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Architecture Myths #16: Memes

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Over at spacelab‘s imho, Luca Silenzi posted some ideas on why our brightest and best seem to keep coming up with the same ideas. He proposed the concept of architectural memes.


Two examples he used to illustrate the concept were the pixellated building and the mountain building. OMA’s 2009 Stadskantoor building is an example of a pixellated building,


as is MVRDV’s 2009 DnB NOR Headquarters building.


MVRDV’s 2011 Future Towers proposal for Pune in India is an example of a mountain building.


Though Silenzi used the example of BIG’s 2008 Vilnius World Trade Centre, the leftmost building [“Savalan” ref. p167 YES IS MORE] from BIG’s 2009 Zira Island Masterplan is screaming out to be compared.


Silenzi sees the large amount of staff crossover between starchitect offices as one of the main carriers of these cultural ideas, symbols and practices. People like to liken this process to cross pollination but architectural offices aren’t isolated by oceans waiting for new ideas to arrive like Frank Lloyd Wright with the Wasmuth Portfolio. The production of architectural imagery is no less global than its consumption. Silenzi acknowledges the email internetty thing.

“Today, now that ideas and information can travel from one brain to another instantaneously through the Internet—somewhat akin to how viruses can be spread by intercontinental flights—memes have a much greater ability to move around and take root. And so it is with architecture as well. Indeed, it is clear that some architectural solutions work better on a global scale than others, at least in the minds of designers, or contractors, or competition juries, and therefore they “replicate” themselves.”

Over on Notes On How To Be A Famous Architect, Conrad Newel also notes that incestuous staff movement does

spread a certain culture with its own set of values, procedures and norms that are accepted globally within these firms.

This does indeed happen – at least with the middle-ranking staff who know the system and how to motivate the minions.

Now. A great deal of starchitect office endeavour does indeed involve the production of novel imagery and getting it out there but these same offices are actually involved in the messy process of producing ideas for buildings that keep the fees coming in. If there are similarities in the outward appearance of buildings from different authors and for different clients, then it must in part be because these new forms work on some fundamental yet unacknowledgeable level. Why, I’ll get to later. I agree with the meme thesis in that something of cultural value has been transmitted and found fertile ground elsewhere. But what is this cultural value? And for what “culture”?

My only major doubt regarding Silenzi’s thesis is that he sees cultural value in the architectural imagery itself, and the target culture as the consumers of that imagery. I’m not saying this isn’t case, I’m just wondering if it is a good thing.

When I say these new forms “work”, all I mean is that they satisfy:

  1. some basic client requirements regarding product spec and return-on-investment,
  2. the architects’ desire to generate some new content, and
  3. our dubious need to be delighted by such new content.

It’s only the first condition that interests me because it’s never acknowledged, even though it’s nothing to be ashamed of – unless, of course, one is presenting themselves as either an intellectual or an artist. If one wants to present oneself as an intellectual or an artist, then being seen to produce buildings that actually give value for money is a definite no-no. This will be my conclusion.

The history of architecture has many exceptional buildings. THEY’RE EXCEPTIONS! Does this need saying? YES, IT DOES. As a general rule, if a building gets built – especially for a property developer – then it’s because the numbers add up. It’s this aspect of building that I’d like to bring back into – pardon my language – “architectural discourse”. I’ll deal with pixellated buildings first. All tend to play the “miniature city” angle. MVRDV’s 2011 ill-judged “The Cloud” is the most infamous of the pixellated buildings, but it does illustrate some points nicely.


The main design feature is upscaled corbeling and I imagine that as soon as engineers understood how to design such a structural system, it quickly opened up design possibilities for architects everywhere to explore. The structural principles are thus the meme, not the characteristic forms they produce. Repeating basically identical building elements always has a positive effect on budgets and a degree of apparent randomness in the arrangement of those units makes a building look less pragmatic and assists marketing. Win win. Corbeling is essentially cantilevers upon cantilevers and was traditionally performed to support an enlarged floorspace above.


Since these days one isn’t generally allowed to build on or over land one doesn’t own, the contemporary rationale for extreme corbeling is more “public space” at ground level. But just as it was in Tudor times, it’s still possible to support more floorplate on the same foundations. It makes sense. This good idea is countered however by the disadvantage of more of that floorspace being further away from natural light, making it unsuitable for office leasing or apartment planning. MVRDV’s non-solution was to open a few holes and let some light in.


Converting the volume thus gain into a value-attractor space would have been self-defeating as the cost of building that space was unlikely to have been compensated for by any value it may have added to the spaces around it or the building as a whole. MVRDV has past form of such shenanigans.

A similar light and distance problem occurs with BIG’s 2006 pseudo-ingenious pixellated mountain building variant, LEGO Towers. If the built reality is not to have value-subtracted spaces like MVRDV’s above, then it’s really really going to need that inbuilt illumination we see here.


In the all-too-real psycho-reality of mass media this matters not one bit. However, the history of architecture is a parade of buildings that got built because the numbers stacked up. Mountain buildings stack up.

  • Their double-loaded apartment corridors mean these buildings are basically painted on a site plan with a 20-22m wide brush.
  • Apartment variations are limited to internal corners. 120° angles at those internal corners means none of the overlooking problems inherent in a rectangular grid.
  • The hexagonal site geometry is harsh, but at least it’s not right angles. The above site plan reminds me of this next, except it’s the building that’s flat and the landscape that’s undulating. See how far we’ve come since nineteen seventy one.
  • The height variation of mountain buildings makes the hexagonal grid marketably mountainesque … almost Romantic.
  • The highest point of the mountain is the ideal position for central access and vertical circulation.
  • Unencloseable rooftop space can be marketed as private terraces attracting a greater premium than rooftop communal space ever would. IT MAKES ECONOMIC SENSE TO TERRACE THE ROOFTOP AND MONETISE IT. “Mountains” don’t just happen by accident or because of designer whim. These buildings make sense!
  • Terraces may monetise the rooftop but, although it’s not clear from the schematic above, our mountain slopes at constant angles in all directions so that no more rooftop is wasted on sub-premium space than absolutely necessary. Future Towers is quite a ruthless building.
  • The site boundary truncates the wings to produce the value-added variations shown in the marketing video further down.
  • Mountains don’t generally do an anti-gravity thing, even if public amenity space is at stake. The heavily truncated lower levels visible in the schematic above were never going to last. I’m not sure if the faux fauna will satisfy any biophilic urges

but it just may.

asdf pasod ifpaods.jpg
  • What I particularly like about MVRDV’s Future Towers are the efforts taken to ensure the bathrooms and kitchens are naturally ventilated via vertical airshafts. You have to put the following images together in your head to work that out though. This is a useful idea worth communicating. MVRDV! If you actually did the detailed design, we’d just like to say it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be shy! Show us more! 

The actual experience is more like this – 56m2 one-bedroom apartments you can find anywhere and probably better done. Given there’s no place to eat, I think the kitchen is oversized. On the plus side, you can watch TV while showering or shitting. This plan is plain nasty. It’s everything you expect and nothing more. Is this you MVRDV?


My point is that if anything’s a meme, it’s a 600 sq.ft apartment offering value for money for sellers, if not buyers. More plans here. 


• • •

I don’t mean to be critical of this meme thing but it’s hiding the more important and interesting stuff. The mountain building “concept” is Pruitt-Igoe for the 2010s.

But whether the meme is acknowledged or not, Misfits is glad architects are starting to refine the okay ideas that have a chance of working instead of the spectacular ones that never will. Misfits understands this may just be a sign of economic desperation and a “Fuck-plaigiarmsm!” attitude towards winning commissions.

Nevertheless, whatever the driver, Misfits applauds any effort spent trying to improve buildings. Their only wish is that the better-known practices could publicly acknowledge the skill and ruthlessness that went into designing these buildings to the satisfaction of a property developer. Sadly, they accept that that’s never going to happen for that would risk a practice being seen as commercial rather than as “intellectual” or “artistic”.

• • •

 Here’s an image from MVRDV’s “research” arm, The Why Factory.

the why factory project: new leisure landscapes by mick van gemert and tanya martinez the death of leisure city/ graduation lab

Is this a meme? Possibly. Liking it? Good. Are you a property developer? If you want the maximum number of hotel rooms having a view of the ocean, or a maximum number of apartments having a view of anything, then this elevation is what you get.


Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the mesa meme.



  • Dear Graham

    You recent blog confirms my belief that architects live in some sort of weird parallel universe. Apart from the Tudor buildings, every image in your blog, real or imaginary, seem to be from nightmares. From my experience in such places, it’s in schools of architecture where the innocent are re-programmed to think this infantile shit has any value except to make people ‘look at me.’

    I hope you have a Happy Christmas


    • Thanks Malcolm,

      I fear you are right. That realisation is reflected in my post today. It’s not because architects are stupid or misguided. It’s because what they do is good enough to sustain some sort of system that I’m only just beginning to understand. It does make people “look at me” and, though I might protest, the fruits of that system do their job very well. It’s a downward spiral when people crave the things that are bad for them.

      From my direct experience and from reports I receive from other countries, schools of architecture do indeed play a role in this system and, although it is not a healthy one in my opinion, it is a self-perpetuating one in that it does tend to place famous architects on a pedestal. Previous generations set this system in place and, like with many other aspects of society, today’s accessibility of imagery has pimped it into something truly monstrous. To receive ideas from other places is good, but there’s too much oxygen in the air. I don’t know where it’s going. It’s an unsustainable situation.

      There’s some positive signs. BIG, for example, is responsible for some of the more outlandish proposals in current architectural media history (the last five years?) but they are at least putting the economics of property development back into an architectural agenda. True, they’re on the side of the property developers but then, architects always were. MVRDV may downplay it, but at least they recognise a property development meme that works. As for the imagery, the client probably just leaves them to get on with it. Even the loutish Zaha Hadid Architects are saying they’re designing a zero net energy building. Value-for-money, logical configuration and energy performance are creeping back into the architectural agenda. When the big boys (and girl) start doing it – presumably to maintain competitiveness, let’s be real – then there’s a glimmer of hope that sometime in the future we might get buildings that are good for us and where we live.

      My best and brightest hopes for the future have come from schools of architecture. Not everyone is convinced that the situation we now look upon in horror at is a) good or b) what building buildings should be about. I was thinking of changing the name of this blog from misfitsarchitecture. It didn’t make sense to identify as a misfit whilst hoping that would become mainstream. That time though is a long way off so, for now, it’s good enough. As a movement, misfitsarchitecture is hardly The Resistance. My better posts are nowhere near Camus’ The Plague as a comment on conformism. But, were it not for my misfit compatriots in various places around the world, I would feel like the character Bérenger in the absurdist play Rhinoceros.

      Merry Christmas,