character in a book, Bjarke Ingels is best when he’s bigging himself up. He’s not the first architect to make great claims for his buildings and won’t be the last but, just because “YES IS MORE” is a comic, we shouldn’t assume it’s 100% truth. As a branding tool, the comic book conceit is a brilliant choice in many ways.

  1. There’s no place for plans or sections that make demands upon the reader by requiring curiosity and skill to interpret. It doesn’t require an architectural education to read this book and think you know everything you need to know. This is immensely clever because, in targeting Joe Public, BIG are able to bypass the opinions of architects and academics as the quickest route to architectural fame. This is an important new development in the marketing of architecture. Infantilism is the way forward.
  2. The comic book thing allows typography to indicate not only what you should know about a model or a graphic, but how brilliant it is as well. When breathlessly shouting how great their every word is in italics isn’t enough, it screams in bold italics. And when that’s insufficient, they get underlines – in red. Every idea is WHAT WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!  No point’s left unexclaimed.
  3. The false dialogue feels familiar and intimate and its relentless one-sidedness suits the passive reader. B.I never lets you get a word in edgeways, let alone a question. In the credits, B.I. is credited with “Text”. Whether this is for writing, dictating, or approving the text we don’t know, but between that text and us are three translators and eleven text “editors”. Eleven. We can be sure that every image and word has been crafted and calculated to create the impression of sincerity.
  4. The format allows for audacious visual puns and cheesy verbal ones that often  strike the right balance between intelligence and informality. I confess. There is a guilty pleasure to be had. This graphic and textual slight-of-hand is perhaps most evident on pages 88-99 “Infinity Loop”.This building has recently been completed and presented as 8-House. You can read some of the comments on the completed building here, on ArchDaily.
  5. In true comic format, the hero always wins, even if sometimes it’s only a pseudo-moral victory against villainous clients unforgivably lacking in vision and money.

The comic book format, however, does have its disadvantages but some of these are true for all books. The format of any book forces a chronological sequence onto the messy process of designing buildings. The comic book format however, adds tempo to make that sequence both linear and compressed. Those lines are direct, wrong choices never made, alternatives rarely explored, and fruitless paths only documented if it leads to a “WE SUDDENLY REALIZED THAT…”  breakthrough moment before a happy ending. Despite pitfalls that are always overcome, the sequence of one inventive step after another invariably leads to THE SOLUTION!

But disingenuousness is par for the course for architects. If you believed Le Corbusier, for example, you’d think he invented concrete columns and slabs. If you believe the commentary for “Bureaucratic Beauty” on pages 128-135, you’d think BIG invented the use of daylight setbacks to maximize floor area and in the process sculpt the upper floors of buildings. This is presented in reverse, with the funny roofline being the point of the exercise and, guess what? THE CLIENT LIKED THE INCREASED NUMBER OF SQUARE METERS! Fact: Entire neighborhoods in Tokyo have been shaped like this for decades, and for the same reasons. Never ever trust anything an architect says.

All you really need to know about BIG’s USP-cum-architectural stance is contained in a 600-word essay at the front, once you’re in the mood. Titled “Yes Is More! A Theory of Evolution” it is illustrated by Charles Darwin bubbling “It is not the strongest of the species that survives but the one most adaptable to change”. For architects, there is a lot of truth to this. It was the end of the line for Louis Sullivan, for example, when he failed to understand that the owners of department stores and office buildings didn’t want to waste money on ornament, no matter how “organic” he said it was. Just like every contemporary starchitect, BIG have correctly concluded that the only clients these days who have the money, the land and the desire to build are rich rulers and property developers. “YES!” and “MORE!” are two things that rich rulers and property developers love to hear. If it is to be taken seriously, “YES IS MORE!” is what we used to call “selling out”.  

BIG admits as much on page 302. “ARCHITECTURE IS “THE STUFF THAT SURROUNDS US”. AND AS ARCHITECTS CONSTANTLY WORKING IN AND WITH THE CITY, YOU WOULD THINK THAT WE WOULD BE AT THE FRONTIER OF ENVISIONING OUR URBAN FUTURE. HOWEVER WHILE WE SIT AT HOME WAITING FOR THE PHONE TO RING OR SOMEONE TO ANNOUNCE A COMPETITION, THE FUTURE IS BEING DECIDED BY THOSE WITH POWER: THE POLITICIANS or THOSE WITH MONEY: THE PROPERTY DEVELOPERS.” BIG are not stupid.

So why did BIG create an “archi-comic” for people like us, unlikely to ever commission them? It goes like this. Rich rulers and property developers are likely to commission BIG, and rich rulers and property developers aren’t known for their architectural judgment. All that rich rulers and property developers want architects to do is create an image that generates some MEDIA NOISE and sprinkles some FAIRYDUST OF FAME on their pet project or country. When the time comes for them to choose an architect, all they ask is “Who’s big right now?” This book is targeted at you, my friends, and it’s part of that process.

2 thoughts on “YES MAN

  1. Samar Zwaylif

    Wandered from one blog post to another and ended up here, so curious about this now, will go to the library soon!
    thank you :)

    Reply

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