Eames+Chaise

The Things Architects Do #5: Sell, Sell, Sell

Casa+Grande+14_webThis well-coordinated man is lounging in the Chuckie Eames chair La Chaise, designed for a 1948 Museum of Modern Art competition for low-cost mass-produced furniture design. La Chaise didn’t quite cut it as a prototype for low-cost mass produced furniture. Les Chaises did not exist until the 1980s when Vitra began to manufacture them under license. For 30-odd years there was just the one in the Museum of Modern Art.

The Vitra reproduction costs around UK$4,900 or €5,700 or US$8,000. You can buy a scaled-down reproduction for $330 but guess what? At 5 1/2″ x 9 3/4″ x 5 1/2″ IT’S TOO SMALL TO FUCKING SIT IN!  It is an example of design whose primary function is to separate fools from their money.

Vitra-Miniature-Eames-La-Chaise-xl3

But not more so than the full-size one. For a chair

  1. that nobody knew how to manufacture in 1948,
  2. that’s called “La Chaise” ffs,
  3. that knowingly references the name of the French/American sculptor Gaston Lachaise,
  4. that accommodates (like, conceptually, y’know?) his work Floating Woman,
    800px-Gaston_lachaise_floating_figure
    and finally,
  5. that seems to assume the mass market prefers to lounge rather than sit or lay,

I really question the Eames’ SINCERITY when coming up with this design, and also their soundbite that embellishes many a design blog and that can be seen on the splash page of the Greek ek ARCHITECTUREPLUSDESIGN publishing group.

ek group magazines

Villas is a magazine that contains spreads of recently-built luxury villas in Greece, and shows that there are still some people there with money to burn.

The current issue also contains the following article,

Patrik Schumacher: In-Between Theory and Practice
Architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, Director AA Athens Visiting School
Text: Alexandros Kallegias Programme Director of the AA Athens Visiting School

It’s not really an interview but a question and answer session as you never get the impression anyone is talking face-to-face. I’ll just pick over the text, indicating the questioner’s ‘questions’ like this, PS’s delusions, overstatements, generalizations and blatant porkies like this, and my asides and other comments like this

The full text with only minor discrepancies can also be seen at http://www.patrikschumacher.com/Texts/In-Between%20Theory%20and%20Practice.html

Patrik Schumacher studied architecture at the University of Stuttgart and at the Southbank University in London. He completed his architectural diploma and received his degree Dipl Ing from Stuttgart University in 1990. He also studied philosophy at Bonn and London Universities. In 1999, he received his PhD at the Institute for Cultural Sciences at the University of Klagenfurt. He successfully combines teaching and practicing architecture. In his recent theoretical work, he published two volumes on architecture with the title The Autopoeisis of Architecture, in which Parametricism is introduced. As a new architectural style, Parametricism is communicated through Patrik’s professional work and publications as the stylistic architectural heir to Modernism. Patrik shares his ideas of applying this new style in the following interview.

In your recent discussions, Parametricism is described as a mature architectural style which has become more refined and enhanced through computationally advanced design techniques like coding. As it is essential for the contemporary avant-garde design scene to master these techniques, do you foresee dangers for architects getting expended or limited by these computational tools eventuating in banal end-results, lacking parametric originality or architectural values?

The opening question is often a friendly one, as this is. The interviewer first agrees that it is essential for the “avant garde” to master widely-available software, before giving PS the opportunity to answer the question. He doesn’t, but instead suggests that the interviewer consider the freedoms and not the limitations of the new computational tools.  

P.S.: All design is always limited by its tools. The boundaries of what can be represented within our design medium are the boundaries of our design speculation, in effect the boundaries of our discipline. What cannot be represented and operationalized built? within our design media remains outside the designer’s realm of competency. Once this is understood what should strike us with respect to our contemporary situation is not so much its limitations as the extraordinary recent expansion of the boundaries of possible design speculation, an expansion that continues year by year since. In contrast, before the digital design revolution, the discipline’s design speculation was confined within the very narrow confines of the system of ortho-graphic projections that had not changed much in the preceding 500 years.

Hmm. How do you feel about this? First of all, always answer a question with a truth that can’t be argued. People will think what follows is also true. PS’s next statement restates what Sebastiano Serlio stated circa 1545 with respect to the then new invention of orthographic projection. “To draw a building is to design a building.” As SketchUp has shown us, this is not true. It is no more true for any other software. Let me look for an example oh here’s one. 

sketchup-rendering-1

And fuck, it’s being built!

sketchup-rendering-2

Here’s another. It’s drawn – and modelled too – but is it designed?

render-5_front_small

As narrated in your theoretical work, The Autopoeisis of Architecture, architectural styles are best comprehended when they are perceived as design research programmes. In the contemporary post-Fordist society, how do you consider applying this approach in order to enable the avoidance of parametricist taboos? Is there a need to re-think the educational system in architecture?

Post-fordismP.S.: Yes, its time architectural education adapts to the requirements of the new epochal style of parametricism. The more advanced parts of the education system are more like research institutes rather than mere training institutions. This is a necessity in the absence of dedicated/funded public or private research institutes in architecture. The most ambitious/advanced master courses have been important research vehicles for cumulative avant-garde research following the paradigm and heuristics (dogmas and taboos) of parametricism. Its important that this style becomes a hegemonic design research paradigm and global best practice, in terms of methodology and values !?

The last photograph, above, ought to be proof that a parametricism of sorts is already rife in universities. But the interviewer has asked two questions. The first, talking about “parametricist taboos” – whatever they are – is ignored apart from a bracketed comment. This is what makes this article not an interview. Nobody speaks in brackets. But PS is sure of himself with his answer to the second question. 

Only if the better part of a new generation of ambitious architects moves together, in a convergent or at least compatible set of directions can real, impacting progress be made. Revolutionary periods of resetting the research paradigm have to be followed by collective, cumulative research efforts that can effectively work through the new problems and deliver on the new promises.

In the first volume of The Autopoeisis of Architecture, you state that there is no architecture without theory. How does that affect the practice of ZHA? For instance, how is architectural theory being applied in projects like Galaxy Soho in China which has been recently completed?

This question is a another set-up, an open invitation for PS to expound. Having said that, I was interested to know. For those of you who don’t know it, this is Galaxy Soho.  

galaxy soho

It’s four column-and-slab atrium office buildings on a retail podium. Three are substantially similar with only column spacings different. All have the same cores.  

galaxy soho office plan

ZHA is a theoretically reflective practice. The early work was embedded in the theoretically reflective movement and style of deconstructivism. For the last 15 years all our work has been guided by principles and values that I have since 2008 formalized and named as the principles of parametricism. I wonder what ZH would say about this? This also goes for our Galaxy Soho project in Beijing. All elements are parametrically variable, all sub-systems are differentiated and correlated with each other. Curve-linearity !? dominates. However, the Galaxy project also lives up to the ambitions I have more recently formulated with respect to architecture’s communicative function.

Galaxy is our best and largest example for our theory-led attempt to construct legible, navigable, information-rich environments. The theoretical premises that motivate our Galaxy design  – as formulated in my theory of architectural autopoiesis – might be summarized as follows: Especially within Post-Fordist network society (information society, knowledge economy), total social productivity increases with the density of communication. The life process of society is a communication process that is structured by an ever more complex and richly diversified matrix of institutions and communicative situations.  I keep hearing this. I’m not sure it’s true. Or, if it is, whether complexity and diversification for the sake of it are necessarily good things. Plus, it’s a shopping mall. You might want to check this out. ZH had this to say.

“We have created a variety of public spaces that directly engage with the city,” she said, “reinterpreting the traditional urban fabric and contemporary living patterns into a seamless urban landscape”. The interior courts, which swell and swirl as if the product of erosion, are apparently “a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.”

Post-Fordist network society demands that we continuously browse and scan as much of the social world as possible to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must remain networked all the time to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. Telecommunication via mobile devices helps but does not suffice. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. The whole built environment must become an interface of multi-modal communication, and the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today. Our Galaxy project delivers the demanded 360 degree interface of communication.

This is interesting. The Post-Fordist networked society sounds like a wonderful thing. I’m imagining all this awareness and synergetic activity and continuous assessment of the relevance of our own efforts bringing nothing but good for all in the case of, say, a research facility. However, Galaxy Soho is a shopping mall. It doesn’t fulfil the ideal and, what’s more, it doesn’t even represent it. Instead, it uses this new knowledge for ends that are not that much different from the old Fordist ones. A curvy, multi-level shopping mall is still a shopping mall, the likes of which we’ve seen before. 

Dubai-Mall-Fountain-Pano_2326x1046

As you enter the complex hundreds of destinations are unfolded in front of you. The space expands in layers below, above and all around. In all directions there are deep layered vistas that open into further and deeper vistas with every step. This condition exists both in the out-door urban space as well as in the interior spaces which might be described as a multi-level interior urbanism.

Shopping malls are designed to not be straightforward to navigate and also to put as many distractions between you and what you went there to do. Exhibitions, events, performances, rest areas all delay you further. Elevators are there, but only the disabled and parents with strollers know where they are. Escalators are unstacked to force you to pass by more storefronts. Exits are discreet. The basic principle is to trap as many consumers for as long as possible in a labyrinth of spending opportunities. This principle is in direct opposition to the legibility and navigability claimed. Here’s a typical plan (from the ZHA website). All shops are front-serviced after closing. 

Galaxy Soho PlanFirst thing to notice is that there are many elevators. We can’t say how many are mall elevators and how many service the offices above. Similarly, the mall management can commercially optimise the internal circulation by changing the direction of motion of the escalators. Galax Soho may be legible and there may be links all over the place but we can’t assume a person can get to where they want to go by the shortest possible route. Meet the new tyranny of Post-Fordism – an era when, for example, we have the freedom to communicate with anyone anywhere and anytime, but somebody is using that imagined freedom to control us.  

Aesthetic values and the notion of beauty is a crucial part of the ZHA design process. In what manner are those combined with the research agenda of the practice? Do you follow a purely formalistic approach or is there a more elaborate combinatory scheme of performative criteria in your design research?

Another shameless set up. 

My theory of architecture and design distinguishes aesthetic values from performance values. It does indeed. This reflects the discipline’s pervasive discursive operations. Accordingly I identify the discipline’s lead distinction as the distinction of form vs function. In terms of evaluative criteria this translates into the double code of beauty and utility, implying that all designs need to satisfy both aesthetic values and performance values. TAoA V1 first states that function is irrelevant for architecture, and then goes on to say the bit about the double code yet there is always the recourse to utilitarian values when beauty values don’t work. It’s a pick’n’mix approach to architecture. Go here for details.

The design process oscillates between addressing formal (aesthetic) problems and functional (performance) problems. Aesthetic evaluation and the attempt to formally resolve a design is an inevitable and in practice irreducible aspect of design work. However, in the final, reflective analysis aesthetic values must be explicated functionally, i.e. all aesthetic values must in the final analysis be reducible to performance values. Now this is sensational! It the first time I’ve read or heard this. It represents a softening of his stance as it appears in TAoA. PS seems to be saying that aesthetic values are a function oI performance values but that can’t be true (for him). It goes against everything I’ve come to expect of the man. I can’t believe he means this, for it would endorse the beauty and intelligence of vernacular architecture and other architecture without architects, something that PS claims is impossible. I’m not too worried about this apparent contradiction. These performance values – whatever they are –  will turn out to be very slippery things.

My theoretical reduction runs roughly as follows: The aesthetic value affords the quick, intuitive identification of the performative. Aesthetic values  –  to the extent that they are historically well adapted  –  facilitate quick, intuitive decision making, both for designers making design decisions and for users making decisions about which space to enter. Whoa! This is an attempt to conflate aesthetic values and styles, or – to cut through the bullshit – beauty and Parametricism. Cheeky bugger! The recognition of the beautiful is the instant, perceptual recognition of the vital, the functional, identified on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to a more in-depth experience and verification of the entity’s functionality. I don’t understand why PS feels the need to say that functional has its own instantly recognisable beauty. We know it does. Therefore, the category of beauty cannot simply be opposed to rationality. This, surprisingly, is logical.

  1. Everything functional is beautiful.
  2. This is beautiful.
  3. Therefore, this is functional.

The problem is who says what’s beautiful? And on what grounds? This is really what all this is about. In our modern world of media and marketing, whoever shouts the loudest gets to say what beauty is. Being attracted to beauty is not per se irrational. The discrimination of beauty vs ugly IS a culturally refined instantiation of the fundamental biological mechanism of attraction and repulsion: organisms are attracted to what serves their survival and reproduction and repulsed by what impairs their survival and reproduction. It has been proven that men and women, when hypothetically picking a person with whom to mate, show a preference for faces with symmetrical features. The question is, is this actually relevant to buildings. IS IT a culturally refined instantiation of the symmetrical face fuck factor? Does it have anything at all to do with buildings? Does anybody know? No? Then let’s say so anyway! Aesthetic sensibility is a constant, universal feature of all human behaviour and action. Some of its aspects might be hardwired by biological evolution (order vs chaos), other aspects are culturally evolved and imparted, yet other aspects might be based on individual conditioning. Think of your own example to disprove the first statement. You only need one. The remainder says everything and nothing.

All of this implies that aesthetic appeal can be subjected to rational analysis and criticism. We cannot trust our sensibilities blindly. They need to be subjected to a critique that queries their historical pertinence. For instance, I can demonstrate by rational argument that a Classical or Modernist/Minimalist sensibility is impairing the subject’s capacity to fully participate in the most advanced, vital and productive of today’s life processes. It’s amusing then, to see Mr. Future getting very tribal at the very fundamental and primitive level of “I believe this” – “They don’t.” – “Therefore, I am better than them.” In passing, I suspect this is the cause of all the world’s problems. Historical pertinence should be questioned, I agree, but so too should contemporary impertinence. Thesis 3: (A o A, THESIS 17, section 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values)

Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. One could say the same about fashion. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution. Aesthetic values must be revolutionised if societal conditions or technological opportunities change. This is one to ponder. I agree that changes in social or technological circumstances do alter our perceptions of what’s beautiful (in buildings) 

Clients vote with their commissions. Here, the decisions of clients are being presented as proof of aesthetic worth, without any evidence of the two being linked. This rings false since, none other than PS himself has said that clients just stump up the money without having any say in what they get. See back to this earlier post dealing with just this topic. 

“The avant-garde turns his/her commission into a vehicle of research, resulting in a built experiment or built manifesto. 

Architectural  principles, values and criteria of architectural progress dominate over the idiosyncratic interests of the particular client. 

To this extent the avant-garde has to exploit the client’s resources for purposes that lie beyond the client’s narrow, private interest.”

(Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol. 1, p134)

Users vote with feet. huh? The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values is a matter of theoretical reflection, often trigger after the crisis; for instance the crisis of historicism after WW1 or the crisis of modernism in the 1970s. The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values cannot take place in the heat of =) the design process – nor in the heat of the on-going life process. That’s why we must be aesthetically sensitive. Aesthetic evaluation cannot be altogether eliminated and replaced by theoretical analysis and rational argument. heh heh Argument and analysis can only confirm a general, operational programme for the application of the code values beautiful and ugly. These programmes are familiar to us: they are the styles uh-oh to which we are committed, and to which we must be  – at any time  – committed, as potent designers, discriminating clients and productive users.

That was quite the response. What was the question again? “Aesthetic values and the notion of beauty is a crucial part of the ZHA design process. In what manner are those combined with the research agenda of the practice? Do you follow a purely formalistic approach or is there a more elaborate combinatory scheme of performative criteria in your design research?” All clear now? I don’t remember there being much about performative criteria. W/e. Home stretch now. 

Considering how you combine teaching and theorising with practice, the projects completed in ZHA depict a successful exemplary method of performing architecture as a system of communications. [dearie me!] To what extent would you say that this has affected the industrialised civilisation of the building business?

Our impact on the world of construction and the global built environment has been marginal up to now. However, mainstream impact is the aim and raison d’etre of all avant-garde efforts to innovate.  Is it even possible to have a mainstream avant-garde? Won’t there come a time where avant-garde becomes ‘The Establishment’? It seems like it it’s already happened. Just as nothing could be more modern than Modern and Post-Modern had to be invented, will we have to have a Post Avant-garde someday? I think parametricism is a very strong global avant-garde movement that will eventually have a huge, transformative impact, like modernism had in the 20th century. Parametricism offers compelling advantages with respect to the challenges of post-Fordist socio-economic restructuring and the ecological challenge. !!!! I am confident that these advantages will become more and more evident, with each new project.

dezeen_galaxy-soho-by-zaha-hadid_ss_6

zaha hadid miamirussian villa
zaha hadid high linezaha-hadid-heydar-aliyev-center-baku-azerbaijan-designboom01

5 thoughts on “The Things Architects Do #5: Sell, Sell, Sell

  1. Jonathan Strauss

    the planning and architecture at EUR is worth understanding and evaluating
    it goes to show that the Romans knew how to make the grand public space work, and that the lessons learnt in Empire could be translated by the Fascists.
    work could be the setting up of the market or being able to Cesar orchestrating the masses
    fascist modern rationalism_much maligned and little understood

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      totally agree Jonathan. even up north, the casa del fascio definitely functions as part of a grand public space that works. check out the lines of men in uniform. impressive and scary and pure theatre.

      The Casa del Fascio in its heyday.

      of course these days, the application of space and architecture to control and coerce people finds more application in shopping malls than it does in the political arena – which, in one move, brings us back to Galaxy Soho.

      these days there’s not much difference between commerce and politics, in China or anywhere else. after the huge and embarrassing failure of the New South China Mall perhaps Galaxy Soho desperately needed to be a success for political reasons after all. basically, it’s propaganda.

      Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Looks like parabolas to me. But New Norcia – who’d have thought? The cathedral immediately made me think of Niemeyer and those crassly ‘expressive’ concrete shapes that were so popular in the 50’s. But that’s me just seeing the Niemeyer in Nervi rather than the other way around. I never knew they went back such a long way. I can see it now. But I’ve got a soft spot for Rationalism – as long as it’s rational. If there’s any to be found in New Norcia, it’s probably going to be in the monastery itself. I’d love to see plans and elevations of those.

      I followed up on Marcello Piacentini, who was mentioned in the essay, and particularly the Palazzo dell’acqua e delle luce he involved Nervi on. It was a good call to have him on the team.

      pannello037palazzodella

      I quite admire Piacentini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, especially knowing it was completed in 1940. It probably has a place in the PreHistory of PostModernism.

      Civiltitaliana

      Reply

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