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Quick Question

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Q: How can I make my building different?

A: Just take a piece of landscape and put something that looks different in it – it’s quite easy really. See?

Hans Hollein, Highrise Building, Sparkplug, project, 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Erm, that’s not quite what I meant.

Huh – why not? This looks different on all levels – it’s got a different colour, pattern and shape than the landscape, it’s position and alignment don’t relate to the landscape at all,  and it’s size certainly makes it stand out. And not only that, we can also think of it as different. It’s colour, pattern and shape are also very errr … what’s the word? … artificial!

But it’s not a building – it’s a sparkplug!

I know, but we have buildings that pretend they are mountains, flowers, binoculars, birds – I could go on. In fact, in recent history, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s preferable for buildings to look like anything EXCEPT a building!

In the end, it’s just a surreal collage and I don’t think I even like it as art.

Me too – I’ve always preferred this one.

Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, project, 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

This “structure” is very different again. It looks different in all the basic ways, and we can also think of it as artificial in most of those ways.

Why “most”?

Well, it’s an artificial object in a landscape as far as its surface characteristics are concerned.  However, when we think of an aircraft carrier, we usually imagine its position as being on an ocean amongst waves. In this image, the wavy hills make the aircraft carrier seem more “at home” – or at least less out of place than the spark plug was. It seems more united with its surroundings. It’s one less level of surreal juxtaposition.


Well, the aircraft carrier seems like it fits its position quite well – unlike this building that seems very out of place, even though it may even look like some of the ships nearby. 

That’s because it’s a ship.


OK. I get it. It’s easy to be different then – just make your building look different and load it with ideas that make it seem different as well. Like, say, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

Please – it’s the year 2012 now. Everything that can possibly be said about that building has been said about it, except perhaps about its dark side and its darker side. Otherwise, let’s not mention that building ever again!

OK OK, then like, say, Arthur Erickson’s Lethbridge University?


Yes, like that. That’s all you have to do to look different, if that’s what you want.

And if my site’s in a city with lots of buildings around it?

Then make your building look natural. It’s still the same principle at work.

Suberstructure above Vienna, 1960
Collage, Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris


  • says:

    ahh. Where is my copy of Christian Norbert-Schulz’s Genius loci when I need it?

    great blog btw

  • I think we should answer with another question; why would you wanna make your building look different?

    • Yes. If you put a building in a natural landscape, then you don’t even have to try to make it look different because buildings are er … built objects, not natural ones. I think that one good thing about Modernism was that it made it okay for buildings to show they are not natural objects. Like Antonio Sant’elia said in 1914 (before Le Corbusier – and before Modernism, come to think of it), “the Futurist house will be like a machine”.

      Trying to make a building look different in a city is quite difficult however as, say, we’ve already worked out that columns and slabs are a fairly practical way to build buildings and that only very wealthy clients (e.g. CCTV building) can afford to mess around with these bits if they want their building to look really different. For most clients and architects, all they can afford to do is make the cladding a bit fancy. The results are usually miserable. But still, if you build enough buildings like this, they all start to look the same anyway so once again, it’s pointless to want to try to make your building look different.

      But trying to make buildings look the same is equally bad, especially if a building is in 1) a historical environment, or 2) a natural environment. Both are false. It’s a far better idea to try to start a design from something that is known to work, and to try to improve it.