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The New Architecture of Austerity

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First, a quick look of what The New Architecture of Austerity is not. Even before the worst of the current economic “downturn” became evident, there had been murmurs that, considering the amount of steel it took to build, the Beijing National Stadium wasn’t perhaps the most economical or sustainable of buildings. It’s old news that the BNS’s apparently random lattice of additional steel members was intended to disguise the parallel members that were to have supported a retractable roof that was ultimately omitted.

Although the stadium’s curving steel nest grabs the most attention, the building actually combines a pair of structures: a bright-red concrete bowl for seating and the iconic steel frame around it. Sight lines from the seats to the playing field helped determine the form and dimensions of the concrete bowl, while the need to include a heavy retractable roof (a requirement in the competition brief) informed the giant crisscrossing steel members on the outside of the building. Because the architects disliked the massive parallel beams necessary to support the retractable roof, they developed a lacy pattern for the other steel elements to disguise them.

It’s difficult to see where these massive parallel beams are, but this photo gives you an idea of how the structure is organised around some 24 very large vertical columns, and how the infill “tertiary” structure is going to fit in.

It’s more obvious from these images from that the building’s structure is a series of linked portal frames.

Apparently, it’s the bird spit that makes their nests so delicious. And so with buildings, it seems. A bit of ornamental steel hasn’t done China’s or Herzog de Meuron’s reputations any harm. Nor OMA’s for that matter.

It’s never good to quote Rem Koolhaas too much since repetition might make some of the things he says become true – this quote from Junkspace, for example.

“Minimum is the ultimate ornament, a self-righteous crime, the contemporary Baroque. It does not signify beauty, but guilt. Its demonstrative earnestness drives whole civilizations in the welcoming arms of camp and kitsch. Ostensibly a relief from constant sensorial onslaught, minimum is maximum in drag, a stealth laundering of luxury: the stricter the lines, the more irresistible the seductions. Its role is not to approximate the sublime, but to minimize the shame of consumption, drain embarassment, to lower the higher.”

There’s two versions of this quote. One says “minimum is maximum in drag, a stealth laundering of luxury.” The other says “minimum is … a stealth repression of luxury”. It doesn’t matter which is intended because minimum is just another way to waste money making a building appear as something it is not. Just as buildings are opaque and not transparent, and heavy instead of weightless, buildings are objects constructed from many smaller bits, not carved from plastic white matter. In typical journalist style, RK gets you to agree with something first, and then lulls you into agreeing with what comes next. Having made us suspect minimalism quite rightly, but for the wrong reasons, RK offers us stealth ornament, justified in terms of structure.

In an earlier post, I talked about how, as well as being just one big ornament in itself, how parts of the structure of the CCTV building also ornamental. I used this image to show how some parts of what appears to be the structure, can’t possibly be structural.

Actually, none of what we see is structural. Check out this section.

The main structure of the CCTV is a continuous grid of diagonal steel beams – called a structural diagrid – which cover the whole building. Where the loads are too big, the diagrid is doubled or even quadrupled. In addition to this structure there is a orthogonal structure which consists of vertical load-bearing columns and horizontal perimeter edge beams. These two grids penetrate the concrete slab at a certain distance from the façade. The diagrid is repeated on the outside where it holds the windows in place – this is actually what we see from the outside.

The box beams inside the building are the bits that, together with the columns and horizontal beams, are doing all the work. On the facade, decorative channel beams generally indicate the positions of these box beams, except for some joke places where they don’t. What is one to make of all this? At first I thought it was no worse than Ludwig Mies’ non-structural I-beams on the Seagram Building.

But it is. The Seagram Building’s non-structural I-beams are not pretending to be structural, although I imagine they keep the glazing frames rather rigid. With Seagram we have a structural element used as ornament, divorced from any meaningful structural role. One could argue that every part of a building is structural in the sense that it at least supports itself but, with CCTV, what we have is a decorative structure that tells us where the actually functioning structure is but even this is not telling the full truth. As well as parts of that virtual structure being playfully missing, the bits of it that we see are only the diagonal beams – the equally important load bearing columns and horizontal perimeter edge beams are not part of the story of this building’s struggle to stand up. What we see is “based on a true story” rather than the truth.

I’m not trying to make a case for some new kind of structural purism or some revival of “honesty” of structural expression. The whole concept of structural “expression” is dishonest anyway. As soon as it became less expensive to hide it, out it came and expression had little to do with it. The inside of CCTV is all about the structure (as it has to be) yet the outside is all about the expression of a structure. To put it another way, the structure is being expressed, but it requires another structure to do it. It’s a strange world, this world of architecture.

It seems that architects are programmed to do things “for effect”. Exceptions are rare, but here’s one. It’s easy to make a high-cost house but, here, the idea was to make a low-cost house. Much thought and skill has gone into it. Misfits salutes H Arquitectes.

This clarity of thought can also be seen in some of their other buildings where the only ornament results from the process of construction. See how these timbers turn the corner? See how evenly the nails are spaced? Somebody has thought about the construction and, with no use of extra materials, made it into a thing of beauty. I think this might be a core principle of The New Architecture of Austerity.


  • You might want to have a look at, a lecture by Marc Simmons (Front), a consultant on the CCTV facade, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He begins talking about the CCTV facade at 16:25. The entire facade steel grid is a blast resistant security shield, a meta-representation of the beefier structural steel within. Over built? It’s China, and the Ministry of Truth is extremely paranoid.

    • Thanks for that Jim,

      It was extremely interesting, especially about the blast shield. Knowing that now, I can see why it’s best to keep the blast shield at a distance from the primary (diagonal) structural elements. I was a bit confused about the curtain walling though. At first the building was going to have a conventional curtain wall and no blast shield but then having the blast shield solved the problem of conventional curtain walling not being possible anyway (because of how each other floor would move during an earthquake). It all now seems like a rational solution – inasmuch as a solution necessitated by such an irrational set of circumstances can be rational.

      My best information on this project had been an article reporting an interview with Chris Carroll of Arup. It did mention something about terrorism.

      Arup has made a structure with a high degree of redundancy. Carroll says: “The authorities specified that you could blow the corner columns out from under the armpits, for want of a better expression, and the cantilever wouldn’t collapse progressively.” But Arup took no chances and proved the loads could be redistributed even if a three-column failure took place in this area. The authorities weren’t concerned about an attack on the building, despite the proposal being made months after 9/11, because they said China “doesn’t suffer from terrorism”.

      Conflicting information is just part of the media-scape we live in. We have to mix it all together and make our own sense out of it somehow. Getting information from a variety of sources seems to be the best approach. Here’s another quote from the same article.

      An unfolded elevational diagram was sent back and forth between Arup and OMA, mapping various investigations until the best solution was found. This dialogue produced some interesting results: for example, the highly unusual appearance where lines of the diagrid appear to be broken. Here, unreadable on the facade, the floor plates make the triangulation. This was mostly the result of the optimisation process, but OMA included one or two as moments of architectural playfulness.

      It’s because of this last sentence that I thought the external diagrid was decorative. We can see two of these “breaks” in the first image shown in the video. Now, these apparent “breaks” could have been produced by adding redundant exterior elements but “Here, unreadable on the facade, the floor plates make the triangulation” seems to contradict that. It also implies that interior diagonal elements (as well as external diagonal elements) aren’t needed. Anyway I hope that’s the case. The other possibility is that the architects playfully removed the blast shield from some structural elements …

      You see what I mean? Anyway Jim, thanks again – I appreciate it.

  • says:

    “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And, contrary-wise, what it is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would.” Alice from Alice in wonderland..

    This is the only thing I can think of when I see most of the buildings of Architects like Rem Khoolas or Zaha Hadid. it’s like they’re living Alice’s role without considering the ending.. this childish and inconsiderable way of thinking for the environment and resources is going to end one day in a really bad way.. The problems is that the clients are working as the supporting roles in this ‘modernism’ movie. 100 years later people aren’t gonna praise these structural wonders, because unlike the Pyramids or the Colosseum, these buildings are draining the environment energy by the day.

    Really liked this Mr. Graham, respect.