Increasingly, it seems to me, the world of architectural production is influenced by two forces only: the forces that try to make buildings more expensive, and the forces that try to make buildings less expensive. Obviously, the former produces buildings that are testimony to clients’ power, wealth and sophistication. This is all about branding and the rules of the game haven’t changed very much whether the client is a pharaoh, king, ruler, dictator, despot, government or corporation. Much of architectural history is the chronology of new ways to make buildings more expensive.
New ways to make buildings less expensive don’t feature all that much in the history of architecture and, in a way, this is understandable. There is no history of vernacular architecture because none of its solutions are new. In general, maximum performance is already being extracted from the resources it uses. For a short while in the early twentieth century, the desire to solve architectural problems in less expensive ways became a part of mainstream architecture and was known as functional rationalism, rationalism, or as modernism until the word became exclusively associated with certain stylistic affectations.
That was the only time in the history of architecture that the forces for making buildings less expensive were ever considered a worthy agenda for architecture. It did not last for long. Those (such as, ohh, Johnson & Hitchcock, Charles Jencks, Patrik Schumacher, etc.) who discredit functional rationalism are really arguing for an elitist and expensive architecture and, by and large, they’ve been successful at achieving it for this is exactly what we have.
This post lists some of the forces that tend to make buildings made more expensive and contrasts them with their opposite ways that make buildings less expensive. There’s a strong correlation between expensive buildings and the amount of architectural/media noise they make.
I’ll keep returning to Apple’s Fifth Avenue Store (designed by Bohlin, Cywinski Jackson in case you didn’t know) with Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House. Both of these are exceptional buildings. I choose the Apple Fifth Avenue Store because it is an expensive building that tells the truth about expensive architecture (all too clearly for some), and I choose Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House because it’s an inexpensive building that tells the truth about inexpensive architecture. It is the first building for 60-odd years to even attempt to reset the agenda for architecture. Again, it tells its truth all too clearly for some.
Expensive Materials vs. Inexpensive Materials
Let’s start with an easy one. There have always been expensive materials and there have always been inexpensive materials. The use of expensive materials is no guarantee of architectural quality but, despite supply and demand changes over the centuries, using expensive materials is still a reliable way of making a building more expensive.
The Apple Store uses fifteen rather large panes of glass held together by mysterious compounds. The 32 foot-square cube (95m2) cost $6.7 mil. and may well be the most expensive building in the world at $70,526 per sqm.
The Lapatie House uses inexpensive materials to provide the largest possible amount of enclosed space. Its 185 m2 cost €55,275 (= $70,649). In other words, a Lapatie House costs the price of one square metre of an Apple Store (entrance).
Occasionally, architects feel shame about the use of expensive materials. Stung by criticism of his choice of titanium as the cladding for the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry said that there had been a dip in the price that made its use possible.
because of its value of color, texture and its capability of reflecting the light. At the same time titanium was valued because of its extraordinary mechanical capabilities and resistance to corrosion. Since the location of the museum is right next to the Puente de la Salve Bridge, the low reflection of light was very important not to endanger the motorists with sun glare. But also one of the factors that made them decide to use titanium was that at that time titanium was very cheap if it was bought from Russia. After all, titanium also proved to be much lighter than stainless steel that had originally been specified. In thin sheets of only 0.38 mm, titanium reveals plastic values that allow it to adapt easily and flexibly to the complex surfaces of this radical design. The thin sheets of titanium also give the building a rippled effect that even flutters in the wind.
This is an important issue. It is being argued that titanium is inexpensive and has many other mechanical capabilities and corrosion resistance compared with stainless steel! Basically, if one wants to clad a contorted steel structure in metal then titanium is a sensible choice. But why would one want to do that?
Natural vs. Artificial
This one has run and run. Until buildings are made out of self-replicating carbon compounds, they will never be natural objects and efforts to make them look natural will continue to consume vast amounts of architectural and financial resources. Of course, this is the point. I won’t discuss “organic architecture”, Art Nouveau, biomorphic architecture, fractal architecture or eco-tech architecture. Instead, I’ll continue to use the example of Bilbao Guggenheim. Here’s a PhD paper titled “Computers, Cladding, and Curves: The Techno-Morphism of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain” and the final paragraph of the abstract.
I demonstrate that the Guggenheim Bilbao is a new style—Techno-Morphism—a term I have coined. Since the museum is both formed and informed by e-technology, technomorphism is also a process. This process is due to Gehry’s employment of CATIA, a multi-faceted aeronautic software which includes CAD (Computer Aided Drafting), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), and CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) capabilities. This highly sophisticated software streamlined the processes Gehry needed to produce more “artistic” buildings, while being cost effective. I have also demonstrated that Gehry’s use of CATIA for design and construction finalized the mechanized industrial age, prevalent in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The author speaks of the mechanized industrial age but let’s not forget that Gehry is making use of these technological advances to make flower and wave shapes. I see no difference between that an Victor Horta’s vegetal iron columns in Hotel Tassel
or even his steampunk Hotel Solvay both exactly 100 years prior.
It’s worth remembering that Gehry’s use of technology is not in order to make an staggeringly expensive building ($86 mil?) only slightly less staggeringly expensive. We’re not talking about social housing. Or even about a prototype new process for designing and constructing buildings in general. Like say, this, by Herreros Arquitectos.
Prototypes abound, but it remains to be seen whether this particular idea will transfer to land less picturesque.
Buildings featuring flat surfaces and right angles are not where architecture seems to be at. This is because of how architecture is defined. Cutting edge architecture, by definition, goes in new directions in its endless quest to go in new directions and produce cutting edge architecture. It’s nothing more. Like Art, it adds abstract value to raw materials. I view the whole Parametricism thing in these terms.
Superfluous vs. Necessary
This is another historical constant. The excessive and conspicuous usage/waste of money and resources has not gone away and is not going to go away in a hurry.
I’m assuming the Lapaties actually wanted a house to live in full-time instead of a weekend house or summer house.
And here’s what it looked like after its ‘renovation’.
To me, this looks like a rebuilding, not a renovation. The entire thing was replaced. To call it a renovation is disingenuous. Especially when it was at a cost nearly equal to the original. This conspicuous and unnecessary expenditure is what architecture’s all about and, for many, this particular building comes too close to spilling the beans. It takes a lot of money to make a building appear invisible. Twice. An impossible goal, this one will run and run. The true agenda is the display of wealth, not aesthetic perfection. Mies was a lightweight.
Precision vs. Imprecision
I could go on about the Lapatie House again and I could use the Apple Store again. Presumably, those bits of glass don’t let the rain and wind in. But let’s continue with Apple inc. and have a look at its new headquarters – yes, that one. Project_Description_Submittal7
Here’s a parking level – just for the hell of it.
Check these out. They’re sure shading the hell out of that glass – not on all “sides” of the donut I hope. I woninder how they solved the curved “axis” of rotation thing? This drawing is probably a lie. The awnings probably may be curved on their outer edges but their axis of rotation is probably linear and faceted. A contrived and expensive solution on the south side and a contrived, expensive and useless solution for the east and west.
This building is at 37°N and so large looping layered louvres are totally unnecessary. In the same vein, those PVs on the roof might be more productive if they all angled 22.5° south instead of north. The desire to be seen to be like Apple has brought out the worst in F+P. The building is trying to be a smartphone.
Anyway, since 2011, the budget for Apple’s Campus 2 has ballooned from less than $3 billion to nearly $5 billion, according to five people close to the project who were not authorised to speak on the record. If their consensus estimate is accurate, Apple’s expansion would eclipse the $3.9 billion being spent on the new World Trade Center complex in New York, and the new office space would run more than $1,500 per square foot—three times the cost of many top-of-the-line downtown corporate towers. — businessweek.com
$1,500 per square foot is less than 25% of the $6,543 per square foot of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store (entrance). But all these matters are just questions of style over substance and par for the course. In the light of what I wrote above, I find none of it surprising.
What really intrigues me about this building is what some of that money is being spent on.
What we are witnessing here is the development of a new way to throw money at a building. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the cutting-edge equivalent of, oh, this
or even this.
Check out those primitive joints – you can fit your hand in them!
Selling precision and visual simplicity as design is what Foster+Partners and Apple are good at. The new Apple headquarters is a monument to branding strategy synergy.