Retrofitting Architectural Concepts

Confession Time. Some years ago, I used to work for a large multidisciplinary company as their staff writer, their architectural editor, as it were. My primary task was to write about that company’s buildings as architecture because this was something that had never been done before. The premise of the job was that if buildings are written about as architecture, people will think of them as architecture. There’s truth in that. It’s basically the process by which architectural history is written.

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In the global marketplace, Atkins has been responsible for many buildings that look and seem different from any other. Some of them also have a certain quality that makes them seem appropriate for where they are, and some of those also have a certain quality that makes us question the nature of what a building can be. The word ‘iconic’ was used to refer to buildings having this combination of qualities that clients and cities around the world came to request. Now we can look back, all such buildings ever did was press four buttons simultaneously – or at least their shapes did. 1) They looked different from anything around them, 2) they seemed different from anything we’d ever seen or known, 3) they seemed to allude to something local, and 4) they seemed to be something that wasn’t a building.

Many designers learnt how to fudge an iconic building by seemingly deriving building shapes, plans or elevations from the local geography, flora, fauna or culture. Doing this meant that the building usually managed to look different, resonate locally, and also appear to be something that wasn’t a building. However, to do this in a way that was truly novel at the same time became almost impossible once the unexpected came to be expected. In the end, this wasn’t such a bad thing as buildings always had attributes other than shape that could be ‘iconic’.

Burj Al Arab came to be known as an iconic building even though it was designed well before the word became popular. No-one seems to have noticed how its positioning satisfies the four criteria for an iconic building just as well, if not more strongly, than its shape ever did. The past ten years have proved its positioning enduring, and more than compensates for any diminishment in novelty its shape may have had over time. Its shape was never the main event. Its position was and still is.

Like a cruise liner parked offshore, Burj Al Arab isn’t associated with any land other than the conceptually separate plinth it rests on. Seen against sea and sky, it could be anywhere along Dubai’s coast – or anywhere else’s – and to much the same effect. This sense of not being tied to any one place is something we don’t associate with buildings. It was novel at the time, and still is. This quality would of course vanish if Burj Al Arab could actually move for it would have actually become a cruise liner and its position could no longer allude to that of one.

But the fact it is parked offshore from a place called Dubai is significant because one thing we know about cruise liners is that they tend to only call at places worth visiting. This simple chain of association is what ‘put Dubai on the map’ and why Burj Al Arab has been such a successful advertisement for Dubai. It’s not a specifically architectural point, but luxury cruise liners parked offshore also tell us that access to them is restricted to those with money and privilege. This chimes with our knowledge that Burj Al Arab is, after all, a luxury hotel. But as architecture, set as it is against sea and sky, Burj Al Arab embodies the Modernist contrast of the artificial object juxtaposed against nature – the one Le Corbusier made so much of in Vers Une Architecture and used an ocean liner to illustrate. This is a very elemental opposition for a building to have, most probably because being artificial is part of the essential nature of buildings. With Burj Al Arab, this elemental opposition combines with its positioning (plus the colour white) to link it not to Modernism but directly to the ocean liners that inspired it. It is a reminder that the inspiration for Modernism lay in machines and engineering, and finds itself outside the history of modern architecture because of it.

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The high-rise buildings used here to illustrate architectural themes in the work of Atkins over the past decade are the work of more than one architect in more than one office. They aren’t presented in chronological order as they are the products of a genuine evolution having more than one branch at any one time. Some of those branches are now extinct. Others may yet turn out to have survived. Others, once dominant, have given way to others more fitted to their environment and, some day, the same will happen to those.

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EXPRESSION OF STRUCTURE

This essay takes 1999 as its starting point. Burj Al Arab is mostly an orthodox structure of core and shear walls but its massive side trusses are responsible for many people thinking of it as engineering rather than architecture. It’s not at all obvious what these trusses do, but the fact people don’t ask, suggests that they do other things to make them seem essential to the building. They do. Throwing money at a building is never a guarantee of beauty but, throughout history, prestige architecture has always displayed an excess, a decadence of something that can take the form of expensive materials and finishes, structural heroics, an extravagant spatial program or excessive size. Burj Al Arab has all of these but none, either alone or in combination, is sufficient to make it architecture. What does make it architecture is that highly-engineered pieces of structure appear to be holding themselves up and little else. In other words, they appear ornamental and very expensive type of ornament at that. As such, they are a novel way of restating the time-honoured agenda of all prestige architecture.

EXPRESSION OF PSEUDO-STRUCTURE

After the success of Burj Al Arab came a series of residential towers that attempted to recreate a visually isolated structure in the same way, but without an equivalent degree of physical isolation. However, once these structures lost the minimal level of integrity afforded by being self-supporting, they became pseudostructures. Indigo Tower is one example. Its central frame has members that are suitably sized and sufficiently braced to seem plausible as a structure, yet it fails to convince. If it is supporting the building, then the exposed columns on its other sides say otherwise. The void surrounding the frame suggests self-support but this is contradicted by the lattice of balconies filling that void. If the virtual trusses of Indigo Tower attempt to convince us of some structural role, then the truss-like elements of Millennium Tower are less convincing as they have a visible spatial agenda. Their only real function is the compositional one of how their contrasting colour and texture visually sandwiches and supports the central block. In this respect at least, they are akin to the trusses of Burj Al Arab.

The white element from which Chelsea Tower’s (2004) accommodation appears to hang, resembles no known structural element but this building remains the most convincing of the group, possibly because its pseudostructure morphs into a real one, or at least a selfsupporting one. Chelsea Tower seems to encapsulate something about Dubai as it  appears in much stock photography.

The ‘twin-fins’ of Goldcrest Views are thicker at their bases and protruding balconies suggests those fins are somehow ‘tied together’, but this is all the evidence there is to even suggest support. Curiously, this building is the most seductive of the group as one can still appreciate it for what it is despite knowing what it isn’t.

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EXPRESSION OF VIRTUAL STRUCTURE

Burj Al Arab remains Atkins’ premier example of structural engineering used for expressive architectural purposes even though the structural prowess itself is only the means to the end. Its uniqueness lies in its size, its position and its decadence of structure – none of which could be reproduced in smaller buildings with less spectacular sites and budgets. Atkins’ volumetric explorations were abandoned after failing to produce a particularly broad range of expression. The main thrust of Atkins’ buildings now, is to engineer entire buildings into architectural expressions about support and this represents the significant evolutionary leap from architectural engineering to engineering architecture.

Pseudo-structures are misleading physical structures but virtual structures are when the logic of how a building is supported appears to be something other than how it actually is. As an example, the box-like elements of TEDA Towers are virtual volumes and ‘building blocks’ in every sense. Slight offsets give the impression of them having been stacked to create the building. Now to stack anything is to acknowledge gravity, to create a stable arrangement, and this is what makes this building an architectural expression of an implied structure. This virtual structuring has nothing to do with the regular matrix of columns and slabs that actually support the building.

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VIRTUAL EXPRESSION OF STRUCTURE

Virtual structure is when a building appears to be supported in some way other than the real structure that is supporting it. Virtual expression of structure is when the expression of what the real structure is doing, is stronger than that of the structural elements themselves. It conveys the spirit of a structure rather than its reality. DIFC Lighthouse Tower has two concrete wedges supporting office floors stabiliSed by central diagonal bracing. It tapers upwards with lessening load and requirement for stiffening. It would be a textbook expression of a structural system were it not for one thing. The structure does what it looks like it’s doing but not in a single-minded way for into the bracing is incorporated a non-directional pattern based on the client logo. This part of the building fabric is a decorative veil by day, and an illuminated advertisement by night. Those who prefer their structural expression ‘pure’ will disapprove as structure is also something other than structural, and that something other is suspiciously like ornament.

DIFC Lighthouse Tower does not fit neatly into Venturi’s classification of buildings as either aesthetic shapes (‘ducks’) or aesthetic surfaces (‘decorated sheds’) for its ornament goes some way to making it the aesthetic object it is. What’s more, even this ornament isn’t purely ornamental as it’s also conveying a message – albeit a single and simple advertisement. Current thinking has it that buildings must extract maximum value from their components by giving them more than one function. What this says about architecture is that there’s more to it than girders.

With Iris Mist, structure is also given something else to do but that something else is to carry an expression of stability as well as the building it was carrying anyway. Shear walls on its long sides are increasingly revealed in the ‘troughs’ of its vertical wave. They appear to be mitigating the imaginary horizontal forces causing that wave. They are immensely gratifying because they change what would otherwise be a disturbing distortion into a controlled show of muscle. A slight flex along their length shows they are doing their work, not neglecting it. Having a structure appear to resist an apparent movement in a building in this way is a statement about why buildings have structures in the first place. We’ve been led to believe that showing a structure is automatically an expression of what that structure is doing but this isn’t so. All that, say, a column expresses is that it is countering forces before they can deform the building. Although there are many buildings in the world that are supported by columns, there aren’t any that appear to be collapsing, and for that collapse to appear to be arrested by swelling columns. Iris Mist shows structural elements in the process of countering a force that is attempting to distort the building horizontally. It is unusual for a tall building to even acknowledge the presence of horizontal forces but it is very rare for a structure to engage with its building in a poetic manner. It is even more surprising that the structure can do this and still remain an orthodox and pragmatic structure.

NON-EXPRESSION OF STRUCTURE

Icon Hotel has the shape of a torus – the only geometric solid, other than a sphere, having no flat surfaces. Around since the time of Plato, it’s a shape that just ‘is’. It doesn’t represent, resonate, indicate or intend. The Icon Hotel’s audacity as a shape comes from a torus being realised as a building rather than in any hyper-inventive shapeism. Some will think it unoriginal because of this but others will think it original precisely because of that. Notwithstanding, the geometric integrity of the torus shape is so strong it discourages speculation about what kind of structure actually makes it into a building.

Icon Hotel’s surface offers few clues. Its actual structure is a story in itself but, suffice it to say, if a building like it were easily realised, it would have been done before. What is important here, is that engineering has been applied to create a shape that appears to exist in Cartesian space outside the realm of physical forces and, ironically, outside the realm of engineering.

Anara Tower shows a similar disregard for the world of physical forces, but does so with a show of brute strength, rather than the Icon Hotel’s structural silence. It rises resolutely vertical for 600 metres before rounding off in that most perfect and non-directional of shapes – the circle. It neither narrows nor tapers as it rises, and acknowledges neither gravity nor its own weight. Its shape and structure resist analogies to plants and spires and the metaphorical baggage of growth, faith and hope they carry. Rather than ‘reaching’, ‘climbing’, or ‘striving’ in Deco-gothic aspiration to greater heights, it simply towers. It may well be the world’s first real, tall building.

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SYNTHESIS

But first it will have to be built. Journalists are already forecasting the demise of tall buildings, citing the destruction of their financial environment as the likely cause. Tall buildings may yet go the way of Gothic cathedrals. We may yet see some sea change of the kind that occurred in the early 20th century after the market for large mansions set in huge country estates disappeared. Then, a ‘new’ architecture stylised thespace, light and air of country estates into the diminished suburban villas that now represented wealth and successfully sold it to the nouveau riche as enlightenment and progress. We shall see.

If tall buildings do continue to exist as a medium for architectural expression, then Atkins’ evolution is likely to continue in any of seven different approaches to structure. To have an architecture of tall buildings based in some way on structure comes as no surprise for all buildings, not just tall ones, must defy the forces that attempt to collapse or overturn them. The only variable is whether this agenda is articulated directly, falsely, indirectly, exaggerated, or not at all.

None of these approaches is unique to Atkins for, as far as expression of structure is concerned, all buildings embody one of them. The word ‘structure’ could in fact be changed to ‘volumes’, ‘function’, ‘sustainability’ or any other attribute architecture can express. However, the fact that this categorisation in terms of structure neatly describes the dominant architectural expression of all of Atkins’ major tall building projects, tells of their approach to tall buildings as architecture.

Most of Atkins’ recent buildings are virtual expressions of structure. Non-expression of structure obviously makes for buildings not rooted in 20th century doctrine and the more recent Atkins’ buildings have taken this approach. Of these few buildings, suppressing the expression of structure to allow a different architectural expression is currently the most advanced. This is mainly because Bahrain World Trade Centre exists.

MOVING ON

Modernism died many deaths. Charles Jencks’ claim that the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe was its death was in fact the death of buildings having any claim to a real social agenda, thereby setting up the conditions for the imaginary agenda of Post-Modernism. Buildings were still built in name of Modernism, but after nine decades of Modernist metaphor, the Bahrain World Trade Centre actually makes a building into a machine. The entire building, not just its turbines, is one huge machine to channel the wind, even-out its speed and convert its energy into electricity. Being a machine means it can’t be a metaphor for one at the same time. Like any machine, it is what it is.

Some look at Bahrain World Trade Centre and see a lack of expressive depth, yet others look at the same building and see a refreshing clarity. Both views reflect the absence of the machine metaphor. In a perfect illustration of how post-Kantian pluralism can explain multiple and conflicting subjective opinions of the same object: Those who say the expression of Bahrain World Trade Centre is (shallow )/(clear) are (protesting)/(applauding) the (abandoning)/(discarding) of the (venerated)/(defunct) machine metaphor and its replacement with something real. Some find it hard to let go.

There are many subjects worthy of architectural expression besides the defiance of gravity, the denial of materiality or creating the illusion of outdoor space and light indoors. Spatially, Bahrain World Trade Centre is about premium office space that finds ready tenants. Environmentally, it is about harnessing wind energy but, architecturally, its surface is about wind velocity. Its relatively orthodox skin on the windward side peels away, as if by the real increase in wind speed, to reveal a frame that in turn reveals a third layer protecting core circulation functions. Using wind to provide up to 15% of a building’s energy requirement is unquestionably virtuous, but making that virtue the subject of architectural expression shows that Atkins has chosen to move on.

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Over the course of a decade, Atkins’ architecture has ceased to use visible structure as the subject of architectural expression. At the same time, its architectural expression has discarded geometric and metaphorical baggage to become more lucid. Burj Al Arab stands at the beginning of that decade as a precursor to Modernism on a path Modernism could have taken but didn’t. It is the missing link between ships, and buildings as metaphors for ships.

At the other end of that decade stands Bahrain World Trade Centre as the first true successor to Modernism. It marks the end of an era of buildings as metaphors for machines and the possible beginning of an era of buildings as real, functioning machines. Together, these two buildings bookend one decade of Atkins’ architectural production and, at the same time, the past nine decades of architectural history.

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