Three Nasty Trends In Architecture

1) INTERNET ARCHITECTURE

Unless a person either owns or visits a building for business or pleasure and has direct experience of it, they are going to have to rely upon images of that building to know something about that building. This has been the case for several decades now but, as with many other aspects of modern life, the internet is speeding up the process of shifting images. It’s increasing our appetite for new ones that will be quickly replaced by newer ones. Here, we’re talking about “images” and not “information” in general. The internet is not great with words and concepts.

a) Land Porn

Land Porn has always been around but, like many other things, the internet has made it much easier to access. With land porn, you imagine yourself  there enjoying the experience. The desirability of the site is more important than the actual building.

Dear Loser: “Wish you were here?” =)

This brings us to our second sub-category.

b) Post-it architecture

This is architecture that will never get built, and is often competition entries that went nowhere else. Still, if you’ve done the work, why not get it up on the internet? You might impress somebody.  This project below is typical self-promoting internet filler.

“Metaphorically, the structural design is rooted deeply into the ancient culture of Dubai. Respecting traditional disciplines and incorporating the significance of organic forms, symbols and patterns, the design seeks to redefine traditions as well as continues to test new boundaries for the future. As we critically question the ‘whys’ and ‘how’s’, finding the reasons for everything, there is no room for imitations. This symbol must be a unique phenomenon – a flower growing out of the desert ground.” Cheungvogl, ArchDaily
Graham McKay says:
Let’s leave Dubai out of this – it’s not the only country with plants! I’m stunned that someone can design a library, and someone can write 1,362 words about it and not even mention books once! Guys, get real!  The only meaning this project has is as website filler and Cheungvogl self-promotion showing us how “imaginative” and “creative” they are.

Post-it architecture shows the world how “imaginative” and “creative” you are. The internet is hungry for content. It doesn’t need to be good.

c) Image vs. Content

Like photographs, the internet is not very good at representing the non-visual qualities of buildings and spaces. This particular house is called “Safe House” and the apparently thick walls and shutters slide into place to provide the visual image of security. The house is the colour of concrete and it’s surfaces seem thick, like concrete – but the house is constructed of grey-painted plywood, as should be obvious from the second photograph.

Far from being safe, the house can be broken into with a single claw hammer! Disconnections such as these between stated intention and final reality don’t really matter on the internet since the text, misleading as it is, is not read by anyone anyway. Most people commenting on this house thought it was actually made of concrete. Duh.

2) PAY-PER-VIEW ARCHITECTURE

We accept that we have to pay to experience certain buildings in certain ways. If I wanted, say, to see what can be seen from the top of the Empire State Building or Burj Khalifa, then I expect to pay to do that. With architectural experience, you get what you pay for, and with residential architecture, firsthand experience is only possible by owning the rights to experience it. An hour or two visiting, say, Wright’s Kaufmann House is no substitute for actually being Mr Kaufmann, going there year after year, watching the leaves change colour, hearing the ice crack as the water falls again, saying to yourself “THIS IS MINE!”  Mr Kaufmann Jr gave the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and this made lesser levels of experience accessible to the public and especially architecture students, but it also ensured the real experience remained his family’s alone. No-one else can experience the house as they did. Ever. With pay-per-view architecture, as with any kind of architecture, you get what you pay for.

Click here for Fallingwater tours and tickets. Normal adult ticket is $20. If you want to be there at sunset, then it’s $110.

“Envision yourself as a guest at Fallingwater as your guide leads you through the house and fully engages you in Wright’s sublime integration of building and nature.  As afternoon turns to evening, the changing light allows you to see Fallingwater from an entirely new perspective as you enjoy hors d’oeuvres with your guide.”

Once we accept that we have to pay for all sorts of architectural experiences, then at least we don’t have to look at land porn anymore. It becomes valid to visit, say, the New York or Bilbao Guggenheim and not care much about the art inside.  All the art does is provide an excuse for the architectural tourist to go there and have a look and let them believe they are an intended user, looking at art when in fact, anyone who pays  13 Euros to get inside is an intended user. The actual ticket price varies according to the day. You can see stuff like this.

Dear Customer: “Wish you were here!”

BG has a nice website with videos and “stuff”. Click here for details regarding timings and ticket prices. People can argue forever about whether or not architecture is “art” but when punters line up to pay 13 Euros for the right to enter and have a look then it’s doing the same things art does. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing.

At first the hireable top floor of Swiss Re dispensed with contents altogether but now a catering firm operates a value-added experience. Here’s their website.

Top-Floor-Bar

Finally, in this category, we have Living Architecture. Here is their website. Alain De Botton’s idea was to get famous architects to design houses in scenic locations.

“Living Architecture is a social enterprise dedicated to the promotion and enjoyment of world-class modern architecture. We have asked a series of great architects to design houses for us around Britain and are making these available to rent for holidays all year round.
“We started the organisation from a desire to shift perceptions of modern architecture. We wanted to allow people to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice. While there are examples of great modern buildings in Britain, they tend to be in places that one passes through (eg. airports, museums, offices) and the few modern houses that exist are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited.
“We see ourselves first and foremost as an educational body, dedicated to enhancing the appreciation of architecture. But we also hope that you will have an exceptional holiday with us. We are making available a standard of house unusual for the UK rental market (where the ancient cottage has until now been the norm), with the best of contemporary materials and technologies. Our houses are all in fascinating locations and have been meticulously designed for comfort and aesthetic delight (with prices starting from just £20 per person per night).” (from their website)

“Prices start from just £740 for a 4-night break (the equivalent of £24 per person per night). Check here for any special offers.”

Pay-per-view architecture lets people pay money so they can experience the real thing for a short time and not have to look at land porn anymore.

3) POPUP ARCHITECTURE

“Of these, the most impactful is the Cineroleum, the cinema formed out of a former petrol station in Clerkenwell, London, for 15 screenings last autumn, before disappearing again.”

Volunteers built it in 25 days, for a budget of £5,000. Scaffolding boards were bolted together to make columns and a fabric roof was supplied by a company that usually makes the drop-down canvas for the sides of lorries. …  A fashionable crowd and sponsors – Mont Blanc, Campari – moved in.

PopUp architecture is usually built by young people – often architecture students – who would otherwise not have the opportunity (!) to build. It uses low-cost materials and labour and is on borrowed land. It is also temporary and so these buildings disappear before anyone can get bored with them, and before climate and wear can take their toll. The building remains a happy memory and a CV-building testimony to its designers’ drive and ingenuity.  PopUp architecture is seen as a “showcase” for “new talent” and is a sign that architecture is beginning to achieve the same churn ratio as fashion. The devaluation of utility and longevity is further evidence of the fashionization of architecture.

Nevertheless, these young architects have correctly worked out that all you need to make architecture is money and land. Here, the amounts of money involved aren’t large and the site is only loaned, but the principles are the same. Photographs and the internet create maximum PR value so nothing’s changed there then. What’s more, architecture as temporary media sensation is exactly what the big, old, “proper” architects do. The big downside is that this has not been a very useful thing for architecture.

Popup architecture is casual architecture. It’s not asking for, and is not offering any long-term commitment to your happiness or wellbeing.

* * *

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The three types of architecture described here are all ways that the idea of architecture is adapting to new conditions. Traditionally, it was necessary for a client to have 1) money, 2) land, and 3) a need for a building, in order for a building to happen.

Internet architecture provides websites with free content of sufficient temporary interest to hang paid advertising, book suggestions, and job vacancies. It is the modern equivalent of triangular trade. Architects provide websites with free content and websites provide architects with publicity in return. Websites provide viewers with architectural “news” and entertainment and, in return, the viewers provide websites with the market for their business models. The only thing viewers have to offer the architect is their feedback in the form of “likes” and re-postings and some of this feedback will feed the mechanisms of fame, and generate further imagery to keep the cycle going. In this cycle it is not necessary for a building to exist. On the surface, internet architecture is about architecture, but it has everything to do with $ and very little to do with either buildings or people, let alone clients.

Pay-per-view architecture is another response to architects having fewer real clients with real money or a real desire to build something in the traditional sense. Instead, something is built and people pay for the right to experience it, rather than buy it. The experience of living in an architect-designed building was never for ordinary people anyway. Now that there aren’t so many clients around, pay-per-view architecture is an attempt to extract smaller amounts of money from a larger group of people. These people aren’t clients, they’re punters.

Pop-up architecture is low-budget pay-per-view architecture. It is street trash that follows the same economic and business model as more upmarket buildings.

An emphasis on visual entertainment is common to all three architectures. This emphasis on the visual could become a bit of a problem in the future because real buildings also need to do lots of things that aren’t visual. Humans have four other senses besides sight, and buildings need to provide a comfortable environment for all of them. Granted, our sense of taste is little used in the recognition, let alone the appreciation, of buildings but our sense of touch tells us about texture and temperature but also whether a building is dangerous or uncomfortable. Our sense of hearing tells us about size and materials of spaces but also tells us whether a building is liveable. And our sense of smell tells us about location and materials but it also alerts us if a building is trying to suffocate us or poison us.  Images of buildings tell us none of this.

4 thoughts on “Three Nasty Trends In Architecture

  1. Roger Sparks

    The safe house text says:
    “The whole building is a concrete monolith, while it’s mobile parts – for the sake of considerable size – are light steel trusses filled with mineral wool. As a result, the building is perfectly insulated when closed.

    The whole house as well as the mobile elements are clad with cement-bonded particleboards – Cetris and waterproof alder plywood fixed to a steel construction and painted with dark wood stain,”

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Yes it does, doesn’t it? Personally, I never trust anything an architect says. It’s obviously not monolithic, so why should we believe it’s made of concrete? Maybe I’m being unfair and “monolithic” is just another way of saying “big and rectangular”. Maybe “concrete” is just a way of saying “not abstract”. I go by what I see. If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck …

      The house may be made of concrete yet looks like it’s made of plywood, but the bits that move have to be as light as possible yet look as if they’re really heavy. Being safe and creating the impression of being safe are two different things and I think the architect is a bit confused about what’s doing what. The building may be perfectly insulated when these mobile bits are closed, but seriously, it’s only as safe as its weakest part. A smart zombie would take a claw hammer (claws?) to the plywood and mineral wool movey bits.

      I think its the inconsistencies in the story that bother me. It’s not easy to get anybody to read anything these days and I know it’s not easy to write about a “concept” as if you actually believe it, let alone convince other people. I used to do that for a living once.

      Thanks Roger.

      Reply
  2. Bashar Al Shawa

    I very much liked the last paragraph. The fact that most of what we see about buildings is images, suggests that it is the visual side that matters, or supposed to be. This thinking is also extended to the academia, as you would have a lot of renderings representing the students’ project, while not having much (if any) info about it. Of course, this will lead to the old debate that a building should look “beautiful” etc., but that also means that for the most of it, the buildings is a piece of art on a landscape or street, that was designed from the very beginning to be something the outside viewers will appreciate. As with all “art masterpieces”, you don’t really need to know about their specifications. If we look at some other products that are meant for human consumption, such as laptops, mobile phones, cars, airplanes, digital cameras, and PSPs, we can clearly notice that they represent themselves by something that matters to the consumer (human) that is going to use them, be it RAM, processing power, megapixels, screen resolution, memory, etc. All this might lead to the conclusion that current architecture is not meant for human use. We might as well pass-by the “fitting it into a building” stage that most projects undergo, and just leave it as a modern art master piece. I’m sure this will save the people from living (suffering) in an object that is not for human use.

    Reply

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